Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from Chapter 1 of Richard Weikart’s new book, How Darwinism Influenced Hitler, Nazism, and White Nationalism.
When Darwin began compiling evidence for biological evolution in his notebooks in the late 1830s, he included human evolution in his ruminations. He indicated that when human races confront each other, they fight and struggle with each other for supremacy. He wrote that differences in intelligence usually settle this conflict, though in the case of black Africans, their “organization” (presumably meaning their immunity to diseases that ravaged Europeans who moved to Africa) gave them an advantage in their homelands. His comments here imply that he thought not only that some races are more intelligent than others, but also that blacks were inferior in their mental abilities.1
Scientific Justification for Racism
Darwin’s racist and imperialist attitudes were conventional for his time, but his use of racism to defend his theory of human evolution buttressed those attitudes in the decades to follow by providing scientific justification for racism among many of Darwin’s followers. Racism was not just an incidental part of Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Rather Darwin considered racial inequality crucial evidence for his theory. In order to convince his contemporaries of his theory of evolution, he knew he needed to demonstrate the great variety within any given species, while minimizing the gap between different species. When applied to human evolution, this meant that Darwin had to stress human inequality on the one hand, and human proximity to apes on the other. Racism provided fodder for this argument, because Darwin placed the black Africans and Australian aborigines close to the apes in his racial hierarchy, while deeming the white Europeans far superior.
To be sure, when Darwin first published On the Origin of Species (1859), he mostly avoided the topic of human evolution. He understood that this was the most controversial part of his theory and that it would likely provoke resistance (as it did). As he explained 12 years later in the introduction to The Descent of Man, he had steered around the issue of human evolution “as I thought that I should thus only add to the prejudices against my views.”2 Only in the closing paragraphs of Origin had he briefly mentioned that his theory would likely have ramifications for human origins. Thus, when Darwin mentioned “races” in the full title of his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, he likely meant primarily varieties or sub-species of animals and plants, rather than human races. However, Darwin later clarified in The Descent of Man that he viewed human races as varieties or sub-species,3 so everything he wrote in Origin did indeed apply to humanity. Darwin confirmed this in The Descent of Man, for one of its stated goals was to show that the evolutionary processes that Darwin had explained in Origin had brought about the origins of humans, too. The Descent of Man, in other words, argues quite explicitly for “the preservation of favoured” human “races in the struggle for life.”
Highly Problematic Features
Darwin’s conception of the struggle for life, or, as he more often called it, the struggle for existence, had highly problematic features when applied to humans. Darwin’s signature theory of natural selection through the struggle for existence was based on Thomas Robert Malthus’s population principle, which stated that humans (and other organisms) tend to reproduce faster than their food supply can increase. This implies that humans (and other species) are destined for mass death, since the food supply can never keep up with the ever-growing population. Darwin argued that because most organisms perish in their quest for limited resources, they are locked in an inescapable competition for those resources. This competition is most intense among members of the same species because they are competing for the same niche.
Despite the huge death toll resulting from the struggle for existence, Darwin considered it a positive force nonetheless, because it produced evolutionary progress. It weeded out the weak, sickly, and less capable — the “unfit” — while the “fit” survived and reproduced. In the last sentence of his chapter on “Struggle for Existence” in The Origin of Species, Darwin stated, “When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.” Then, in the next-to-the-last sentence of the book, he stated, “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.”4 When applied to humans, this would mean that humans are contending with their fellow humans for scarce resources in a competition-to-the-death. The fittest humans will survive and reproduce, while the less fit will die.
Three Main Objectives of the Work
In The Descent of Man Darwin confirmed that he thought race played a central role in this struggle, so racism is not an incidental element of the book. Darwin explained from the outset the three main objectives of the work: 1) investigate whether humans are descended from some other animals; 2) explain the process of human evolution; and 3) describe “the value of the differences between the so-called races of man.”5 Of the seven chapters covering human evolution, one is entitled, “On the Races of Man,” and racial themes also emerge in many of the other chapters.
Toward the beginning of the book’s second chapter, “Comparison of the Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals,” Darwin insisted that certain races were mentally inferior to others:
Nor is the difference slight in moral disposition between a barbarian, such as the man described by the old navigator Byron, who dashed his child on the rocks for dropping a basket of sea-urchins, and a Howard or Clarkson; and in intellect, between a savage who does not use any abstract terms, and a Newton or Shakspeare [sic]. Differences of this kind between the highest men of the highest races and the lowest savages, are connected by the finest gradations. Therefore it is possible that they might pass and be developed into each other.6
Howard and Clarkson, incidentally, were leaders in the British abolitionist movement, and Darwin considered them the epitome of moral goodness. They were, of course, Europeans, as were Newton and Shakespeare, and clearly Darwin was identifying them as “the highest men of the highest races,” in contrast to the “lowest savages.” Thus, Darwin buttressed his theory of human evolution by asserting that Europeans were not only intellectually superior, but also higher on the scale of morality. This is highly ironic, of course, because these allegedly morally superior Europeans were at the time exterminating the supposedly morally inferior natives of the Americas, Australia, and elsewhere. Darwin apparently had no conscience about genocide, since he saw nothing amiss about allegedly morally superior people killing off those they deem inferior.
He considered the intellectual superiority of Europeans so self-evident that he wrote in a later chapter, “The variability or diversity of the mental faculties in men of the same race, not to mention the greater differences between the men of distinct races, is so notorious that not a word need here be said.”7 Despite its apparent obviousness (to him), however, later in the same chapter he did write more about it. He trotted out scientific evidence for intellectual disparities among races that he (and many other European scientists) considered compelling: the difference in their cranial capacities.
According to the data cited by Darwin, the Europeans have the largest cranial capacities at 92.3 cubic inches, while Asians have 87.1 cubic inches, and Australians have only 81.9 cubic inches.8 The lesson appeared unarguable: Europeans have greater intellectual abilities than do other races. Darwin used this same line of evidence to argue that women are intellectually inferior to men. (It should be noted that cranial capacity measurements cited above turned out to be inaccurate and misleading, and the relationship between cranial capacity and intelligence has been found to be neither straightforward nor well correlated.9) Later, when discussing the gap between present-day humans and simians, Darwin mentioned that the gap would only increase as the “savage races” were exterminated, because the black Africans or Australian aborigines were currently the closest races to the gorilla, which he considered the highest of the ape species.10
A Racial Struggle for Existence
In a four-page section “On the Extinction of the Races of Man,” Darwin explained that the primary cause of the extinction was a racial struggle for existence, which results in the decimation of weaker tribes and races. He claimed that the disappearance of ancient races was not the result of environmental factors or adverse circumstances. Rather, he averred, “Extinction follows chiefly from the competition of tribe with tribe, and race with race.” Though disease may aid some people in these racial competitions, direct killing is also involved, because “when one of two adjoining tribes becomes more numerous and powerful than the other, the contest is soon settled by war, slaughter, cannibalism, slavery, and absorption.” Darwin thought that in most cases the so-called civilized peoples were winning this bloody contest: “When civilised nations come into contact with barbarians the struggle is short, except where a deadly climate gives its aid to the native race.”11
What shouldn’t be overlooked here is that from Darwin’s perspective, this pattern of natural selection by racial extermination was the path to human progress.
- Darwin, Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 537.
- Darwin, Descent, 1:1.
- In The Descent of Man chapter “On the Races of Man,” Darwin confirmed his belief that human races differ considerably, not only physically, but also in their mental capacities. For this reason, he considered races to be distinct sub-species. Darwin, Descent, 1:216, 227.
- Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species  (London: Penguin, 1968), quotes at 129, 459.
- Darwin, Descent, 1:3.
- Darwin, Descent, 1:35.
- Darwin, Descent, 1:109–110
- Darwin, Descent, 145–146.
- Daniel Graham, “A Bigger Brain Is Not Better,” Psychology Today, March 9, 2021, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-internet-brain/202103/bigger-brain-is-not-necessarily-better.
- Darwin, Descent, 1:201.
- Darwin, Descent, 1:238.