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The Cruel Legacy of Social Darwinism in Nigeria

Photo: A tiger moth, by wanderingnome, via Flickr (cropped).

Editor’s note: The following article by the late Dr. Olufemi Oluniyi is adapted from his preface to his recently released book, Darwin Comes to Africa: Social Darwinism and British Imperialism in Northern Nigeria (Discovery Institute Press, 2023).

Social Darwinism is a rickety notion, rich in assumptions but destitute of facts. It reminds me of a Mandinka proverb widely recognized in Africa which says, “An empty bag cannot stand.” It is, however, resourceful. Social Darwinism rests like a tiger moth on Darwinism, its mother theory; when challenged with facts, it flits to a slightly different position and poses anew, where its camouflaging coloration allows it to survive a bit longer.

However, Social Darwinism is not merely as tricky and insubstantial as a tiger moth. It also is as dangerous as a tiger. As shall be shown in these pages, a large portion of Northern Nigeria’s suffering can be laid directly at the feet of this tiger and its parent. This book is an invitation to readers, and to African scholars particularly, to look around them and determine to what extent Social Darwinism has mauled their respective societies and nations.

What Precisely Is This Dangerous Creature? 

Though it goes by many camouflaging names, Social Darwinism is the pseudo-scientific ideology which posits that the biological principles of Darwin’s scientific theory of random mutation and natural selection bear analogy to human society.

One startling iteration of Social Darwinism occurred under the guise of tactical warfare in the 1920s, when a Russian scientist sought to produce a race of super-soldiers for Stalin’s army by impregnating women from French Guinea with the sperm of a dead chimpanzee — black African women, mind you, who were presumed to be less highly evolved and thus closer to chimpanzees than were white European women. The Russian scientist was not a lone gunman, so to speak. Colonial authorities approved the plan, and the Russian found support amongst both French and American scientists.

Horrifying though this experiment is in terms of religion and morality, it makes ethical sense under Social Darwinism. If humans are naught but evolutionarily advanced animals, and if we breed and crossbreed animals to suit our purposes, why should we not breed humans in the same manner?

Darwin’s theory of evolution further posited the natural world as a place where the fittest survive and the less fit decline and die; if this is indeed the case, thought Darwin’s contemporaries (and indeed many of our own), then who are we to battle nature herself? Why should we not let the less-fit die? Indeed, why should we not hasten their demise if it will profit us — the survivors, the fittest — economically, geographically, or politically? Why should the Briton not manipulate, oppress, and exploit the Nigerian? After all, the fact that he can do so surely proves that he is right to do so — he is fulfilling his very destiny, as decreed by Nature herself. 

True, such predatory impulses are as old as man himself. This book, however, explores the 19th-century attempt to repackage those age-old myths, prejudices, racism, and general selfishness in a pseudo-scientific wrapper. 

Examining the Wrapper

That pseudo-scientific wrapper has allowed myriad evils to flourish up to the present day. Without doubt, Darwin’s scientific theory of evolution and its social ramifications, though unproven and indeed increasingly discredited, hold pernicious sway in classrooms and boardrooms, in the halls of politics, medicine, and trade. 

Though the objective of Social Darwinism was and still is the denigration, subjugation, exploitation, and dehumanization of targeted peoples, these evils generally are cloaked in the benevolent language of guiding an inferior race or protecting a superior one by weeding out supposedly inferior stock. At various times and in various places people so targeted have been the mentally or physically disabled, the elderly, the ill, the homosexual, the unborn; those whose ethnicity, nationality, or appearance has posed a real or perceived barrier to the fulfilment of another group’s desires; and those whose poverty or criminality has been blamed, Darwinist-fashion, upon inferior genetics. The problems of Social Darwinism are various and are pervasive worldwide, and all people wronged by Darwin and his followers deserve to have their stories told and the false narratives wielded against them deconstructed. My focus in these pages, however, will be on my people and my country.

Four Thousand Miles Away

 Here is how the idea of a 19th-century scientist traveled four thousand miles to grievously wound Northern Nigeria: Charles Darwin emerged at a time when Europe and Great Britain were hungry for an excuse to exploit Africa. Darwin’s theories provided a morally palatable (though as we shall see, entirely wrong and illogical) excuse. Further, in addition to justifying self-serving colonization, Darwin’s theories shaped the way British administrators managed Northern Nigeria and the various people groups therein. 

The false narrative of Social Darwinism as promoted by British colonizers caused great and unjust harm to Nigeria, and to this day many aspects of the pernicious narrative are widely and harmfully believed to be true. However, the critical link between the increasingly insatiable appetite for Africa’s resources, on the one hand, and Charles Darwin’s growing visibility, on the other hand, has been ignored, as if willfully, in the conventional Social Darwinist historiography. I will present ample evidence for my claims in Part One of this book, drawing on official documents, public statements, well-attested historical events, and so forth. 

This book does not deny that there are differences in material culture, literacy, and technological attainments between Europe and Black Africa; rather, it firmly rejects the sleight of hand according to which these external differences indicate a difference in the basic building blocks of the European and of the African (understood to mean black-skinned Africans), and that this supposed inherent difference causes cultural differences and warrants “Europeans are superior to Africans” propaganda. These matters I shall discuss in Part Two of this book.

My purpose is not merely to point the finger of blame, nor is it only to restore a view of the black African as equal in all ways to the white European. It is also to show that Social Darwinism rests on a faulty foundation, so that perhaps the day may come when the House of Darwin and all his unruly, self-serving children harm no longer.