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Darwin’s Contribution to Racial Extermination

Charles Darwin statue
Photo: Darwin statute at the Natural History Museum, by Alan Perestrello, via Flickr (cropped).

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

Charles Darwin elevated race as a factor in the struggle for survival. 

Twelve years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, in 1871, Darwin published The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, a highly impactful book as far as Europe’s attitudes to Africa. Professor Frank Besag observes that in Darwin’s first book, he used “race” and “species” interchangeably. In other words, at that time “for Darwin, there was a human race but not a black race.” Or at least Darwin chose, in his earlier book, not to explicitly bring up such a controversial idea. The implications, however, were clear; thus Rutledge M. Dennis notes that “the philosophical and political underpinnings of ideas associated with racial superiority and inferiority were first given scientific legitimacy and credence with the publication of Charles Darwin’s (1859) revolutionary book, The Origin of Species.”

In his second book, however, Darwin not only made references to races among humans, but he further distinguished between “the lowest savages” and “the lowest barbarians” on the one hand, and the “highly civilised nations,” including “the Western nations of Europe, who… stand at the summit of civilisation” on the other. 

Clarification on Two Points

Two points of clarification are here required. First, while at times Darwin used the terms “savages” and “barbarians” to refer to the modern human’s ancient forebears, at other times he used those derogatory terms to speak of his contemporaries in distant lands, as when he writes, “At the present day civilised nations are everywhere supplanting barbarous nations, excepting where the climate opposes a deadly barrier; and they succeed mainly, though not exclusively, through their arts, which are the products of the intellect. It is, therefore, highly probable that with mankind the intellectual faculties have been gradually perfected through natural selection.”

Second, as has been most indisputably and thoroughly documented elsewhere, Darwin’s letters and other writings clearly demonstrate that by “barbarous,” “inferior,” or “lower” peoples he usually meant dark-skinned people. The terms “highly civilised” or “superior” he applied to Caucasians. For example, in The Descent of Man Darwin states that the black man is closer than the white man to apes, and speaks of “the Negro” who “differs more… from the other races of man than do the mammals of the same continents from those of the other provinces.” There can be no doubt that Darwin thought dark-skinned peoples were less highly evolved than light-skinned peoples. 

Racism (the dividing of humans on the supposed basis of race) did of course exist before Darwin. By 1779 German physiologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach had divided humankind into five races based on cranial features, while by 1759 Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus had classified human beings into four categories based on the four known continents (European white, American reddish, Asian tawny, African black). The Frenchman Joseph Arthur de Gobineau classified humans into three racial groups by 1855 (black, white, and yellow).

Darwin’s “Scientific” Basis for Racism

Nevertheless, what the classifications lacked was a more credible scientific basis, which Darwin ostensibly provided. (Later we shall speak more of these foolish and harmful divisions and show that they have no basis in reality, but that rather there is only one human race, of which we are all a part.) 

In the aftermath of Darwin’s books, as Gregory Claeys notes, Social Darwinism redefined fitness as intelligence, and intelligence as white — and let it be noted that “Darwin accepted the application… with others following suit, crafting a language of exclusion… [and] racial conflict.” In short, within a few years of Darwin’s books, “much of the language of ethnicity which would come to haunt the next century was now in place.”

Thus we see, summarizes historian Richard Weikart, the biologist Wilhelm Roux (1850–1924) describing the Darwinian “struggle within organisms as analogous to the struggle within society.” Similarly, writes Weikart, paleontologist Friedrich Rolle (1827–1887) argued that “population pressure naturally precipitates wars and violent conflicts between peoples and races” and that “the physically and mentally superior races suppress and exterminate the lower races, bringing progress and benefit to the whole of mankind.”

The Importance of War

Likewise the biologist Heinrich Ziegler (1891–1918) advocated that “according to Darwin’s theory, war has constantly been of the greatest importance for the general progress of the human race” and that “the physically weaker, the less intelligent, the morally inferior or morally degenerate peoples must clear out and make room for the stronger and better developed” in the interest of the general progress of the human race. 

According to Weikart, Darwin’s disciple Ernst Haeckel differentiated “between ten races of humanity, with the Caucasian race the most highly developed,” following which he fervently “condoned the extermination of” so-called primitive races. Similarly, zoologist Oscar Schmidt (1823–1886), zoologist Richard Hertwig (1850–1937), biologist Richard Semon (1859–1918), and biologist Ernst Krause (1839–1903) all advocated “the extermination of human races as a natural and inevitable part of the process of natural selection.”

You see what we have here. These men and likewise many others argued that the logical extrapolation of Darwin’s theory was the extermination of their fellow humans in the name of evolutionary progress!