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Joseph L. Graves as the “Black Darwin”? Think Again

Charles Darwin
Photo: Charles Darwin in 1855, by Maull and Polyblank, Literary and Scientific Portrait Club, via Wikimedia Commons.

Recently while browsing my library’s shelf of new books, I came across Joseph L. Graves’s A Voice in the Wilderness: A Pioneering Biologist Explains How Evolution Can help Us Solve Our Biggest Problems (2022). Others have commented on the book already (see here and here). Graves, who was the first African-American to earn a PhD in evolutionary biology and who was dubbed by his students the Black Darwin, surveys his career of fighting against racial stereotypes as he ascended the ladder of academia in a field dominated by white men. This road was not easy, but through his full-throated endorsement of Darwinian evolution, Graves found acceptance at the highest echelons of the biological establishment. And once he arrived, he used his position to ease the path for others like him to find acceptance in a field not known for its racial diversity. Unfortunately, Graves, like so many others, has drunk the Darwinian Kool-Aid and remains blind to the role his hero played in perpetuating the very racism he so valiantly struggled against.

While fully committed to Darwinism, Graves is no naturalistic evolutionist. He is today fully immersed in the religious faith of his black church experience. And in touting his friendship with Francis Collins and BioLogos, Graves marks himself as squarely in the theistic evolution camp. But whether a theistic or atheistic evolutionist, Graves perpetuates the kinds of Darwinian mythology I recently critiqued in the work of Adrian Desmond and James Moore (who have clearly influenced Graves’s view of Darwin). To Graves, Darwin appears to have been a crusading champion for the rights of the poor and racially oppressed. 

Darwin’s Relationship with Agassiz

On the latter point, Graves focuses on what he views as Darwin’s combative relationship with Louis Agassiz due to the latter’s racist support for the unequal creation of the human races. Graves writes:

There was another aspect of Darwin’s theory that he and his mentor Charles Lyell knew would probably cause a bigger stir than materialism: the idea that all humans share a common descent. The Victorian English were assured of their superiority to all other races, so the idea that they shared descent with Africans would not have been well received. Lyell felt that teaching such an idea would guarantee expulsion from the university. Darwin was convinced that Agassiz would “throw a boulder” at him (257).

For the quoted phrase about Agassiz throwing a boulder at Darwin, Graves cites Desmond and Moore’s Darwin: The Hesitations of an Evolutionist. Not surprising given the thesis of their later book Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Desmond and Moore cite the “boulder” comment in the context of a discussion about human races and common descent. Desmond and Moore give the impression that it is because Darwin’s theory would challenge Agassiz’s racist views about human origins that Darwin speculated on Agassiz’s reaction. Graves then takes over Desmond and Moore’s interpretation to paint Darwin as a kind of anti-racist activist. But neither Graves nor Desmond and Moore consider the context of Darwin’s “boulder” comment.

A Confession to Dana

The comment stems from a September 29, 1856, letter addressed to American geologist J. D. Dana of Yale University. Darwin begins by thanking Dana for information he supplied Darwin about American crustacea and cave rats. He then continues:

I am working very hard at my subject of the variation & origin of species, & am getting M.S. ready for press, but when I shall publish, heaven only knows, not I fear for a couple of years….I have now been for 19 years with this subject before me, but it is too great for me.

Following this, Darwin briefly discusses rabbits, pigeons, and the dispersal of land mollusks, leading him to confess to Dana, “You will be rather indignant at hearing that I am becoming, indeed I should say have become, sceptical on the permanent immutability of species.” Then a few lines later we get the quote at issue:

Agassiz, if he ever honours me by reading my work, will throw a boulder at me & many others will pelt me.

Nothing in this letter indicates that Darwin was trying to counter Agassiz’s racism. He was simply recognizing how his theory of common descent of non-human organisms would be objectionable to creationists like Agassiz, Dana, and others. Indeed, Darwin signed the letter, “Your sincere & heterodox friend Ch. Darwin.” 

Views on “Savage Races”

Graves, like Desmond and Moore, seems blissfully unaware that Darwin consistently subordinated his anti-slavery views to his larger species work and could never be considered the kind of anti-racist activist Graves makes him out to be. Darwin’s casual use of the N-word, his trading in racist tropes, his views on “savage races” in the Descent of Man, and his eugenic dabbling marks him as someone fully invested in the ideology of white British superiority. 

At another place, Graves quotes Darwin from The Voyage of the Beagle:

If the wretchedness of our poor be not caused by nature but by our social institutions, then great is our sin (310).

The accompanying endnote, unfortunately, does not supply a page reference, making it difficult to check the context in which Darwin made this statement. But based on this quote and Graves’s expressed emotional connection to the plight of the Cratchit family in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Graves makes Darwin out to be a warrior against social and economic injustice. This is, of course, rather problematic. From his upper-class Victorian perch, there is little evidence that Darwin cared much at all for the plight of the poor. In fact, he rails against their tendency toward effusive procreation that threatened the continuing advancement of British society. Darwin was an aristocrat through and through.

Graves is an important figure given his status as the one who broke the color barrier in evolutionary biology. And his continuing activism on this score is laudable (even if his book is annoyingly full of much chest-thumping and name-dropping). But if he truly knew the real Darwin, would he really want to embrace the title of the “Black Darwin”? Graves might want to check out John West’s Human Zoos before traveling too far down this path. Graves might better be thought of as the Jackie Robinson of evolutionary biology. But Black Darwin seems a bit like a contradiction in terms.