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Yet Another Scholar Seeks to Airbrush Darwin’s Racist Legacy

Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Why do they do it? Why do scholars committed to evolution seek to edit and massage Darwin into something he wasn’t, in particular on the issue of race? Recently Robert Shedinger devoted a series of articles here to unmasking the misleading historiography of Adrian Desmond and James Moore in their book Darwin’s Sacred Cause, which sought to advance the fiction that Darwin, in developing evolutionary theory, was motivated by abolitionist sentiment.

The Black Darwin

Now along comes Professor Joseph L. Graves Jr., “the first African American to receive a PhD in evolutionary biology,” according to his publisher, who was “once styled as the ‘Black Darwin.’” (He once was styled that but no longer is? Why not?) His new book is A Voice in the Wilderness: A Pioneering Biologist Explains How Evolution Can Help Us Solve Our Biggest Problems. In Dr. Graves’s treatment, which “rewrite[s] his field,” evolution solves our biggest problems with a politically progressive program that “decimates homophobia, sexism, and classism,” elucidated in “a powerful work of scientific anti-racism.”

Interesting. Given what we already know about evolutionary theory’s tainted past, the idea that it would provide a platform for “anti-racism,” or any progressive ideology, seems beyond unlikely. Darwin was against slavery but his writings assert a racial hierarchy with Africans at the bottom, not far above apes. Darwinists after the turn of the 20th century, in New York and elsewhere, locked Africans in cages to be gawked at by whites and to teach the lesson of the racial evolutionary ladder. Racists for decades, down to today, have looked to Charles Darwin as a champion of their ideas, and if they’re right about anything, it’s that.

Faulty Science, Faulty History

To associate Darwinian evolution with anti-racism indeed requires a rewriting not just of Dr. Graves’s field but of history itself, as John West and Eric Wallace make clear in a review of A Voice in the Wilderness for Christianity Today. Dr. West is vice president of Discovery Institute and directed the documentary Human Zoos: America’s Forgotten History of Scientific Racism, a powerful corrective to attempts to save Darwinism from its own past. Dr. Wallace is president of Freedom’s Journal Institute. The book, they show, offers a “raw and affecting” account of Dr. Graves’s own life and career. On the science and the history, though, it falls short. 

From, “Darwin’s Dirty Secret Lives On”:

A Voice isn’t simply about Graves’s backstory. It also addresses the broader social, political, and cultural problems that America faces. The author offers a way to meet these formidable challenges: by leaning into evolutionary theory and its wide-ranging implications.

Given current debates, a fresh take on evolution and its implications is certainly timely. Over the past decade, increasingly sophisticated scientific challenges to Darwin’s theory have proliferated. In 2016, England’s Royal Society — one of the most august scientific bodies in the world — convenedevolutionary scientists from around the globe to rethink how evolution works. Why? Because a fair number of biologists are recognizing the inadequacy of the Darwinian mutation-selection mechanism to explain how the major features of life developed.

Alas, Graves doesn’t grapple with these new developments, preferring to present the evolution debate through the trope of Christian fundamentalism versus science. He caves to stereotypes that say only ignorant or religiously motivated people raise questions about evolution.

By doing so, he misses all the current conversations going on in biology and related fields. Science is rife with fresh debates about teleologydesign, and purpose. The old dichotomy of evolution versus creation has increasingly given way to competing versions of evolutionary theory and the re-emergence of design-based science.

“Barbarous,” “Inferior,” “Lower”

Then there is the attempt to absolve Darwin of his contributions to racial “science.”

[Graves is] correct in arguing that Darwin didn’t invent racism and even opposed slavery. Nevertheless, he avoids grappling with how the 19th-century thinker played a pivotal role in the development of scientific racism and related evils like eugenics.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin claimed that the break between humans and apes fell “between the negro or Australian [aborigine] and the gorilla.” In his view, Blacks were the closest humans to apes. He also argued that the differences in mental faculties “between the men of distinct races” were “greater” than the differences in “mental faculties in men of the same race.”

As Nigerian scholar Olufemi Oluniyi has pointed out, Darwin’s 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.”

Darwin offered a seemingly plausible scientific rationale for racial inferiority. According to him and his supporters, we should expect races to have unequal capacities, because natural selection will evolve different traits for different populations based on their survival needs. These ideas unquestionably helped solidify and spread scientific racism.

Dr. Graves identifies as a “leftist,” and the book, at least, is true to that self-characterization. West and Wallace note

Graves’s invective against those who hold views different than his own — political conservatives in particular. For example, he compares Donald Trump with Stalin and Hitler. He attacks “the insane logic of capitalism.” And he too easily labels his opponents as “white supremacist[s]/fascist[s].”

Dragging Darwin In

If an evolutionary biologist wants to write a book arguing for political progressivism, he should by all means do so. But why drag Darwin into it, airbrushing science, and distorting history? Why do scholars — whether biologists or historians — do this?

I suppose the reason is the all too human impulse to see everything about oneself as a seamless cloth. We say: My ideas about science are correct. My understanding of values is virtuous. My professional field is noble. My heroes are pure. It all fits together without contradictions! As Darwin proponent Eugenie Scott famously said, “There are no weaknesses in the theory of evolution.” But humans are full of weaknesses and so are our cherished ideas. A better historian, and a better biologist, would recognize that.