Darwin's Deadly Racist Views on Homo Sapiens
In the wake of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), thought leaders in Europe and the United States used his theory of evolution by natural selection to justify violent and dehumanizing treatment of non-whites around the globe.1 This much is well known. Less widely recognized is that Darwin’s case for ape-to-man evolution rested in no small part on his racist view of non-whites.
The jump from ape-like to human may seem too great a leap for mindless evolution, he conceded, but not, he suggested, if we recognize that the “lower races” are far closer to apes than are the “higher races,” with Caucasians, in his view, at the top of the human evolutionary pyramid.
Racism of the Gaps
In recounting his adventures from 1831–1836 aboard the globe-circling HMS Beagle, Darwin describes some of the indigenous people he encountered as barbarians persisting in the “lowest and most savage state . . . whose very signs and expressions are less intelligible to us than those of the domesticated animals; men who do not possess the instinct of those animals, nor yet appear to boast of human reason.”2
Elsewhere in the account he writes that on meeting the “poor wretches” of Tierra del Fuego, he found it hard to believe “they are fellow-creatures, and inhabitants of the same world. It is a common subject of conjecture what pleasure in life some of the lower animals can enjoy; how much more reasonably the same question may be asked with respect to these barbarians!”3
Twelve years later, in The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin paints a slightly more nuanced picture. At one point, for example, he writes:
The American aborigines, Negroes, and Europeans, differ as much from each other in mind as any three races that can be named; yet I was incessantly struck, while living with the Fuegians on board the ‘Beagle,’ with the many little traits of character, showing how similar their minds were to ours; and so it was with a full-blooded negro with whom I happened once to be intimate.4
Nevertheless, a glaringly racist attitude of white superiority remains evident throughout the work, as does a racist logic whereby the “lower races” of humanity form much of the bridge back to our ape-like ancestors.
Darwin isn’t shy about painting such a picture. At one point in Descent he insists the “low morality of savages, as judged by our standard,” is due to their “powers of reasoning [being] insufficient to recognize the bearing of many virtues, especially of the self-regarding virtues, on the general welfare of the tribe.”5
Are their powers of reasoning really so far below that of the European? Darwin is confident of the answer. “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,” he writes, “is so notorious that not a word need here be said.”6 In other words, just as there are smart and stupid people among a population of the same race, so too, he confidently believes, there is a wide gap in average intelligence between one race and another.
As Darwin says several pages later, man “has given rise to many races, some of which are so different that they have often been ranked by naturalists as distinct species.”7
There follows a long discussion about whether they should be regarded so. He weighs up the evidence and splits the difference: “It is almost a matter of indifference whether the so-called races of man are thus designated, or are ranked as species or sub-species; but the latter term appears the most appropriate.”8
The Gap Widens
By this point in The Descent of Man, Darwin has already surfaced a key objection to his argument. “The great break in the organic chain between man and his nearest allies, which cannot be bridged over by any [known] extinct or living species, has often been advanced as a grave objection to the belief that man is descended from some lower form,” he writes, “but this objection will not appear of much weight to those who, convinced by general reasons, believe in the general principle of evolution.”9
He insists that this “great break” in the fossil record, and others like it, “depend merely on the number of related forms which have become extinct,” whose fossils have yet to be discovered. Further:
At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes . . . will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.10
Where to start? First, notice the irony: he believes evolution’s survival-of-the-fittest imperative means the “higher races” will exterminate what he regards as the morally inferior “savage” races. But is there anything more savage and immoral than genocide?
Darwin then blithely assumes that humankind also will wipe out anthropomorphous apes. Next, he places Caucasians at the top of the civilizational/evolutionary pyramid and says the “negro, or perhaps the Australian aborigine” (he can’t quite decide) is the most ape-like.
Ignoring Alternative Explanations
Darwin’s fixation on biological evolutionary hierarchies blinds him to alternative explanations. Differences in technological development between two population groups need not have anything to do with biological evolution, but instead could be due to geographical and cultural factors, such as proximity to information-sharing trade routes, religious ideas that encourage or discourage certain types of progress, or routine exposure to extreme weather and debilitating diseases.
Then, too, one age’s culture of illiterate “barbarians” is the next age’s population of skilled laborers, professors, physicians, and scientists—a transformation far too rapid to be explained on the grounds of biological evolution.
I recently visited a STEM-intensive university in Texas, and the student body milling about the campus could have been mistaken for a gathering of an under-30 crowd at the United Nations. A time-traveling Darwin, I suspect, would be shocked.
Spinning the Gap
After enjoying several decades of popularity among leading evolutionists, Darwin’s idea of a hierarchy of higher-to-lower races filling in much of the gulf between man and ape has, mercifully, fallen out of favor in the evolutionist community. However, the more general tactic of spinning the evidence to minimize the gulf between ape and man persists—whether it’s repeating the misleading claim that humans and chimps share 99 percent of their DNA, or creating museum exhibits that render ancient humans unrealistically ape-like and certain ancient ape fossils as unrealistically humanoid. An accessible resource on the matter can be found at Science Uprising’s page on human evolution.11
Darwin vs. Wallace
A defender of Darwinism might object that it’s silly to ding Darwin for his racism, since just about every white person of stature in Victorian England was racist. The objection misfires for a couple of reasons. First, even if every white man, woman, and child in Victorian England was similarly racist, it wouldn’t erase the discrediting fact that a key plank in Darwin’s case for human evolution was based on racist junk science. Second, it’s simply not true that virtually every important white person in Darwin’s day was racist, at least not to the degree Darwin was. Historian Richard Weikart comments:
Not all British men and women in the nineteenth century embraced racism. Some prominent British intellectuals, missionaries, and church leaders believed that black Africans, for instance, were equal to Europeans and only needed the proper education and upbringing to attain the technological sophistication of the Europeans. The famous British missionary and African explorer David Livingstone not only rejected the notion that black Africans were unequal to Europeans, but also devoted his life to showing them love and compassion. He dedicated his energies to fighting against the slave trade, and he even expressed support for the Africans when they fought against British colonial encroachments. No wonder Livingstone was beloved by Africans and is still fondly remembered by black Africans. One of the most prominent British intellectuals in the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill, likewise rejected the idea of racial inequality. Mill, like many of his contemporaries, embraced environmental determinism, so he believed that humans were shaped primarily by education and upbringing, not by their biology and heredity. Finally, Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of natural selection, also rejected racism and opposed the idea that non-European races were somehow closer to non-human animals than their European counterparts.12
Different Presuppositions, Different Conclusions
Wallace, it’s worth noting, eventually rejected the idea that the evolutionary mechanism he and Darwin had propounded could have produced the human mind with all its powers. In sifting through a range of evidence, he concluded that an immaterial soul is crucial to what makes us human, and that a designing intelligence must have played a role in our origin.
Darwin would have none of this.
How did the two men end up in such different places? Two factors may have proven decisive.
First, Wallace, unlike Darwin, did not limit himself to purely mindless material causes in his search for the best explanation for the origin of humankind.
Second, Wallace did not consider the technologically primitive tribespeople he met during his travels to South America and the Malay Archipelago as less evolved and closer to apes. Thus, the gulf between apes and even the most technologically primitive humans remained starkly evident to Wallace in a way it did not to Darwin, whose vision of the matter was fogged by his racism.
1. Scholarly works on social Darwinism are legion. Richard Weikart details much of it in Darwinian Racism (Discovery Institute Press, 2022) and From Darwin to Hitler (Palgrave MacMillan, 2004). Olufemi Oluniyi’s Darwin Comes to Africa (Discovery Institute Press, 2023) traces the damaging impact of Darwinian-inspired racism on colonial northern Nigeria. And John West’s Darwin Day in America (ISI, 2007) and his award-winning documentary Human Zoos (available on YouTube) explore its horrific impact in the U.S.
2. Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle (P. F. Collier & Son, 1909), 530–531.
3. Ibid., 228.
4. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, vol. 1 of 2 (D. Appleton and Co., 1871), 223.
5. Ibid., 143.
6. Ibid., 105–106.
7. Ibid., 178.
8. Ibid., 226.
9. Ibid., 192.
10. Ibid., 193.
12. Weikart, Darwinian Racism, 23 (internal references removed). See also Michael Flannery, Intelligent Evolution: How Alfred Russel Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2020), 54, 65.
is a senior fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture and the author or co-author of numerous articles and books, including Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design, with Matt Leisola (Discovery Institute, 2018), The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got and the West Forgot, with Jay Richards (Ignatius, 2014), and A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature, with Benjamin Wiker (IVP, 2006).Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #65, Summer 2023 Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo65/rank-racism