The Nigerian Experiment

Darwinism vs. Christianity & the Results of Colonial Rule

Which is better for human flourishing—the Darwinian idea that humans are the product of blind evolution driven by random variations and survival of the fittest, or the Christian idea that humans of every color, culture, and creed are made in the image of a loving, reasonable God who died for their sins?

We could theorize, of course, and decide based on the logical implications of each worldview, but it would also be helpful to run an experiment to see how the practical implementations of each position’s ideas play out. Ideally, we’d set it up like this: take a country, divide it up, and put it in the hands of outsiders from a more technologically advanced culture. Place part of it under the control of Darwinists and put the other part under the control of Christians.

In the experiment we’d want to choose Darwinists who actually behave according to the principles of Darwinism, not by whatever Christian principles they might have been exposed to in their childhoods. We’d also try to choose leaders on the Christian side who try to live according to the explicit principles of Scripture, rather than twisting, misreading, or ignoring Scripture. Then we’d wait a hundred years and see what happens.

This is essentially what happened to Nigeria.

The Scramble for Africa

In the late nineteenth century, Great Britain, the United States, and twelve European nations got together and divided Africa up among themselves. The boundaries were rather randomly drawn, without reference to the people groups already living there governing themselves. As British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury noted, “We have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s feet have ever trod.”

Why did they do this? Because they were eager for Africa’s natural resources and their markets. This was termed the “Scramble for Africa.” Great Britain received control of what is now known as Nigeria. Some parts of the country were put under the control of Christians, while Northern Nigeria was handed over to agnostics who explicitly followed the precepts of Social Darwinism in developing their public policies.

Nigerian scholar and pastor Olufemi Oluniyi discusses this massive, unintended social experiment and its painfully clear results in his book Darwin Comes to Africa: Social Darwinism and British Imperialism in Northern Nigeria.1

Social Darwinism

To understand what happened in Nigeria—and what’s still happening there and elsewhere—we need to understand the connection between Darwinism as a scientific theory and Social Darwinism as a rubric for interacting with other groups.

Darwin’s scientific theory of random mutation and natural selection applies to biology, to simple organisms like cells, and to more complex organisms like animals, including humans. On the Darwinian view, they all evolved from a common ancestor, and all are shaped by the Darwinian view of the biological world as, at root, a pitiless struggle for survival where the strong dominate and destroy the weak. There are many variations on evolutionary theory, but in broad outline Darwin’s theory has widely encouraged the following ideas in biology:

• There is an evolutionary ladder, and some organisms are more highly evolved than others.

• Organisms must compete for limited resources.

• The strongest tend to survive and the weaker to die out.

• This is good. Stronger is better. The process breeds fitter organisms.

Applied to human society, these principles have been translated into the following:

• Some people groups are more highly evolved than others.

• People groups must compete for limited resources.

• The more evolved groups will win out.

• This is good. It breeds better humans. 

This is Social Darwinism.

Social Darwinism Justifies Imperialism

Is it morally wrong to go waltzing into other countries, redrawing their boundaries, forcibly colonizing them, and taking control of their resources? Not according to Social Darwinism. Arch-Darwinist Karl Pearson wrote in 1905:

A community of men is as subject as a community of ants or as a herd of buffaloes to the laws which rule all organic nature. We cannot escape from them; it serves no purpose to protest at what some may call their cruelty and their bloodthirstiness. We can only study these laws, recognise what of gain they have brought to man, and urge the statesman and the thinker to regard and use them.

In other words, strong countries have every right to exploit weaker ones. In Darwinian terms, might makes right; “winners” are evolutionarily more advanced than “losers”—they’re stronger, smarter, better at survival.

In terms of Social Darwinism, colonizing a country is a relatively mild action. Consider that Pearson also wrote, “Superior and inferior races cannot co-exist; if the former are to make effective use of global resources, the latter must be extirpated.” Extirpated, as in utterly destroyed; killed; literally, “rooted out.”

Bear in mind that Pearson wasn’t some random nut, but a highly respected professor who became the first Galton Chair of Eugenics at University College London. One of his admirers was Frederick Lugard, the man Great Britain put in charge of Northern Nigeria.

Social Darwinism Justifies Racism

Lugard, an agnostic, admired not only Pearson, but also the outspoken Social Darwinist Benjamin Kidd, who argued that whites were evolutionarily superior to blacks. Lugard approvingly quoted Sir Charles Eliot’s opinion that the black man’s “mind is far nearer to the animal world than that of the European or Asiatic, and exhibits something of the animal’s placidity and want of desire to rise beyond the state he has reached.” You read that right. These people thought blacks were closer than whites to animals.

Lugard’s wife, a highly influential journalist who spent a good bit of her time giving speeches in England about Nigeria, likewise compared black people to animals. Flora Lugard noted that in Northern Nigeria,

the [negro] race is so persistent that it has endured. Let it be preserved with even a moderate amount of care, as elephant and buffalo are in certain regions preserved, and it will increase at a rate which may be a peril or an advantage according to the manner in which it is treated by the white man.

You read that right, too. Flora advised managing Nigerians essentially as livestock.

The Lugards were not outliers. Such attitudes were typical of the so-called intellectual elite of the time. Racism itself was nothing new, but Darwinism conferred legitimacy on it, lending it a patina of scientific respectability. So we hear echoes of evolutionary theory in many of the racist comments. Nigerian people, said Lugard, for example, were “the child races of the world,” including “many who are still in the lowest stage of primitive savagery.”

White Makes Right?

Of course, white (Darwinist) Europeans considered themselves to be the most highly evolved people group. In evaluating African tribes, they even considered the lighter-skinned tribes to be more highly evolved than darker-skinned peoples. Lugard wrote:

All [the Nigerian tribes] have been modified to a greater or less degree by admixture with negro blood, which has produced racial types differing from each other, and widely different from the negro type. They vary in their mental and physical characteristics according to the amount of negro blood in their veins, which has shown itself extremely potent in assimilating alien strains to its own type.

He asserts this without evidence, mind you. And consistent with his Social Darwinist worldview, Lugard elevated to positions of power the lightest-skinned tribe in Northern Nigeria. They counted as “a partly white race,” Flora Lugard said, while her husband noted that “such races form an invaluable medium between the British staff and the native peasantry.”

Unfortunately, the lightest-skinned group happened to be the Fulani, a violent Islamic tribe known primarily for pillaging and terrorizing peaceful pagan and Christian villages. “These Fulani were latecomers to Africa, cattle nomads with no homeland of their own,” writes Oluniyi. “They conquered certain regions during the Fula jihads of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, engaging heavily in slavery and trafficking in violence.” Everyone feared them; many despised them, reasoning that were the Fulani self-disciplined and industrious, they would produce their own products rather than steal other people’s.

But with Darwinist blinders firmly in place, Lugard disregarded all this and blithely stated that “Fulani rule has been maintained as an experiment, for I am . . . anxious to utilize, if possible, their wonderful intelligence, for they are born rulers, and incomparably above the negroid tribes in ability,” exhibiting “powers of organisation and intellectual development in advance of the pure negro stock.”

No one who actually knew the Fulani saw them as such paragons. But then, like most Darwinist administrators, the Lugards kept themselves largely separate from the “less evolved” locals. Thus, Lugard’s wife could blithely concur with his assessment: “We seem to be in the presence of one of the great fundamental facts of history, that there are races which are born to conquer and others to persist under conquest.”

Social Darwinism Justifies Violence

The results of elevating the Fulani to power were, as anyone free from the blinders of scientific racism could have predicted, most unfortunate. Oluniyi writes:

The missionary Walter Miller [who lived for decades in Nigeria] noted that typical Fulani traits of “a naturally cruel and vindictive nature, have made them tyrants rather than rulers.” Miller gives explicit details of horrific torture imposed by the Fulani. Fulani rule was an example of a multi-dimensional hydra-headed monstrosity, and its Fulani functionaries were precipitators, prosecutors, and perpetuators of dehumanization which knew no bounds.

Tellingly, Lugard did not recruit a single Fulani man to join his elite bodyguard, Oluniyi notes. “Rather, the approximately seventy of them were exclusively Yoruba—dark-skinned men from the despised south. In other words, when the chips were down, it was only among the Yoruba that Frederick Lugard could lie down and close both eyes.”

Lugard could hardly be said to find Islam personally attractive. He worried that “by supporting [Fulani] rule we unavoidably encourage the spread of Islam, which from the purely administrative point of view has the disadvantage of being subject to waves of fanaticism.”

But he shrugged off the danger, using typically racist reasoning: “As a religion [Islam] does not evoke in the pure negro the ardent zeal which it excites in the races of alien or mixed blood, and there is often little to differentiate the peasant or labourer who calls himself a Mahomedan from his pagan brother.” Moreover, he said, Islam “is a religion incapable of the highest development, but its limitations suit the limitations of the people.” Another British administrator concurred, explaining that “the great merit of Islam is that it offers the African an explanation of the Universe and a code of ethics superior to his own and yet not too difficult or too different from his own.”

By comparison, Christianity’s “more abstruse tenets, its stricter code of sexual morality, its exaltation of peace and humility, its recognition of brotherhood with the slave, the captive, and the criminal, do not altogether appeal to the temperament of the negro,” Lugard wrote. In short, Islam was thought to be “a better fit than Christianity for the violent and intellectually limited black man,” Oluniyi writes. You can almost see him rolling his eyes at this ludicrous claim. Some Church Fathers were African, Oluniyi points out. Christianity was itself well established among many African people groups long before European colonization. Indeed, in terms of morality and basic decency, white Europeans don’t stack up very well against many of the African tribes Oluniyi describes.

Utter Disaster

Pseudo-scientific Social Darwinist views produced, not surprisingly, a host of problems in Northern Nigeria. Social Darwinist British administrators managed to foment discord between people groups and religious groups, encourage violence, and undermine previously successful local trade and economic practices. Women and girls suffered under an Islamic regime that considered them chattel. Pagans and Christians rapidly became second-class citizens.

And education suffered, largely because Christian missionaries, intent on providing educational opportunities for Nigerians, were generally prohibited from entering the northern region, lest they upset the emirs. The few who were allowed in were hobbled by bizarre rules and stymied in their attempts to open and run schools. Within a very few years, all of these factors put Northern Nigeria far behind its peers.

The Other Half

While Social Darwinists were busy destroying Northern Nigeria, the areas of Nigeria under Christian governance prospered. In those regions, Africans were placed in key positions in the administration—because of their skills, not because of the shade of their skin. Meanwhile, Christian missionaries had free access to establish schools and promote modern agricultural methods, business practices, and communication systems, all of which greatly benefited those regions. “Christian missionaries,” Oluniyi says, “saw the African to be as capable of comprehending and embracing Christianity as any European, and as capable of learning and implementing advances in any number of other fields as well.” Oluniyi gives a long list of advances that missionaries brought and—this is significant—gave over to the care of Africans.

Moreover, in stark contrast to Social Darwinists, who couldn’t fathom learning anything from a “less-evolved” African, most Christians who came to Nigeria from Britain brought with them an attitude of humility, a willingness to see not only what Africans might lack, but also what they might offer. For instance, William MacGregor, the British governor of one area (and, Oluniyi notes, a daily Bible reader), praised the local textile industry and noted that African textiles were superior to British products. The wife of a different Christian administrator wrote of “smiling salutations and greetings poured upon me from every side” on the busy streets of Kano or any other city of Nigeria. “And this is by no means a tribute to any personal charms of mine. Any traveller, black-skinned or white, receives the same treatment as a matter of course.” And Oluniyi gives many other examples. Essentially, these were Christians from Britain who approached Africans as other humans. They spoke with them, lived among them, and interacted with them respectfully.

This is the natural outcome of the Christian worldview. Christianity views all humans as equals, made in the image of God and, as such, worthy of dignity and respect. There is no evolutionary ladder, no one higher or lower than anyone else. And there’s no praise for the “survival of the fittest.” Rather, Christ-followers are urged to protect the weak, defend the oppressed, look after the sick, and welcome the outsider. “Such different views of humanity and human origins are irreconcilable,” writes Oluniyi.

Consequences of Worldview

The fate of Northern Nigeria demonstrates how worldview presuppositions have consequences. Darwinism gave no reason to value the African and every reason to exploit him. While Nigeria provides a painfully clear case study, Oluniyi is by no means the only scholar to document the damage Darwinism has done to race relations and human society. Notably, the historian Richard Weikart has written extensively about the connection between Darwinian principles and Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. See, for instance, From Darwin to Hitler and Darwinian Racism. John West explores Darwinism’s dehumanizing effects in Darwin Day in America, and Benjamin Wiker explores the ethical darkness at the heart of Darwinism in Moral Darwinism. Many others have made related arguments.

Of course, some Darwinists are not racists, and some Christians are. The difference is this: racism flows naturally and logically from the Darwinist worldview, while Christians who practice racist oppression must rationalize away key tenets of Christianity to do so. Scripture makes clear that all men and women are made in the image of God and, as such, are equally worthy of dignity and respect. Jesus scandalized his contemporaries by associating with foreigners and women (John 4); Paul wrote that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). And Paul’s New Testament letter to Philemon is a master class in encouraging one slave owner to treat his escaped slave as a beloved brother in Christ and to free him upon his return, rather than punish him.

All this is relevant to our evaluations of racial and other interpersonal tensions today. What is the underlying worldview? Does that worldview reflect a belief that all of us, regardless of skin color, are made in the image of God and equal in terms of worth? Or does it pit one group against another, survival-of-the-fittest style, with power the ultimate, indeed the only, good?

Two Views of Humanity

So, to return to our initial question: Which worldview better encourages human flourishing? The rise of political, economic, and religious freedom, along with the invention of science and the invention of hospitals and universities in medieval and Renaissance Christian Europe, suggests the Judeo-Christian answer, as does the fate of Nazi Germany and the great Communist disasters of the twentieth century, each shaped by Karl Marx’s use of Darwinian materialism. But as Oluniyi shows, we don’t have to do such a broad survey. The tragic “natural” experiment that was colonial Nigeria gives us the answer.

There’s really no contest. And yet in all too many places around the world, Darwinism, including Social Darwinism, worms its way into law, politics, and business—anywhere a sense of personal superiority, or a will to exert power over others, desires to clothe itself in the garb of scientific respectability.

That’s why Oluniyi wants us to stop talking about races. “There is only one human race,” he says, “of which we are all a part.” And perhaps that’s why a young black man approached me after he heard about Oluniyi’s manuscript, his untimely death, and his unfinished business that I was helping bring to completion and publication. “What you are doing is good,” he said, with tears in his eyes. “That man’s story is important. These lessons matter. They must be heard.”


Oluniyi submitted a draft of the manuscript to Discovery Institute shortly before Covid took his life. With the blessing of his family, Discovery Institute finished shaping and then published Darwin Comes to Africa. I was one of the editors.

PhD, is an editor for the Discovery Institute and the author of four dystopian novels and many shorter works, both fiction and non-fiction. Before turning to editing, she taught as an adjunct English and humanities professor. She and her husband homeschooled their three children.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #67, Winter 2023 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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