Down with Racism, Down with Darwinism, Too

The Grain of Truth in “Decolonizing Science”

America’s recent reckoning with racism has included calls to decolonize the curriculum in our educational institutions. While at first glance, it might seem like just another iteration of the collegiate cry of “hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go” from the 1980s, the new version targets more foundational concepts like objectivity, rationality, and science. The humanities were one thing; but now the physical sciences are in the crosshairs. Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker recently warned of such ideological capture at the journal Nature Human Behaviour, concluding that he will no longer “referee, publish, or cite” for/from the journal because “how do we know articles have been vetted for truth rather than political correctness?”

The extension of the decolonization project into STEM fields opens a whole new Pandora’s box. While many valid critiques of this trend have been written, perhaps the push to “decolonize science” can be understood more sympathetically in light of the real connections between scientific theories and racism historically—especially by way of Darwinism. Darwinism’s substantial connections to race-thinking reveal another chink in its armor, and also uncover a grain of truth in the sea of decolonization falsehoods.

Darwinian Dominance

Even before Darwin stepped aboard the H.M.S Beagle, the mood of science was moving in an evolutionary direction. As historian Jacques Barzun explained in his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence, “Biological evolution was made plausible by progress—visible—and by the popularity of history. From the 1820s onward, accounts of the past tended to be written as growth, the development of some idea or institution” (502). With history told as a story of unfolding growth and progress, science accordingly advanced “a bold hypothesis based on the comparative study of animal forms: evolution” (455).

Thus, when Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859, it was not so much the idea of evolution that was new, but Darwin’s mechanism for it, namely, natural selection. “Darwin proposed a purely mechanistic operation,” Barzun states, that “made the old idea of evolution fit under physics by means of the idea of Natural Selection—not wholly new but well neglected…. Ten years earlier, the philosopher Spencer had coined the phrase ‘Survival of the Fittest,’ but the suggestion needed the support of the heap of facts that Darwin had observed during his voyage on the Beagle and since” (570-571).

Worth noting here as well, is the subtitle of Darwin’s Origin of Species: The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. As Barzun rightly explains, in using the phrase “favoured races” Darwin was simply “referring to the varieties of any animal species. But another group of scientists and publicists, using the same words, meant specifically varieties of men” (577).

This brings us to the significant connections between Darwinism as a scientific paradigm, and racism as a social system and way of thinking. As Barzun notes, “The 19th century was the heyday of physical anthropology, which divided mankind into three or more races. It was taken for an exact science in spite of its conflicting statements, and it was also the playground of historians, social theorists, and politicians…. Not all who argued about race…believed the same solemn fictions, but almost all educated westerners believed in the root idea that race equals character and uttered some fiction of their own” (577-579).

It was in this milieu that belief in eugenics, Social Darwinism, and racial hierarchy were deemed the progressive positions to hold, thanks to the credibility lent them by “science.” “The vogue of natural selection,” says Barzun, “bred the doctrine that nations and other social groups struggle endlessly in order that the fittest shall survive. So attractive was this ‘principle’ that it got the name of Social Darwinism” (571-572). Darwinism thus became an underlying justification for, and a significant contributor to, racist ways of thinking in America and the West for generations.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that Darwinism created racism (racism is much too ancient for that), nor am I arguing that Darwinism is even the main cause of racism (humankind is much too good at “othering” for that). Rather, my point is that as Darwinism swept through science, academia, and society at large in the late 19thand early 20th centuries, racism took on a more enlightened tinge and more insidious form, now cloaked in the scientist’s lab coat. Darwinism lent an air of respectability to racism that contributed to its further entrenchment and increased public display. As Barzun puts it in his 1937 classic Race: A Study in Superstition, “the shield of science was raised over the racist to save him from attack by the intelligent layman” (134).

Dethroning Darwinism and Race-Thinking

All of this is to say that science is not as objective as frequently presented—something Thomas Kuhn unpacks in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. As Ramin Skibba more recently put it, “scientists…like to see themselves as objectively exploring the world, above the political fray. But such views of scientific neutrality are naive, as study findings, inevitably, are influenced by the biases of the people conducting the work.” Barzun’s words from 1937 strike a similar chord:

The urge to divide mankind into fixed types and races is evidently endless. Each attempt only illustrates anew how race groupings have been shaped not by nature but by the mode of thought or the stage of mechanical efficiency that mankind valued at the moment. (196)

Darwinism is certainly a clear example of this, and though many aspects of decolonizing science go too far, on this aspect of Darwinism contributing to racism we can most certainly agree.

Where we cannot agree is on the doubling down on racial categories and identities to try and advance the scientific cause. Instead, we might consider Barzun’s conclusion from nearly a century ago that race is actually a modern superstition. In Barzun’s view, the problem ultimately lies with what he calls race-thinking. He warns, “as long as people permit themselves to think of human groups without the vivid sense that groups consist of individuals and that individuals display the full range of human differences, the tendency which [eighty-five] years ago I named race-thinking will persist” (xi). Barzun further explains,

Race-thinking . . . is a vulgar error, not only because it thrives and is abroad among the people, often unaware of itself, but always charged with hatred and hypocrisy; it is also and above all a vulgar error because it denies individual diversity, [derides] the complexity of cause and effect, scorns the intellect, and ultimately bars Mind from the universe of created things. (219)

Race-thinking certainly has persisted and wreaks havoc today by flattening human individuality and difference into group identities, erasing both the splendid distinctions of each individual and the indispensable universality of our common humanity. It is a vulgar error, indeed.

is a classical educator, furniture-maker, and head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina. He also taught high school history for thirteen years and studied at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Salvo, Josh has written for Areo, FORMA, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Quillette, The Imaginative Conservative, Touchstone, and is a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. Radio Show/Podcast.

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