In an effort to “cancel” historical racists, culture has missed one of the most influential racists of all time.
During a presidential election season, most Americans would normally be thinking about the campaign more than any other topic. Yet another serious issue—racism—continues to occupy the nation’s mind. Since the horrific killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last May, racism has filled the news as much as it did during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
In a sequel to the better-known On the Origin of Species, Darwin’s The Descent of Man argued that humans, having descended from apelike creatures, were continuing to evolve and produce various races. Darwin posited that some races were more developed than others. Throughout Descent, Darwin labeled different people groups other than his European race as “low” and “degraded,” including Africans. Darwin argued that the “highest races and the lowest savages” clearly differed in their “moral disposition” (Darwin, 445, Quotes come from the combined volume The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. New York: The Modern Library, 1936. These “savages,” he further claimed, possessed “insufficient” powers of reasoning (Darwin, 489). At the end of Descent, Darwin declared he would prefer to be descended from a “little monkey” or an “old baboon” as opposed to an Indian “savage” from South America (Darwin, 919).
Darwin’s racism and belief in white supremacy were an outgrowth of his ideas regarding natural selection (a view popularized later by others as “survival of the fittest”). Accordingly, he excused aggressive colonial imperialism with the comment, “The civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world” (Darwin, 521). Although he may not have explicitly endorsed such imperialism, Darwin saw the elimination of nonwhite races as the natural result of white Europeans, who “stand at the summit of civilisation” (Darwin, 507), being the superior race.
Such reasoning, even before Darwin laid it out, was essentially the same rationale used by European, Muslim, and American slave traders, who viewed the Africans as less than human and deserving of enslavement.
Of course, racism has been prevalent for millennia, including within the Christian church. Because they have misinterpreted and misapplied biblical texts, many Christians deny the value of humankind created in the image of God. In the Western world in general, Darwin wasn’t even the first to put forth biological arguments for racist views. To his credit, Darwin detested slavery. (However, his apologists today feebly cite that fact to mitigate his appalling racism and instead declare that Darwin was just a product of his times.)
Some honest evolutionists have acknowledged that even though Darwinism didn’t cause racism, it fueled it. The famous late scientist Dr. Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “Biological arguments for racism may have been common before 1859 [the date of Darwin’s Origin of the Species], but they increased by orders of magnitude following the acceptance of evolutionary theory” (S. J. Gould, Ontogeny and Phylogeny (Harvard University Press, 1977, 127). Yet some historical figures are so high on the pedestal of our secular society that they appear beyond reach, even in today’s “cancel culture.” The hypocrisy is glaring. (At the same time, we can’t ignore the fact that racism has emerged too many times in America’s church history).
So should today’s cancel culture seek to erase things that are reminders of the racist history of Western nations? Should we delete the sad chapter of Darwin from history books and museums? I suggest not. There are important lessons to be learned. Just as historians should not erase Nazism and Communism from textbooks and museums, they should not ignore the consequences of bad beliefs like Darwinism—such as the way his ideas fueled racism—but should learn from them.
In 2004, my family visited southern Germany and enjoyed seeing the Bavarian Alps and beautiful towns like Rothenburg. But we also toured the notorious Nazi concentration camp of Dachau as an unforgettable way for our three sons to learn more about the evils of anti-Semitism (Of course, a less violent form of racism existed against African Americans during this time, including within the very military that helped defeat the genocidal Nazis in 1945). The victorious Allied forces could have razed Dachau to the ground, but some wise leaders realized that preserving the barracks and ovens would help later generations not forget one of history’s most virulent acts of racism.
Similarly, removing Darwin and his errant beliefs from schools and museums is not realistic, for they are too entrenched in society. Yet at the very least his racist views should be exposed and included. All of Darwin’s beliefs, warts and all, should be presented to students. This includes the many that are unscientific and not in support of his ideas of amoeba-to-man evolution.