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Was Darwin racist?

Image Wikipedia.org HMS Beagle being hailed by Fuegians, painted by FitzRoy’s draughtsman, Conrad Martens
Charles Darwin’s encounter with the indigenous Tierra del Fuegians of South America would influence the development of his ideas about evolution. He wrote in his diary (25th February 1834): “Viewing such men one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow creatures … ”

Our article Darwin and the Fuegians so riled Stewart H. (Australia) that he wrote to us:

Your article begins well enough but quickly degenerates into godbothering claptrap. What a shame for anyone concerned with the truth! Darwin got it wrong about the Fuegians, but he was never a racist and he would have heartily concurred with Snow’s view that their condition was due to their circumstances. He sympathised greatly with those harsh circumstances. You have cherry-picked your quotes because of your typical creationist loathing of the ‘arch-enemy’, Darwin.
As to the bible as a historical record, it isn’t. It’s mythology from start to finish. Mountains upon mountains of archaeological, empirical data have shown the bible to be as unreliable a document as has ever been written, from a historical perspective, but of course you are blind to all that. Go away, and lie no more.

CMI’s Dr Carl Wieland then responded:

Dear Stewart

Thanks for your feedback—you won’t be surprised to hear that we respectfully disagree with you. Have you ever read The Descent of Man by Darwin? You could hardly deny his racism, I’m afraid, if you had. That does not mean that you are wrong concerning his general sympathy for the underdog, he was also an abolitionist. If you get the chance to see our Darwin documentary that has been playing at Australian cinemas, or via the DVD version you will see among other things interviews with leading Darwin historians. One of them (very anticreationist) nevertheless makes some very strong statements on the race issue — see also his extended interview on the ‘extras’ on the DVD.

So, in short, we think you are poorly informed, and also that we do not see "Darwin" as an object to be demonized. The doco treats him with respect and fairness, as even many anticreationists have acknowledged. Of course, the real issue is not what sort of a person Darwin was or was not, but has to do with the validity of, and the evidence for, the notion of microbe-to-man evolution.

Re the Bible and archaeological data—I’m surprised that you would think that. If you search our site, you will find a number of articles on the subject. But then, what one wants to believe definitely influences one’s interpretation of the data, and archeologists are not immune to that. Particularly when it comes to assigned dates to archeological sites. It’s interesting though that today even such respected secular figures as the archaeologist Sir Colin Renfrew are calling for a revision downwards in the ‘standard’ Egyptian chronology. When one allows for this (based on such things as coregencies, etc) suddenly all the alleged ‘missing evidence’ in the appropriate time periods (e.g. the conquest of Canaan, the fall of Jericho, civilizations to match that expected from the accounts of David and Solomon) is there in spades.


Carl W.

But our correspondent Stewart H then sent this rejoinder:

Hello Carl

I’ve read Darwin’s Origin of Species and am currently reading his Voyage of the Beagle, hence my interest in ‘Darwin and the Fuegians’. I was naturally shocked, but also sceptical, about the story Darwin recounted of cannibalism in that region, and so I googled the subject and came up with the essay on your website.

I should also say that I’ve read a smattering of Darwin’s other writing, as well as more than one biography, as well as books on the theory of evolution by natural selection, by the likes of Stephen J Gould and Richard Dawkins, not to mention scores of scientific articles. I’ve listened to lectures, radio programs, TV docos and the like, presenting the subject from any number of angles. By general lay standards I’m reasonably well educated on Darwin and the theory that he and Wallace developed, independently of each other but based on similar empirical data.

I’m also familiar with the charges of racism levelled at Darwin, almost invariably by Christian creationists. They usually quote from The Descent of Man, and I’ve examined those passages for myself.

Unlike The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man is full of footnotes and references to contemporary and antecedent thinkers. This places it much more firmly in the context of its time than the earlier, more original work. Virtually every ‘racist’ observation made by Darwin in this work is a gloss on other scientists’ ‘racist’ observations. Darwin tended to call the indigenous inhabitants of the regions he visited ‘savages’, particularly when discussing them in a general way. So did every other white writer of his time, no matter how scientific. Darwin believed that black-skinned people were inferior to white-skinned people [though probably not ‘naturally’ so]. So did 99.999% of his compatriots at the time. This is not an exaggeration, it’s an uncontroversial fact. As you should know, in Australia it was the mainstream view, even fifty years after Darwin’s death, that our Aborigines were morally and intellectually inferior to white people, and that they should be ‘encouraged’ to die out.

If Darwin was racist, so was the whole of western ‘civilized’ society-an obvious fact that you people seem reluctant to point to. Darwin was a creature of his time. Aristotle thought slaves were sub-human. Immanuel Kant thought women had infantile, untrainable minds. Not even the greatest genius can transcend the prejudices of his or her age.

You point out correctly that Darwin’s personal views have little to do with the validity of the theory of natural selection-the most successful and productive theory in the history of biology. The fact remains though that many of your fellow Christians seem determined to personally denigrate Darwin-clearly in the hope that this will somehow weaken his credentials as a theorist. It’s also a depressing fact that Christian propaganda groups such as yours have manipulated your way to the top of search lists, thus giving your extremist views a fair greater prominence than your numbers merit. I’ll continue to try to do my bit to redress the balance.

Stewart H.

… to which Carl further replied:

Hi Stewart

I suppose depending on where people are coming from will make a big difference to the gloss they put on things, mostly it’s an unconscious thing. But truth matters, at the end of the day.

Certainly society was more racist back then than it is now. But there is a strong case for Darwin’s theory anticipating substantial biological differences between the races, hence the comments by Dr Peter Bowler on the Darwin film to which I earlier referred.

Here is the actual transcript, some of this was not used in the movie itself: (NB Bowler is a leading Darwin historian and no friend of creationists):

Peter Bowler: (09:00:36:23) … they hoped that they will be able to educate the various races of man kind in the arts of civilisation but there was always this nagging problem of is it going to be possible. And one thing that’s characteristic of the general direction of European’s thought during the 19th century is there were increasingly harder line taken on that which we see reflected in Darwin himself.

That by the time he writes The Descent of Man in 1871 it’s pretty clear that he by that time shares the growing suspicion or conviction of many Europeans. The non white races simply do not have the capacity to be elevated properly into civilised human beings that they are mentally and morally at a more limited level. In a sense they are stuck at an early stage in the biological evolution of the human species.

(09:01:42:06) So their way of life may offer us a fossilised relic of what our own ancestors lived like in the distant prehistoric past. But now Darwin and many of his contemporaries are beginning to realise that what they needed to claim that they are biologically relics of the past. They are in fact equivalent to earlier stages in the ascent from the apes who have been preserved in isolated locations, preserved with those earlier levels of mental and moral development.

And as leading evolutionist the late Prof. SJ Gould of Harvard pointed out, though scientific justifications for racism were common before Darwin, they increased by orders of magnitude following the publication of his book in 1859. We have in the past also cited secular sources for the fact that the treatment of Australian Aboriginals took a nosedive following the publication of the book. (See, e.g., The scars of a nation and A sorry day—with an unlikely twist.) And this makes perfect sense, as does the link between Darwinism as strong inspiration for Hitler’s views — confirmed in spades recently by academics such as Prof Weikart.1

Darwinism-inspired eugenics was extremely common in the US prior to WW2; see America’s evolutionists: Hitler’s inspiration? It’s likely that it is the world’s discovery of the horrors of the Holocaust which caused racism to become unpopular.

If you doubt any of the above, the references are there on our website in the Q and A section. Of course, as indicated before, if evolution were the correct explanation for all of life’s diversity and brilliant designs (a philosophical necessity for a non-theist) then it would merely be unfortunate that it happened to inspire racism, holocaust, etc.—the bad fruits of a belief do not affect whether it’s true or not. But it makes it even more tragic and unfortunate when wellmeaning but misguided churchians seek to encourage their fellows to embrace this belief system uncritically.



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Published: 17 October 2009


  1. Wiekart, R., From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2004 (see review by Sarfati, J., The Darwinian roots of the Nazi tree (Wiekart review), Creation 27(4):39, 2005). Return to text.