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Darwinism and racism – are they linked?

Charles Darwin
Published: 27 February 2021 (GMT+10)

In response to the book review article Does ‘race’ science refute superior humans? We received the following response (in red) interspersed with CMI’s’s comments.

Several disparate points:

1. Charles Darwin is not a prophet, false or otherwise. No evolutionary biologist assumes that every idea of his must be part of modern evolutionary theory (any more than any physicist assumes that physics can never depart from any idea of Newton’s), or that he had the last word on any question. Darwin’s views on women (or on race) are not inherent features of evolutionary theory (and were widely shared by creationists of his time).

Nowhere did my (LT) review state that Darwin was a prophet. However, some people do seem to treat him like one. E.g. Richard Dawkins once said: “Darwin showed us that the world is beautiful and inspiring without a God. He revealed to us the glory of life and opened our eyes to who we really are and where we’ve come from”.1 That is hardly scientific language!

You say that Darwin’s views on race are not an inherent feature of evolutionary theory. I didn’t say they were. Rather, I said that evolution provided an easy framework in which to fit a rank of races (a pre-Darwinian thought, and largely a by-product of the Atlantic slave trade). Re-read the quotation by Stephen Jay Gould in the book review article. Racism doesn’t feature as prominently today among evolutionists because it’s so ‘politically incorrect’ and the human genetic data (which we’ve only had for the last few decades) has decisively falsified its purported scientific basis. This did not come as a surprise to biblical creationists, though it was a surprise to evolutionists.

2. Darwin specifically noted, in The Descent of Man, that no trait, on which one could rest a claim of superiority or inferiority, is present in all members of one population and no members of another. His theory (and modern evolutionary theory) is hostile to the essentialism that is central to racist concepts.

This seems to misunderstand how evolution was used to justify racism. First, ‘races’ were relatively easy to distinguish observationally. Second, the cultural supremacy of ‘white’ peoples was taken as a given. Think of the effects of the Atlantic slave trade and the spread of European colonialism. Surely that showed the cultural dominance of European ‘whites’, right? Certainly that’s how people thought back then.

How did evolution contribute? It provided a biological explanation for this ‘data’: some populations evolve faster than others and thus outcompete other populations. Transpose this to human races, and it was easy to think that evolution demonstrated that the cultural supremacy of European ‘whites’ had a biological basis—‘whites’ evolved faster than ‘non-whites’. Evolutionary scientists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries then went looking for the specific traits that marked out the ‘white’ race as superior. Of course, we all know they didn’t find any. But since evolutionary racism was never founded on finding such traits, it wasn’t heavily undermined by not finding such traits.

And yes, this sort of thinking is found in Darwin. See Missing the link between Darwin and racism. Here is a quote from The Descent of Man:

“At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes … will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian [i.e. Aboriginal] and the gorilla [emphases added]”.2
3. Regarding deep time: yes, evolutionists think that the human species has had a quarter-million years or so to diverge since its beginning, vs. the 4500 years or so (since Noah’s Flood) that you allow. But you hold that, e.g. Indian and African elephants have diverged into separate species in the same time, so why is “deep time” and slow evolution more friendly to racism than young-Earth creationism and hyper-fast speciation within “kinds?”

The non-human example you give isn’t ‘racist’ in either biblical or evolutionary terms because it lacks any notion of rank. Divergence time is also irrelevant. All the timeframe might suggest in a biblical framework is that human populations have had enough time to diversify to the point of separate populations no longer being able to interbreed. And yet we know this hasn’t happened for humans. But even if it had happened, the Bible still provides a bulwark against racism. Why? The Bible still says we’re all descended from Adam and Eve (and Noah’s family: How did all the different ‘races’ arise (from Noah’s family)?), and are thus all alike divine image bearers. This doesn’t change even if segments of humanity become reproductively isolated from others.

Evolution, however, lacks any such bulwark against racism. In other words, while evolution may not be inherently racist, it isn’t inherently anti-racist either. This is hardly surprising, since evolution is a historical scientific idea, and is amoral by itself. Still, ‘survival of the fittest’ language easily generates connotations of rank, whether one likes it or not. One ‘race’ proves ‘fitter’ than another due to their cultural/technological dominance. Is it not easy to see how that will generate notions of ‘inherent superiority’ for some races over others? And if it won’t generate them by itself, is it not easy to see how it will at least strengthen the hold such ideas have on people?

4. Before Darwin, racism was often justified invoking the supposed “curse of Ham,”or else separate creation of (unequal) races by God (pre-Adamism or co-Adamism). The reason that biological or pseudo-biological (note -- you surely would in other contexts -- that “biological” is not a synonym for “evolutionary”) arguments for racism became common was that they replaced scriptural (or pseudo-scriptural) arguments that no longer appeared viable after Darwin. Darwin noted that common human ancestry was a necessary inference from his theory.

You’re right in implying that if Scripture was read and interpreted correctly there really would not be a racism argument. The curse of Ham arguments are indeed not scriptural, and biology prior to the advent of Darwinism was mostly done in light of a Creator God. Attempts to justify racism from the Bible have always run afoul of Genesis 1–3 (as well as passages like Galatians 3:28). And this is why proponents of racism before Darwin needed to rely on ideas outside the Bible, like Aristotle’s view of slaves, or the Great Chain of Being idea, or Europe’s technological/scientific superiority, to justify their racism. Evolution proved an effective tool for justifying racism (and its worst abuses). While racism has sadly marred some churches (not least in the US), it was/is entirely inconsistent with the teaching of Christianity.

For more details, please see our Racism Q and A page and our resource One Human Family.

References and notes

  1. Dawkins, R., Life, Darwin & Everything, first in the TV series Genius of Charles Darwin, Channel 4, UK, August 2008. Return to text.
  2. Darwin, C., The Descent of Man, 2nd ed., John Murray, London, p. 156, 1887. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

B. O.
Hello Shaun.
Thank you for publishing this article in response to Steven T.
I would also recommend for Steven T. to read "Nazi Ecology: The Oak Sacrifice of the Judeo-Christian Worldview In the Holocaust; R. Mark Musser". I'm in the process of reading it myself. We hear and read so much of "How" the Holocaust happened, ect. but hardly ever hear of the "Why" it happened. I always felt something was missing in my own education. Mr. Musser clearly makes the connection between Darwinism/racism/and all the terrible that comes out of this world view. It's not just other people's opinion that we carry but it becomes who we chose to be and how we chose to treat those around us. Darwinism/evolution causes us to decide to "other" another group of people. The "they don't belong/they are the enemy" always leads to war and distruction.
Edward P.
If Darwinian evolution is true, then it is also true that racism has evolved from it like a leg would evolve from a fish.
If Christianity is true, then racism is an evil against God and man, for it is written to "love your neighbor as yourself".
Steven T.
First, thank you for reprinting the entire text of my comment, rather than quoting passages out of context as you did with the Darwin quote (which is about why we don't still have ape-men running around, rather than advocacy of genocide against hunter-gatherers).

You should read Charles Carroll's 1900 work, <i>In the Image of God</i>, not because it's right or reasonable (it isn't), but because it follows creationist logic ("similarity in design is not evidence of common ancestry" and "no dog ever gave birth to a cat," etc.) to its logical extreme, and argues that in fact Black and white humans are separate creations who aren't, alike, common bearers of the image of God. Common ancestry is no defense against racism if you're not allowed to infer common ancestry when it contradicts the conclusions you wish to draw.

I should point out that slavery in the United States was not based on the assumption that the Bible denied the common humanity of blacks and whites, but simply on the plain that the Bible permits and never condemns slavery. The assumption that some people are born to rule others and have the right to exercise ownership over these others doesn't depend on any particular explanation for why it is true; simply assert it, and leave explanations for it to others or to the future.

"Fitness" isn't a metaphor; it's a measure of the probability of leaving descendants. Better technology isn't fitness. "More evolved" means simply "more changed from the last common ancestor of the two groups being compared;" it doesn't mean "smarter," or "stronger," much less "better in some global, absolute sense," or "bearing the right to oppress others." Your argument against evolution depends on insisting that both evolution and the Bible mean things that neither says.
Shaun Doyle
We didn’t say Darwin’s statement advocated for genocide. We said an evolutionary basis for justifying racial genocide can be found in Darwin. There is a difference. One says we should kill other races. We’re not saying Darwin said that. The other says the civilized races will kill the other races, as a matter of evolutionary biology. We’re saying Darwin did say that. Because he did. Explicitly: “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.”

Our point is that it’s incredibly easy for people to go from Darwin’s evolutionary “will” to a ‘moral’ “should”. And that’s indeed what many Western governments did in the decades after Darwin did. Why? The academy of the day (which is where practically all the leaders of the Western world were trained) found it easy to move from Darwin’s “will” to a moral “should”.

As for the attempt to use some random polygenist’s work to try and show creationism leads to racism, that’s absurd. For a start, ‘white’ women have given birth to ‘black’ babies. After all, whites and blacks can interbreed. And creationists take this as veritable proof they share a common ancestor. Indeed, this ‘hybridization’ criterion is a key aspect of creationist attempts to reconstruct the original created kinds.

And with respect to the ‘image of God’ issue, the Bible implies that it’s based on common ancestry in Adam (e.g. Acts 17:26–27). Presumably, this is why Carroll tried to show that black and whites don’t share a common ancestor. The problem is, though, Acts 17:26–27 pushes further than that. It says “all nations” are descended from Adam. Paul doesn’t broker any exceptions. So, only a prebaked racial prejudice could rule out black people groups from that. Carroll was clearly twisting even the most inconvenient facts to ‘prove’ his desired conclusion. The problem for evolutionists and their racist past, though, is that such a claim doesn’t make sense with respect to evolution. Evolution provided an easy-to-embrace justification for racism, whereas the Bible has to be twisted to say what it explicitly rejects to be used for racism.

On slavery, please see Does the Bible condone slavery?

And if one race is wiping the other out due to its superior technology, isn’t that technological superiority a factor that lessens the probability of the technologically inferior population leaving descendants? In other words, it’s contributes to the ‘fitness’ of one race over another. The point is that, according to the 19th century evolutionary argument, whites had apparently undergone more changes from the last common ancestor compared to other races, and that this greater change resulted in their cultural dominance over other races when those races encountered each other. And this, as Darwin said, would eventually lead to the extermination of the ‘savage’ races. Does this argument require us to say whites are ‘better’ in some objectively normative sense than non-whites? No. And yet, Darwin himself appears to think that way: “The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian [emphases added]”.

Our argument is a simple one to follow: since evolution was so easily used to justify racism (and a bunch of other social evils), that gives us reason to suspect there’s something wrong with the whole edifice. Is it a knockdown argument against evolutionary science? No. But if something smells bad, chances are it’s rotting. It’s at least worth a double take before putting it in your mouth.
Rod R.
I don't think that the ranking of races was "largely a by-product of the Atlantic slave trade". I think the opposite, that the slave trade was largely a by-product of the ranking of races.
Shaun Doyle
At one level, you may be right. The hierarchical scaling in the 'Great Chain of Being' idea was prevalent in the West long before the Atlantic slave trade was born. It give people a category of 'pure savage' that supposedly existed between us and primates. The Atlantic slave trade, and the wider explorations of the 15th and 16th century European sailors, contributed by giving them actual 'creatures' to fit into those theoretical categories. As is often the case, these things are much more complex than a single sentence can convey.
Rev Robert W.
My experience of reading parts of Adolf Hitler's 'Mein Kamph' is that it is like reading volume II of Charles Darwin's 'Origin of Species by Natural Selection: or the Preservation of favoured Races in the Struggle for Life". The flavour and the logic are unmistakably the same: if natural selection/de-selection has wrought such wonders as the rise of Man, then maybe the wielding of a little artificial selection/de-selection will work the rise of the best Man; either by race or by class! In a sense, this is a 'moral' theory grounded on a kind of Machiavellianism and Benthamism respectively: as the end justifies the means of class or race progress by the extinction/extermination of some; so the end is itself justified on the greatest happiness of the greatest number rule, as the 'ultimate test' of right and wrong. Benthamism is a kind of consequentialism - outcomes alone determine moral questions. What a mess we have gotten ourselves into by foregoing the notion of a natural moral law: a set of objective and absolute values, given by God that are outside of us, before us, and above us. Darwinism is an important factor in much of this, but alas, not the only factor.
Andres M.
Hello CMI, God bless you! Seben, I have a question to ask you, what do you think of baldness or alopecia in chimpanzees? Many media outlets never tire of saying "Evolution in action" or "There are our evolving cousins" and others point out how similar black Africans have to apes because of their facial features.
What do you think of that? Greetings and continue your ministry

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