Explore

Darwin’s statue, racism, and the Natural History Museum, London

by

Published: 29 April 2021 (GMT+10)
https://commons.wikimedia.orgCharles-Darwin-statue
Charles Darwin statue in 2010, by Joseph Boehm.

Statues have become highly politicised in recent months following the tragic death of African American George Floyd1 and the reactive Black Lives Matter movement. The offence of certain statues, that led to campaigns to have them removed, lies in the fact that some of the people immortalised were slave owners, or in some way connected to racism. There is a desire from certain quarters to cancel or redefine the past. But how does this impact upon Darwinism?

It is relevant to note that Creation Ministries International has always opposed racism because of the belief that all people are created equal in the image of God (as One Human Family), and evangelical Christians were central to the campaign to abolish slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. This piece isn’t a defence of statues as such, nor does it seek to engage strongly in political arguments, but religious and ethical ones.

Many Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries were iconoclasts: that is, they sought to remove statues because they were considered to represent a breach of the second commandment, relating to a prohibition of making graven images (Deut. 5:8–9). Those opposed to statues included European Calvinists and English Puritans, although as a general rule Lutherans and Anglicans tended to defend religious art on the basis that it represented a teaching aid, particularly for the uneducated.

Apart from religious art, many nations have used statues to reinforce political power and the ruling paradigm in order to present their national heroes in a positive light. Examples are found in ancient Babylon, known from the book of Daniel (chapters 3 and 6), and more recently in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, the same location as the biblical account. If the ideology of a nation changes, then there is action to change those honoured, and the way history is interpreted. This is called revisionism, where the victor gets to re-write history. On occasions, ideologies change overnight in violent revolutions, or more slowly through gradual political change.

Darwin-the-graphic
Image from The Graphic, 20 June 1885, “Unveiling the statue of the late Charles Darwin in the Natural History Museum, South Kensington”

Of course, an accurate reflection of history needs to place people and societies in context—to aid understanding by considering peoples’ lives in total. Historical societies sometimes interpreted social ethics differently, which in some cases justified slavery in a way we find regressive. But we may also ask whether an individual is repentant and sorrowful for the suffering caused and has then sought to do good. Modern cancel culture is of concern because it doesn’t consider Christian aspects of mercy, repentance and reconciliation, but wishes to silence critics at all costs. Musician, and religious-seeker, Nick Cave wrote last year that:

“Without mercy a society loses its soul, and devours itself. … [it] grows inflexible, fearful, vindictive and humourless. As far as I can see, cancel culture is mercy’s antithesis. Political correctness has grown to become the unhappiest religion in the world. … It has become quite literally, bad religion run amok.”.2

Those Christians who believe in the power of God in creation have also faced a cancel culture from secular humanists over the last century. Christian beliefs have been disrespected and side-lined, or excluded. Creationist beliefs have been cancelled from discussions in schools in many western countries and the UK for example in the last two decades; see CMI in British schools, Humanist CrISIS campaign

Statues at the Natural History Museum

But what about statues and exhibits at the Natural History Museum in London? It is notable that, over many years, a struggle has taken place in this institution in relation to statues. It may be surprising to learn that the Natural History Museum, located in South Kensington, was built along the lines of a Romanesque cathedral to glorify the power and wisdom of God. The architect was Alfred Waterhouse, and it was opened in 1881. The founder, Richard Owen, was strongly opposed to Darwin’s theory of evolution, especially as it related to the distinction between apes and humans. Owen was a practicing Christian, and his strong rejection of Darwin’s central claims led to antagonism with Darwin, and his supporters, such as Thomas H. Huxley;3 see Holy War?

A statue of the biblical Adam was originally located above the main entrance on the parapet, but bomb damage during the Second World War led to its loss, and it was not replaced (the plans of Waterhouse had in fact proposed both Adam and Eve to overlook the entrance, but redesign to a gable-style prevented this through lack of room).4

Several years after Darwin’s death (9 June 1885), a statue of Darwin was unveiled in pride of place on the central landing of the main hall. This sculpture in marble was in the form of a seated prince overlooking his specimens. The speculation is that this offended Owen. By this time Owen had stepped down from being head of the museum, and his successor, a supporter of Darwin, allowed Darwin’s statue to be located in that prime spot.5

By 1927, supporters of Owen had managed to replace the marble sculpture of Darwin with a bronze statue of Owen. Darwin’s statue was moved to a side hall. However, for the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origins of Species in 2009, Darwin’s statue was once more placed in its original location. So, today Darwin has again taken the place of honour as an idol for naturalists.6

But now, with growing concern to tackle racism, some pertinent questions are being directed at historical collections in museums and other cultural establishments. The Natural History Museum and London’s Kew Gardens (aka Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew) are beginning to look at their animal specimens and plant exhibits, and asking whether there are elements that may be considered racist or colonial.7,8 There is evidence that scientific institutions across the world are seeking to address questions of racism in science.9 But so far, Darwin’s statue and Darwinism in general have avoided more widespread scrutiny at the Natural History Museum, with criticism seemingly deflected to peripheral matters. And yet there are some very uncomfortable questions about Darwin’s writings in relation to race, and how this might infuse racism in institutions and the wider society.

Darwinism as justification of racism

The nature of institutional racism is hard to define, or to determine its extent. This is because God looks at the hearts and minds of individuals, not institutions. We are all accountable before God for our thoughts, intentions, and actions. And yet collectively, people can share beliefs, whether religious, political or ideological, and ideologies can shape the values and purposes of institutions. The question here, is whether Darwin’s work is ideologically racist? We can acknowledge that most contemporary Darwinists would say they are not racist, and have sympathy for anti-racist campaigns, and yet we need to consider whether Darwinism is foundationally racist as an ideology.

The notable biographer of Darwin, A.N. Wilson, thinks it is. He recently made scathing comments about the inherent racism in Darwin’s work, and says he regrets nothing from his recent biography of Darwin,10 Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker.11 Wilson alleges that Darwin’s work effectively laid out a scientific justification of racism. He comments in a blog post that:

“It will be interesting to see how long it is before someone reads Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man and decides that his statue should be removed from the Natural History Museum. He was not merely, like so many Victorians, profoundly racist. He it was, especially in that disgusting book, who tried to give racism a ‘scientific’ justification.”12

There are several statements in the Descent of Man that can only be described as racist. Darwin argued that evolution arose in Africa from an ape-like ancestor, and that Africans were somehow less evolved than Europeans (although the out-of-Africa-Model is becoming confused). As can be seen below, his expectation was that the “savage races” of Africa and Australia would become extinct at the hands of “the civilised races of man.” How someone can consider the extermination of other human beings as representing ‘civilised’ behaviour is remarkable, but this is what Darwin wrote:

“It is therefore probable that Africa was formerly inhabited by extinct apes closely allied to the gorilla and chimpanzee; and as these two species are now man’s nearest allies, it is somewhat more probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere.”
“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 [African] or Australian and the gorilla.” 13

Of course, Darwin wasn’t the first or only one to speculate about half-human half-ape creatures. In the 17th and 18th centuries naturalists still believed in Homo sylvestris (‘man of the forest’), a creature known from Greek mythology, and sometimes referred to as Orang Outang from the Malay language (Orang-outang or Homo sylvestris: ape-men before Darwin). These mythical creatures were considered to bridge between human beings and apes in the Aristotelian Great Chain of Being. Such prejudicial mythology still informed Darwin’s science in the 19th century, which envisioned an evolutionary connection in the chain, thus moving away from traditional belief in a created order.

There was patently an unholy pride increasingly pervading western civilisation, which looked down on other people, but Darwin and his supporters tried to justify this scientifically, evidently without fear of an omniscient Creator. The dispute between Owen and Darwin was perpetuated by Huxley, ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, with language that is clearly disrespectful to the humanity of African people. Huxley said:

“if we place A, the European brain, B, the Bosjesman brain [San people of southern Africa], and C, the orang brain, in a series, the differences between A and B, so far as they have been ascertained, are of the same nature as the chief of those between B and C.”14

Owen had argued that the brains of all tribes of people were broadly the same size, thus providing similar intellectual ability.3 A few years later, following the Emancipation Proclamation by US President Abraham Lincoln (1 Jan 1863), Huxley still considered Africans to be less evolved than European people; he commented that “ … no rational man, cognisant of the facts, believes that the average [African] is the equal, still less the superior, of the average white man.”15 Not only was Darwinism inherently racist, it directly led to the justification of developing eugenic and fascist programmes.11

https://commons.wikimedia.orgNamibian-bushmen-girls
San people of Namibia, 2009

There is something profoundly wrong with the evolutionary belief that African people are closer to an ape-like ancestor than Europeans. The biblical account instead asserts that all mankind, Europeans, Africans, Native Americans, Asians, etc. are genetically related to Noah’s family, and hence genetically connected to Adam as the direct creation of God. Humanity is one family, as Augustine of Hippo asserted, despite differences in skin colour, size and ability.

“But whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in colour, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast [first-formed man, Adam].16

Not about statues but about Darwinian racism

This is not really about the removal of a statue on the landing of the Natural History Museum, rather it is questioning the Darwinian ideology that permeates our western culture today: the teaching in schools, colleges, universities, and other institutions, including major museums, and media such as the BBC, and other secular broadcasters globally. And this ideology is foundationally racist. We wish to challenge Darwinian ideology, in school text-books with their published racially-inspired march-of-progress drawings and diagrams, and in numerous television programmes.

Look around any of the world’s major natural history museums, or browse their websites, and you will see exhibits that teach the narrative of human evolution, represented by dark skinned humanoids from Africa and Asia with ape-like features. In London’s Natural History Museum, examples include Homo erectus and Homo naledi, supposedly descended from the hominins Australopithecus afarensis and Australopithecus africanus.17 The message of this exhibition for children of African descent is not going to be positive for their self-esteem, neither will it encourage them to pursue science when it so disrespects their humanity.

Black footballers still face monkey chants in some European nations because of the legacy of Darwinism; sadly it is particularly so in some former communist states of East Europe.18

Homo-naledi_-Homo-erectus
Are these representations not born of racist ideology, in blurring the distinction between Africans and apes? Homo naledi from South Africa (left), and Homo erectus from East Turkana, Kenya (right) (The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London; licensed under the Open Government Licence).

How should Christians respond to racism?

So how should Christians respond to evidence of racism? In the UK, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury’s anti-racism taskforce objective rightly states that:

“Where racism is found, it must be challenged. Whether masked in our behaviours, whispered in our pews, institutionalised in our systems, or paraded on our streets, the Church as the body of Christ is called to oppose those actions which cause others to be treated as less than fully human.”19

With this in mind we may ask how Christians should respond to Darwinism, and how it is represented and promoted in society, especially as it relates to the descent of human beings?

Unfortunately, many Christians have moved to accept theistic evolution, and so inadvertently support the inherent racism in Darwinism. In effect this compromise adds a theological gloss to an essentially godless creed, one which does not fully value all of humanity. One of the most widely read popular works in support of theistic evolution is that of British molecular biologist Denis Alexander, Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? Alexander follows theologian John Stott (1921–2011) who famously postulated Adam as Homo divinus, a Neolithic farmer called out to be the covenanted divine image-bearer, or federal head for mankind.20 And yet this leaves unchallenged the wider evolutionary narrative. It also effectually establishes two classes of people, those directly descended from Adam, and those not directly related to the image bearer. Similarly, the American organisation Biologos advocates theistic evolution, and also has wide support amongst Christians; see Evolutionary syncretism: a critique of BioLogos, Theistic evolution and Christian faith.

Summary

Biblical creationists have for decades called into question the inherent racism in Darwin’s theory of evolution, but this has been widely ignored. But now with Black Lives Matter and similar movements, there is a growing spotlight on historical racism, with pressure to remove statues linked to slavery and race divisions. We wonder how long Darwin’s statue in the Natural History Museum can survive scrutiny, and equivalent statues in similar museums globally.

But more widely, we point out that all images representing the descent of man from an ape-like ancestor are also inherently racist and need to be removed—from museums, school text-books, university courses, and television programmes. As Christians committed to the truth of Scripture, we hold that all of mankind is related to Adam as one family. But unlike modern cancel culture, the Christian message is that people have an opportunity to repent, to turn away from racist ideology, and accept Christ’s offer of forgiveness.

References and notes

  1. This happened outside a shop while he was in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, 25 May 2020. Return to text.
  2. Cave, N., Why cancel culture destroys the creative soul, The Spectator, 31 December 2020; spectator.co.uk. Return to text.
  3. Cosans, C.E., Owen’s Ape & Darwin’s Bulldog: Beyond Darwinism and Creationism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 1–192, 2009 Return to text.
  4. Girouard, M., Alfred Waterhouse and the Natural History Museum (1999 ed.), Natural History Museum, London, pp. 57–58, 1981. Return to text.
  5. Coniff, R., Darwin’s Revenge: Statues of two 19th-century rivals battle it out in London’s Natural History Museum, The Atlantic, September 2008; theatlantic.com. Return to text.
  6. Elmhirst, S., Is Richard Dawkins destroying his reputation?, theguardian.com, 9 June 2015. Elmhirst writes “Over the years, Dawkins, a zoologist by training, has expressed admiration for Darwin in the way a schoolboy might worship a sporting giant.”See also: Bergman, J., Darwin, the idol of Richard Dawkins and his followers: Richard Dawkin’s God is Charles Darwin, Creation-Evolution Headlines blog, 1 February 2019, crev.info. Return to text.
  7. Simpson, C., Natural History Museum to review potentially ‘offensive’ Charles Darwin collection, telegraph.co.uk, 5 September 2020. Deverell, R., Addressing racism past and present, Kew Gardens, 12 June 2020; kew.org. Return to text.
  8. The publication, Nature Ecology and Evolution, has also addressed the issue of race in science, even in evolutionary science, recognising “systemic racism in scientific research”. The editorial comments that, “We need to ensure that ecology and evolution research is a career in which Black scientists feel safe and welcome.” Editorial, Black Lives Matter in ecology and evolution, Nat Ecol Evol 4:893–894, 2020 | doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-1250-2. Return to text.
  9. Nelson, R., Racism in science: the taint that lingers, Nature 570: 440-441, 27 June 2019. A book review of Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini, Beacon, 2019. And Ejedewe, P., Anti racist curriculum in further education: More than just words of a page, fenews.co.uk, 22 February 2021. Return to text.
  10. Wilson A.N., Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker, John Murray, London, 2017. Return to text.
  11. Bergman J., Deconstructing Darwinism—a theory gone bad, a world gone mad, Book Review: Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker, by A.N. Wilson, J. Creation 32(3):25–30, December 2018. Return to text.
  12. Wilson, A.N., Must Darwin fall?, theoldie.co.uk, 22 June 2020. Return to text.
  13. Darwin, C., The Descent of Man, 2nd ed., John Murray, London, 155–156, 1890. Return to text.
  14. Huxley, T.H., On the zoological relations of Man with the Lower Animals, Natural History Review 1:67–84, 1861. Return to text.
  15. Huxley, T.H., Emancipation–Black and White, in Collected Essays, Science and Education 3.3:66–75, 1865. Return to text.
  16. Augustine, City of God, XVI, chap. 8, in: Schaff, P. (Ed.), Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Series 1, Vol. 2., T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1979. Return to text.
  17. It is noted that the first recognised Homo erectus remains (only a tooth, skullcap and thighbone of ‘Java Man’), were found in Indonesia by Eugène Dubois in 1891–92. Return to text.
  18. Davies, G., Racism in soccer an ‘epidemic’ that mirrors disturbing trends in Europe: Advocates, ABC News, 1 February 2020; abcnews.go.com. Return to text.
  19. Williams, H., Immediate action is needed to address racism, says taskforce, Church Times, 2 March 2021; churchtimes.co.uk. Return to text.
  20. Alexander, D.A., Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? Monarch Books, Oxford, p. 237, 2008; Stott, J.R.W., Understanding the Bible, Scripture Union, London, 1972. Return to text.

Helpful Resources