A friend posted a link on Facebook to an article What Your Biology Teacher Didn’t Tell You About Charles Darwin. He called it an “exposé of the implications of the evolutionary worldview.”
I’m all for challenging my beliefs and this is, on the face of it, a thought-provoking piece. I read it with consternation that one of my heroes could actually be “a very bad man indeed”. And then I did some research.
Below is my riposte to most of the points made in Moore’s article. I do not claim to be a biological expert and if there are any evolutionary biologists or indeed Creationists who want to put me right in the comments section, I am all for that!
So let’s begin…
‘…I feel I have to point out that he wasn’t a British hero but a British villain. You don’t have to be a bible-thumping evangelical to question whether Charles Darwin’s thinking deserves to be given a bit more thought.’
Woah, woah, woah! First up, what is meant by “Charles Darwin’s thinking”? Presumably this is an entry level into attacking Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, but science doesn’t work like that.
Whether Darwin was a stark raving mad white supremacist (which, as we shall see, he wasn’t), it still wouldn’t make the Theory of Evolution – supported, corroborated, bolstered and proven as it is by the following 150-odd years’ worth of scientific study and investigation, including by those seeking to disprove it – any less factual.
Indeed, no scientific claim in history has been more vigorously tested. Were anyone to disprove the Theory of Evolution or in some way ascertain that it is in any way false, that person would become as world-renowned as Darwin and would have riches and honours lavished upon them. It’s not happened.
Positing that Darwin was “a villain” as a means to refute the Theory is a clear fallacy.
“Whatever your views on origins and evolution, we can hopefully all agree that, at present, we give far too much honour to the British thinker who justified genocide.”
This is a big claim. And it doesn’t stand up. Darwin never ‘justified genocide’ and the examples made by the author in this piece can be explained.
‘Darwin didn’t hide his view that his evolutionary thinking applied to human races as well as to animal species. The full title of his seminal book in 1859 was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.’
Moore seems to use this full title of Origin as a GOTCHA! moment, but it’s disingenuous to claim this.
Humans are mentioned once in the book – and that’s mostly to say that he will discuss them in some point in the future.
Darwin used ‘races’ more generally, using the term in relation to plants and animals (which Origin is virtually solely about).
Elsewhere he talks about races and sub-races of cabbages, for example. This does not make him racist towards cabbages.
‘He followed this up more explicitly in his later book The Descent of Man by spelling out his racial theory: “The western nations of Europe … now so immeasurably surpass their former savage progenitors [that they] stand at the summit of civilisation … The civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace the savage races through the world.”’
‘Today, most British people are, thankfully, pretty embarrassed by the racist rhetoric which undergirded the late-Victorian British Empire. What is astonishing is how little they understand that Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution provided the doctrine behind its white supremacism.’
Firstly, in relation to that last sentence, it is clear to note that he is not advocating, nor justifying genocide. He is pointing out that genocide will happen. Looking at the way the Native Americans and Aborigines were wiped out by white colonial Europeans (largely Christians, I point out, apropos of nothing), we can see that he was right.
Again, it is disingenuous to say Darwin’s Theory of Evolution gave these people the idea that they were superior and should therefore eliminate the natives. Certain peoples were wiping out other peoples long before Darwin was around.
Indeed, in the Bible, God not only advocates genocide but orders it, giving the Jews precise instructions on how to do it: “When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you may nations…then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy.” Deuteronomy 7:1-2.
There are issues with Darwin’s phrasing, for sure. “Civilised” and “savage” are not ‘nice’ terms for describing different races. However, it is important not to judge too harshly the words used by 19th Century people by comparing them with 21st Century values.
While it is still disconcerting to see someone describe different races in this way, it needs to be put into context. In Darwin’s time, with a burgeoning British Empire spreading as if contagious, the differences between biology and culture were largely unknown. It wasn’t until later in the 19th Century that the concept of “Nature and Nurture” was introduced.
Indeed, while Darwin seems to be disparaging of “savage races”, his Theory of Evolution, based as it is on the idea of common descent from shared ancestors, proves that human beings (Homo sapiens) are all equally evolved.
And yet culture plays its part in how humans live. So white Europeans moved ahead in terms of construction, medicine, writing, travel, weaponry etc, and therefore stole a march on their fellow humans who lived elsewhere.
As an example, an aborigine moved at birth to Western civilisation would be able to grow up perfectly normally, be able to be taught to read, be familiar with new inventions, and live longer and healthier than if they had remained in their “uncivilised” homeland.
This is because culture and biology are not related. Darwin never once suggested the white race was superior to other races due to biology.
If he was racist, then it was a cultural, not biological racism. I do not condone this in the slightest but, in mitigation, this was the overwhelming viewpoint of the time in Victorian England, wth its imperialistic haughtiness becoming stronger all the time.
‘Whereas the British Empire of the early nineteenth century had been dominated by Christian reformers such as William Wilberforce who sold badges of black slaves which proclaimed, “Am I not a man and a brother?”, Charles Darwin’s writings converted an empire with a conscience into an empire with a scientific philosophy instead. Four years after Darwin published his Origin of Species, James Hunt turned it into a justification for slavery. He argued in his paper ‘On the Negro’s Place in Nature’, published in 1863, that “Our Bristol and Liverpool merchants, perhaps, helped to benefit the race when they transported some of them to America.” Christian reformers had spent decades in the first half of the nineteenth century teaching Britain to view non-European races as their equals before God. In a matter of years, Darwin not only swept God off the table but also swept the value of people of every race in God’s eyes off the table with him.’
The author, as with the likes of James Hunt, confuses Darwinism with Social Darwinism. The latter, despite bearing Darwin’s name, has nothing to do with Darwin, nor the Theory of Evolution. Latching on to the phrase ‘the survival of the fittest’, and using it to support genocide and white supremacism just goes to show the lack of understanding these people have of the Theory and biology.
‘What has been forgotten is his contemptible attitude towards the Aborigines he also found there due to his beliefs about natural selection. When The Melbourne Review used his teachings to justify the genocide of the indigenous people of Australia in 1876, he didn’t try and stop them. Charles Darwin simply commented that “I do not know of a more striking instance of the comparative rate of increase of a civilised over a savage race”.
It’s certainly not untroubling that Darwin reacted in such a seemingly cold and detached way to the genocide.
‘Meanwhile, several thousand miles away, Cecil Rhodes was gleefully embracing Charles Darwin’s thinking as the justification for white expansion across Southern Africa. He was so inspired by the thinking of the Darwinian evolutionist Winwood Reade in his book ‘The Martyrdom of Man’ that he later confessed that “That book has made me what I am.” What it made him was the architect of one of the most brutal and immoral acts of European expansion and genocide in history. He wrote in 1877 that I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race … It is our duty to seize every opportunity of acquiring more territory and we should keep this one idea steadily before our eyes that more territory simply means more of the Anglo-Saxon race, more of the best, the most human, most honourable race the world possesses. (John Flint, Cecil Rhodes p. 24).
The very fact Rhodes used “Anglo-Saxon” race shows that he did not understand the Theory of Evolution and the atrocities he comitted cannot be put down to Darwinian thinking because, as stated, the Theory shows all Homo sapiens are equally evolved.
‘I could have pointed out the ways that Hitler and his Nazi philosophers used it to justify wars of expansion and horrific holocaust.’
Darwin often gets the blame for inspiring the Nazi eugenics and the Holocaust but the accusation is baseless. Indeed, the two links usually used as evidence are the fact that his half-cousin Francis Galton WAS a white supremacist who coined the word ‘eugenics’, and Darwin’s correspondence with Ernst Haeckel, a German biologist and champion of evolution.
However, it would be unfair to hold Darwin accountable for the sins of his half-cousin. And secondly, Haeckel was not the inspiration for the Nazis eugenics programme, as is regularly claimed. In fact, the Nazis dismissed his work entirely. Their atrocities were not done in the name of Darwinism at all.
‘The British example is enough to make us question whether Charles Darwin was truly a British hero at all. At the very least, we should strip him of his place on our £10 banknote and stop protecting his thinking from the scrutiny it deserves to receive in school classrooms, on TV documentaries and in the corridors of power.’
There are two arguments going on here. Should we venerate a man who said occasionally racist things in incredibly racist times?
And two, should his Theory of Evolution be dismissed as a result of these things?
Firstly, despite Darwin’s occasional lapses into cultural, Eurocentrist racist rhetoric, he was actually more progressive than most of his peers at the time. He was stridently anti-slavery, coming into conflict many times with the pro-slavery captain of HMS Beagle, Capt FitzRoy.
If we are to dismiss the work of everyone who lived in Imperial Britain, which was an inherently racist place in an inherently racist time, then we are to wipe out huge swathes of scientific discovery. The Theory of Evolution has enabled us to learn more about the world, and has been the catalyst driving every major medical advance in the past 150 years.
Again I shall point out, even if Charles Darwin ate babies for breakfast, it doesn’t make the science behind the Theory of Evolution any less solid.
‘Who would you rather discover was right all along? The Christian reformers of the early nineteenth century, like William Wilberforce and the Earl of Shaftesbury, who argued from belief in divine creation that slaves should be set free and that children should not be forced to work themselves to death in the factories for having been born to the wrong parents?
Pitting Christian reformers of slavery and the anti-slavery Darwin at polar opposites of the scale is misleading and insulting.
Were the likes of Wilberforce and Shaftesbury really driven by Christian beliefs? Their arguments for ending slavery seem more Humanist to me. They certainly don’t come from the Bible, which, as we know, has long lists of rules about how to buy and treat your slaves. I particularly like this beauty from Exodus 21:20-21… “When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.”
‘Or Charles Darwin, who argued from his belief in a godless beginning to the universe that natural selection was a virtue and that, consequently, acts of genocide were part and parcel of the way the world was always supposed to be?’
This too is disingenuous claptrap, as the author is inferring that any biological scientist or anyone who even believes the Theory of Evolution to be true, automatically thinks that genocide is OK, even virtuous. This is insulting nonsense.
Firstly, natural selection, is not and has not been argued as being, a virtue as such. That it is just the way things are, is true.
However, this does not justify genocide and does not mean genocide is merely part and parcel of life.
For one of the the most incredibly interesting things about evolution I find, is how morality has evolved over time. Basic morals – like Do not kill; Do not steal etc were not handed down on stone tablets on Mount Sinai but rather have been ingrained in us through millions of years of biological evolution. Those weird little mammals you see on Walking With Dinosaurs soon discovered that if they were murderous or violent or unfaithful or showed signs of kleptomania, they’d likely be shunned from their society and would be less likely to survive long enough to pass on their genes. We have evolved along these lines.
However, biological evolution among big animals like us is soooo slow and sooooo imperceptible, that genocide is not an evolutionary thing. It is a cultural thing. And as a Brit, like the author, I realise we now live in a culture that should be more tolerant, more caring and, yes, more civilised, ironically, than the culture in Darwin’s England.
That means opposing genocide on moral grounds. Morals evolve quicker than biology in some cases, and they are different according to different cultures – for example treatment of women, gays etc.
We can argue against genocide. It is not something that is the way of the world. Morally today, the idea of genocide is repugnant and rightly punished severely under international law.
Darwin’s detached views on the topic are hard to take, sure, but he lived within a different culture. And he certainly didn’t advocate or justify it.
Godlessness does not mean we should embrace genocide. Yes, it seems more than likely that humans are generally meaningless in the context of the Universe. But it does not mean humans cannot and do not create their own meaning – that other people, nature, hobbies are not meaningful to us.
The premise that without a God for which there is no evidence and who doesn’t intervene in human affairs, we’d all be murdering on a massive scale, doesn’t hold up.
‘In the words of Jesus Christ himself: “By their fruits you will be able to judge their teaching.’”
Yes, but Darwin’s fruit is not that genocide is AOK. His teaching, in terms of the Theory of Evolution, is sound. And this would be the case even in the event that Darwin was “a British villain”.