Was Darwin Racist?

By today’s standards, sure.  Charles Darwin referred to the Fuegians he encountered while on the Beagle (as well as other non-European peoples) as “savages”.  However, judging Darwin as a racist working from a “modern” perspective is not only bad historical practice, but it is also doing a disservice to Darwin’s views in general.  If one wishes to truly answer the question mentioned in the title of this post, namely “was Darwin racist?”, it is necessary to consider the question in context, alongside the views of other 19th Century Europeans, not alongside the views of today’s racial moderates.  By using today’s standards on race to condemn Darwin as a racist is merely to remind yourself that Darwin lived during the 1800s.  Now let’s take a look at the question in context with the time period in question.

Charles Darwin, born on the same date as Abraham Lincoln, though an ocean away, was vehemently anti-slavery.  His family background, especially on the Wedgewood side, is an abolitionist one.  In fact, it has been recently suggested by Desmond and Moore in their new book, Darwin’s Sacred Cause (review available here), that a hatred of slavery helped to shape Darwin’s views on evolution. Working with Desmond and Moore’s definitive work, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, it’s easy to find examples of Darwin’s hatred of slavery.  For example, Darwin saw slavery as evil enough to condemn in the final pages of what would become his Voyage of the Beagle (as quoted p. 329 Desmond and Moore):

I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave country.  To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco [Brazil], I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not suspect that some poor slave was being tortured…Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal.  I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip (before I could interfere) on his naked head, for having handed me a glass of water not quite clean.”

However, while this statement can be rightly taken as a hatred of slavery, a study of Darwin the man suggests a different plausible reading of this statement.  Perhaps Darwin hated the cruelty of slavery, but not the racism behind it.  Darwin was, after all, a gentle man, who described feeling a sense of guilt late in life at having kicked a puppy as a child.  To fully understand Darwin’s position on race, we have to look at situations where Darwin is discussing topics other than the evils of slavery. 

Perhaps the most notable such statement of this type is to be found in the Origin of Species, p.488, first edition, where Darwin (perhaps cryptically to today’s reader) “[l]ight will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” What seems like merely an allusion to the fact that Darwin’s theory would encompass human evolution can be read, in context, as something more.  The fact that Darwin is referring to a single origin of mankind stands as a direct refutation to polygenist schools of thought which argued that the different races of man were different species. Louis Agassiz, the last great Creationist to garner a large amount of scientific prestige, was a member of this school of thought, which was used to justify slavery, among other things. Thus, what is often read as Darwin desanctifying humans by relating them directly to an evolutionary sequence can be read in the reverse direction, with Darwin elevating “savages” and slaves to the same species as white Europeans.  Darwin, while confident that there were different “stages of civilization”, from “savage” to Englishman, took a step against a strain of Victorian racist thought by uniting all humans under the same linaeage. Therefore, while the Origin of Species (rightly so) stands as an important work in the history of popular science, it also serves as a direct refutation to racist attitudes of Darwin’s time. 

Thus, the next time someone accuses Darwin of being openly racist, ask them about his views on race.  Ask perhaps why they feel that way, and by what standard they are judging him.  As demonstrated by Darwin’s views on slavery and the “origin of man,” Darwin was a racial moderate by Victorian standards, not a racist.

Works cited:

Darwin, C.  On the Origin of Species, facsimile of 1st edition.  Harvard University Press. Cambridge. 2003.

Desmond, A. & Moore, J.  Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. W.W. Norton & Company. New York.1994

Explore posts in the same categories: 1800s, evolution, history of science

2 Comments on “Was Darwin Racist?”

  1. darwinsbulldog Says:

    Nice post – I am looking forward to reading ‘Darwin’s Sacred Cause,’ when I can get to it…

    • darwinaia Says:

      I’m working my way through it right now. It’s extremely well-written, with good detail (as is to be expected by Desmond and Moore). Well worth reading.

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