What Your Biology Teacher Didn’t Tell You About Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin is a great British hero. That's hardly surprising, since he was one of the greatest and most influential thinkers of the past two hundred years. I happened to live in the house opposite Charles Darwin's former lodgings when I was a student at Cambridge University, so I looked out each morning on a blue plaque hailing him as one of the greatest Britons who ever lived. Now I'm not saying that he didn't deserve that commemorative blue plaque on the wall, but 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. 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.
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. 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. (Vol II, pp. 796-797)
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. 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.
Victorian Britain was only too willing to accept Darwinian Evolution as the gospel of its overseas expansion. Darwin is still celebrated on the back of the British £10 note for his discovery of many new species on his visit to Australia, but 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. When the Australian newspaper argued that “the inexorable law of natural selection [justifies] exterminating the inferior Australian and Maori races ... The world is better for it” because failure to do so would actually be “promoting the non-survival of the fittest, protecting the propagation of the imprudent, the diseased, the defective and the criminal,” it was Christian missionaries who raised an outcry on behalf of this forgotten genocide. 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” (quoted in Nicholas and Nicholas Charles Darwin in Australia p. 97).
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).
I have used British examples in this blog because I am British, and it seems to me to be more polite to point out the errors in my own national worldview than it is in that of other nations. I could have pointed out the way that Charles Darwin’s thinking was used by late-nineteenth-century Americans to justify acts of genocide against Native Americans. I could have pointed out the ways that Hitler and his Nazi philosophers used it to justify wars of expansion and horrific holocaust. I could have pointed out the ways that Communist Russia used Darwinian evolution to justify its liquidation of non-Russian people groups within the Soviet empire. I could have pointed out the way it was used by Serbs to justify their genocide against Croatians and Kosovans.
But I don’t have to. 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.
Because, whether or not you agree with his thoughts on evolution, you should at the very least want to discover that he was wrong.
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?
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?
In the words of Jesus Christ himself: “By their fruits you will be able to judge their teaching.”