What Your Biology Teacher Didn’t Tell You About Charles Darwin image

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.”

Archived comments

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    By Michael Bigg on 18/01/2013 at 11:34

    I have just written a lengthy reply which I couldn’t submit and then had disappeared when I hit “Back”. In summary:

    You quote “Descent of Man” with an elipsis that skips some 6,700 words. Your quote implies that Darwin actively approves of genocide but such a large elipsis breaks down my trust. I don’t think Darwin promotes genocide at all here. You also misquote Jesus at the end…

    Secondly, you place what we would like to be true ahead of what is actually true. The appalling conclusions people have drawn from evolution by natural selection (possibly Darwin included) make not a shred of difference to whether Darwin was right about natural selection.

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    By joseph Whittaker on 18/01/2013 at 14:30

    I see where you are coming from in terms of the problem of evil etc.
    And, I am not a Darwinist by any stretch of the imagination but, I can see where this line of reasoning may be rejected by secular Darwinists. 
    The trouble is, people have used things as an excuse to commit unthinkable acts for ages and ages. 
    You see the same in the history of Christianity and anywhere where a value system becomes a set of fundamental ideologies.
    The short of it is that, fundamentalism, in any guise is wrong but, it isn’t the source materials fault.
    Darwin wasn’t himself an advocate of genocide.

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    By David Jones on 18/01/2013 at 19:21

    The Bible HAS been used to justify genocide & slavery! But abuse of truth does not have to result in the rejection of truth.

    Presumably the same would approach would apply to evolution i.e. we judge the evidence not the abuse of the evidence?

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    By Nathan F. on 19/01/2013 at 00:34

    Next week’s article… “What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You About Ad Hominem.”

    We could also do follow-ups on “The Anti-Semitic Bigotry of Martin Luther,” or “The Sexual Promiscuity of the US Founding Fathers.” 

    The point being, obviously, that you can’t dismiss someone’s ideology on the basis of whether they were a nice person.  It will not do to try to discredit Darwin by talking about his personality flaws.  That’s intellectually lazy.  What’s needed is a critical analysis of what he said/wrote.

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    By Gordon Hudson on 19/01/2013 at 11:06

    This analysis is a bit disingenuous coming from someone who is presumably OK with the genocide perpetrated by God in the Old Testament. By your fruits shall he know them indeed.

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    By Jonathan on 19/01/2013 at 13:55

    Excellent post. Keep it up!

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    By Stevie Jackson on 19/01/2013 at 14:37

    This debate will go and on for many years to come but fundamentally it is the crux of Creation or Evilution !!!!
    There is now so much proof there was a man called Jesus Christ who lived and was crucified and now also so much being revealed that says all of mans theories are wrong and need to be re evaluated take for instance the theory of relativity since the so called GOD particle has been found thus making redundant that same theory OH NO is the reply it just needs to be re adjusted to WHAT!!!
    Wether we like it or not being a Christian makes sense because it allows LOVE COMPASSION TRUST ACCEPTANCE to abound in the world and it is the non believers that benefit from it all
    Shalom to you all

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    By AvgSteve on 19/01/2013 at 16:44

    Let’s say you started a club. Later down the road some of the members decided not to follow the rules of the club. You kick them out. God didn’t tell the Israelites to kill people that were participating in the club, because they were of another race, He told the Israelites to kill them because they were not following club rules. God didn’t care what they looked like or where they came from as long as they followed the clubs rules. Its His club. Not genocide! Also nothing in the Old/New Testaments tells believers that they are a superior race that must dominate/kill the unbelievers!(like islam) Darwin encouraged certain people to believe that their “Club” was more evolved then other “clubs”. Less or not Human. Which is exactly what we did with slaves in the past and now babies!

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    By Tara on 19/01/2013 at 18:02

    Ditto to this. ^^^^^^^

    AvgSteve makes a great analogy. It wasn’t genocide that was supported in the OT.

    Were the Jews sacrificing their children in Nazi Germany? Having temple prostitution?
    God had reasons for exterminating people groups and it had everything to do with their sin.

    Also- don’t forget how patient our God is with sin. He waits. And waits. And waits…..before he judges. Satan wants us to think the mass murder found in the OT is wrong, but he is a liar.

    I know this isn’t exactly what the article is about, but I think Christians get very uncomfortable talking about the blood spilt in the OT without thinking God was being a little too harsh. We need to reorient our thinking.

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    By Thisoneguy on 19/01/2013 at 21:49

    As a Calvinist, I often here one phrase from other people, “You’re a Calvinist huh? Didn’t Calvin have 32 people killed? And didn’t the other reformer, Luther hate Jews?” Beyond just the fathers of the reformation, our other brothers and sisters were slave owners and have done other terrible things. Now clearly one thing that sets these men and woman from Darwin is the fact that they received God’s grace, but that’s not the point here. We’re thankful for those people because despite their depravity, they have given us sound theology. That’s how evolutionist look at Darwin. Anyone evolutionist today would tell you, “Sure Darwinism is messed up. We don’t want that. Why do you think we’re liberal? The every man for himself lifestyle doesn’t work.” So clearly this argument against Darwin is a moot point. I think it’s best to stick to the root of the discussion: Theology and science.

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    By Melvyn Reader on 20/01/2013 at 17:01

    Phil – thanks for posting your view on Darwin, which I found interesting and worth reading, even if I found I couldn’t agree with the overall position you seemed to be advocating. Like you, I certainly regard social Darwinism as a morally abhorrent ideology, which has borne large amounts of harmful and poisonous fruit (eugenics, laissez-faire economics, racial prejudice, fascism etc.).

    However, if (as you seemed to be arguing) we are to judge the validity of any claimed scientific discovery or theory mainly on the basis of the personal morals or ideology of their discoverers / proposers, as well as their potential long-term social consequences or misuse, then I suspect the entire scientific enterprise would have to be dismantled and cast into the dustbin of history.

    For example, given that the concept of the atom was first proposed by atheistic Greek philosophers, such as Democritus and Leucippus, and then used by them to promote a materialistic world view, shouldn’t we as Christians be attacking the very idea of atoms? And doesn’t the invention of the atomic bomb – the most destructive device ever created by humans – lend further credence to the view that atomic theory is intrinsically wrong (if not ‘from the devil’) and should be entirely abandoned?  Whether or not they agree with atomic theory, wouldn’t Christians at least want to discover that it is wrong?

    I’m sure I could think of many other examples that would similarly illustrate the shortcomings of such an approach to judging the validity of different findings / theories in the field of natural science (social science is another matter!). I’m also sure I could find many reputable Evangelical scholars who would also agree that this kind of approach is not sustainable.

    For example, in his commentary on Titus 1:12, Calvin famously stated: “All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God.” Similarly in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (II.2.15), Calvin argued: “Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears.”

    Anyway, I appreciate your willingness to express your views on this subject, but would like to point out that believing in the full inerrancy of the Bible does not automatically commit a person to being a Young Earth Creationist and to rejecting the theory of evolution in its entirety. Nor does the adoption of an evolutionary creation perspective necessarily result in the abandonment of the view that humans are uniquely created in the image of God, and deserve to be treated as such. One only has to cite the names of John Stott and Tim Keller to realise this is the case.

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    By Bob Emery on 23/01/2013 at 12:24

    If you’re going to be honest about it, you should note Darwin’s adament oppostion to slavery, which is more than can be said for such Christian worthies as Dabney and Thorwell!  Take a look at Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution by Adrian Desmond; James Moore.

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    By michael mathews on 24/01/2013 at 13:47

    (second atempt at posting this)

    intresting read but I am going to have to disagree with you on sevral points

    1. you rigthley state that there was a lot of racisum and racile abuse and slavery at darwins time but you fail to demonstrate that darwin was anyworse that his time are we going to discard all or heros on the basis that there times where not perfect?

    2.  your arguments seam to be based on what others also of the same time and world views did with his idears are we to drop all heros on what others did with there idears do we drop all the pepolw ho worked on the frist experments with raidoactivity because we went on to build bombs out of them?

    3. you (or at least your examples) confuse fittness with strenght this is not rigth fittness in a darwinisum context means suited to the enviroment and in the conext of a socal species that can mean everything upto and including altrusium as that makes the group stronger and you as part of that group stronger

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    By Michael Irvine on 10/03/2013 at 19:19

    Christians try and turn Charles Darwin into a genocidal maniac whose theories make him responsible for the Holocaust . They completely ignore that Darwin was himself a Christian who wanted to be a priest originally.

    It’s like trying to blame The Vienna Academy for the Arts for WWII because they didn’t accept Hitler as a painting student.

    So we could say that Christians are responsible for the Holocaust, slavery, eugenics and genocide the world over because they didn’t accept Darwin into the seminary.

    What a load of hogwash.

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    By Dave Shakespeare on 17/03/2013 at 21:47

    This amazes me. Darwin may have had some views or ideas that weren’t great or that could be deemed as racist… Can we not apply the same thinking to the God of the bible? If the end result of natural selection is racism what is the end result of following a God who punishes his own children, gives us brutal rules for how to parent, treat slaves and treat women? Natural selection is an explanation for how we got to where we got in the natural history of the world. The bible is an exploration of the outrageous barbarism and imagination of mankind.