Feb/Mar 2009

Prejudiced Results

Two views of how Darwin approached the race question

Edward J. Larson


In 2001, the Education Committee of the Louisiana House of Representatives passed a resolution rejecting “the core concepts of Darwinist ideology that certain races and classes of humans are inherently superior to others.” The resolution’s sponsor, an African-American Democratic legislator, asserted that by teaching “that some humans have evolved further than others,” the nineteenth-century English naturalist Charles Darwin “provided the main rationale for modern racism.” Upping the ante, Expelled, last year’s documentary-style motion picture by entertainer Ben Stein, who is Jewish, blamed the Holocaust on Nazi racism rooted in Darwinian science.

These claims have long enjoyed currency in America’s influential evangelical sub-culture, where opposition to Darwinism runs deep. From the 1940s until his death in 2006, Henry M. Morris, who founded the Institute for Creation Research with megachurch minister and best-selling author Tim LaHaye, wrote and lectured widely about the supposed social consequences of believing in Darwin’s theory of organic evolution rather than the biblical account of special creation. In one representative series, the Modern Creation Trilogy, Morris complains that “practically all the harmful practices and deadly philosophies that plague mankind have their roots and pseudo-rationale in evolutionism.”

This dire view of Darwin and his works must prompt some creationists to wonder about the spate of laudatory conferences, exhibits, and programs scheduled to celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth on February 12, 1809. In Britain, home to the greatest concentration of such festivities, Darwin’s image appears on the ten-pound note, and his home is a national landmark. To his more polemically minded religious critics, all the hoopla must seem like throwing a birthday party for Hitler. Nevertheless, most scientists and virtually all biologists view life through the lens of Darwin’s theory of organic evolution by natural selection. They typically hail him as a dogged researcher and brilliant theorist who exemplified the best practices of a modern scientist. These supporters often see his theory, when applied to humans, as a means to unify the races under a common ancestry and find a shared ethic for all peoples.

Given both Darwin’s scientific stature and the resonance of the religious disputes surrounding the theory of evolution, it’s no surprise that accounts of his life and work fuel a robust cottage industry. Two new books—initial entries in a stable of forthcoming bicentennial-minded studies—creatively reexamine the nineteenth-century sources and uses of Darwinism in its most contentious arena: the controversies over slavery and racism.

With Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Adrian Desmond and James Moore execute the notable feat of authoring a second revisionist biography of the same man. Their ab-sorbing Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (1991) presented the naturalist’s story as a lifelong struggle with religion that ended in a gentle but firm agnosticism. Now, Desmond and Moore are back with a book that should surprise those who see Darwin as the father of modern racism. Without rebaptizing him into the church, Darwin’s Sacred Cause puts him in the same congregation with those nineteenth-century British and American evangelicals who led the crusade against slavery.

Like such recent best-selling histories as Erik Larson’s delightful The Devil in the White City, the authors shift between two concurrent story lines, in this case Darwin’s biography and the saga of the Anglo-American abolition movement, with emphasis on their points of intersection. Both are grand tales, and they complement each other in the telling—even if the connections seem strained at times. For example, without conclusive evidence, the authors suggest that Darwin studied the ability of seeds to reproduce after immersion in seawater as a means of refuting naturalist Louis Agassiz—and solely because Darwin wished to undermine Agassiz’s proslavery theory of separate creations for species and races. However, oceanic dispersal of seeds is needed for evolution to account for the geographic distribution of plants, and that alone could more simply justify Darwin’s study of it.

Desmond and Moore highlight two underappreciated themes. First, from the outset of his work on evolution, Darwin was mainly interested in the origin and development of the human species. This was obscured by his tactical decision not to dwell on that sensitive subject in On the Origin of Speciesbut as the authors show, his earliest scientific writings reveal a preoccupation with human evolution. Indeed, they write, “it was in Tierra del Fuego, perplexed and troubled by an alien race [of primitive humans], that Darwin decided to spend his life studying natural science.” His subsequent notebooks are filled with comparisons of these and other peoples with apes and higher primates. This book dispels the legend, long attached to retrospective accounts of Darwin’s research, that the great scientist’s interest in evolution was spurred by Galapagos finches. It was people all along.

Second, despite his often-blunt comments about Fuegians and other aboriginal peoples—whom he depicted as doomed in their struggle for survival against Europeans—Darwin shared his family’s abhorrence of slavery. Desmond and Moore connect these two themes in his life to argue that the moral passion firing his work derived from his desire to undermine the support for slavery provided by antebellum theories of separate creations for the races. These pluralist theories, which also aroused the ire of biblical literalists, derived mostly from the self-serving view of Southern slaveholders and their apologists that human races, like biological species, never change. Yet Desmond and Moore concede that Darwin maintained a hierarchical view of race and made ribald references in his writing to “Slave-making” ants. Ample evidence exists of other reasons for Darwin’s interest in evolution. Desmond and Moore mainly show that Darwin appreciated the value of his theory to counter pluralist theories of race. By doing so, they shed welcome light on lesser-known features of Darwin’s work, while also providing an exceptionally crisp account of mid-nineteenth-century debates over the origins of racial differences.

Where Desmond and Moore artfully balance two narratives to advance a strong thesis, in Banquet at Delmonico’s Barry Werth jumps around among a dozen or so concurrent story lines to provide a patchwork chronicle of the American intelligentsia from 1871 to 1882. With each chapter covering the events of one year, the result is a lively but disjointed popular history of a deeply conservative age. The book opens just as laissez-faire capitalism has concentrated unprecedented wealth in the hands of Northern industrialists, Civil War–era dreams of black opportunity have faded into post-Reconstruction acceptance of Southern white supremacy, the US Army has almost completed the process of penning Native Americans into reservations, and a philosophy of social Darwinism has emerged to justify all of these developments as natural, inevitable, and even benevolent. If, as Desmond and Moore suggest, Darwin viewed his theory as an argument for treating humans equally—and such a claim remains dubious—then Werth shows that it did not necessarily have that immediate effect on American social thought.

Darwin appropriately gives way in Werth’s account to British social philosopher Herbert Spencer as the key mediating figure in the triumph of evolutionism in the New World. Although Darwin’s work enabled evolutionary theory to prevail in the scientific comunity, Spencer’s popular philosophy gave a social meaning to evolutionism that inspired such influential Americans as industrialist Andrew Carnegie, sociologist William Graham Sumner, historian John Fiske, politician Carl Schurz, paleontologist O. C. Marsh, attorney William Evarts, and pastor Henry Ward Beecher. Werth’s book follows each of these characters through the twelve-year period that culminated in their celebratory 1882 banquet for Spencer, hosted by his American publisher, Edward Livingston Youmans, at New York’s elegant Delmonico’s restaurant.

Darwin never banqueted in the United States, but he appears in Werth’s book interacting with his American supporters and critics, some of whom are also featured in Darwin’s Sacred Cause facing off in antebellum debates over slavery and racial origins. Both books remind us of the complex social uses of Darwinism, some good and some bad. Banquet at Delmonico’s concludes with evolutionism ascendant among American intellectuals even as lawmakers had begun to usher in an era of racial segregation and eugenic sterilization. The link between Darwinism, slavery, and modern racism remains highly disputed, however, and these books will not resolve the argument. If Werth had chosen to investigate American thought more broadly, he would also have found unrelenting opposition to Darwinism among conservative Christians. Many of these American anti-evolutionists were at least as racist as some of their pro-evolution counterparts.

Neither science nor religion offers any guarantee against bigotry or racism. Their social impact largely follows from what we make of them. That is at least one lesson to be gleaned from the ongoing battles between creationists and evolutionists over the moral implications of Darwinism. Another is that, even though the baldly racialist tenor of the debate has largely subsided, the struggles launched in the nineteenth century over evolutionism remain very much with us— even in this year of Darwin’s bicentennial.

Edward J. Larson is the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Summer for the Gods (Basic Books, 1997).

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