Politically Correcticizing Darwin
Print Friendly and PDF

A featured review, "Charles Darwin, Abolitionist," by Christopher Benfey, a professor of English, in the Feb. 1, 2009 New York Times Sunday Book Review asserts:

Two arresting new books, timed to co­incide with Darwin’s 200th birthday, make the case that his epochal achievement in Victorian England can best be under­stood in relation to events — involving neither tortoises nor finches — on the other side of the Atlantic. Both books confront the touchy subject of Darwin and race head on; both conclude that Darwin, despite the pernicious spread of “social Darwinism” (the notion, popularized by Herbert Spencer, that human society progresses through the “survival of the fittest”), was no racist.

Adrian Desmond and James Moore published a highly regarded biography of Darwin in 1991. The argument of their new book, “Darwin’s Sacred Cause,” is bluntly stated in its subtitle: “How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution.” They set out to overturn the widespread view that Darwin was a “tough-minded scientist” who unflinchingly followed the trail of empirical research until it led to the stunning and unavoidable theory of evolution. This narrative, they claim, is precisely backward. “Darwin’s starting point,” they write, “was the abolitionist belief in blood kinship, a ‘common descent’ ” of all human beings. ...

This is getting American intellectual history confused. The polygenetic theory of human origins tended to appeal to Northern intellectuals, while Southerners didn't have much time for it since the Old Testament clearly lays out a monogenetic history of humanity going back to Adam and Eve, with the races being descended from Noah's various sons.

Darwin did spend a number of pages in The Descent of Man considering whether the races were different species before concluding that the different races were, indeed, just different races. If, however, DNA structure co-discoverer James Watson had mentioned in public some of the evidence that Darwin considers on this question, he wouldn't have been fired. He would have been burned at the stake.

(Here's my 1999 article from the National Post of Toronto: "Darwin's Enemies on the Left: Truth v. Equality.")

It's all muddled in Benfey's head because contemporary dogma insists that anyone who believes there are any difference on average between races is in favor of slavery (which then makes stamping out their ideas a moral necessity — If Charles Murray, say, is not exposed to nonstop hatred and lies, the Slave Trade will automatically be re-initiated.)

Even Darwin’s courtship of Emma, whom he winningly called the “most interesting specimen in the whole series of vertebrate animals,” is cleverly interwoven with his developing thoughts on “sexual selection,” the aesthetic preference for certain traits, like skin color in humans or plumage in peacocks, that over time leads to those super­ficial variations we mistakenly think of as “racial.”

But what if Darwin’s evidence had led to conclusions that did not support his belief in the unitary origins of mankind? Would he have fudged the data? Desmond and Moore don’t really address the question. One is left with the impression that Darwin was amazingly lucky that his benevolent preconceptions turned out to fit the facts.

In his lively and wide-ranging “Angels and Ages,” Adam Gopnik suggests that when facts and values clash we might live in accordance with our beliefs anyway. “It might be true — there is absolutely no such evidence, but it might be true — that different ethnic groups, or sexes, have on average different innate aptitudes for math or science,” he muses. “We might decide to even things out, give some people extra help toward that end, or we might decide just to live with the disparity.” ...

Gopnik is as convinced as Desmond and Moore that Darwin was no kind of racist. “The one thing that you could not read into Darwin’s writings was racism,” he writes.

Have any of these people actually read Darwin's The Descent of Man? If Darwin were alive today, he'd be demonized like James Watson was in 2007. Let's try a few samples:

There is however no doubt that the various races when carefully compared and measured differ much from each other as in the texture of the hair, the relative proportions of all parts of the body, the capacity of the lungs the form, and capacity of the skull, and even in the convolutions of the brain. But it would be an endless task to specify the numerous points of difference The races differ also in constitution in acclimatisation and in liability to certain diseases Their mental characteristics are likewise very distinct chiefly as it would appear in their emotional but partly in their intellectual faculties Every one who has had the opportunity of comparison must have been struck with the contrast between the taciturn, even morose, aborigines of S. America and the light-hearted talkative negroes. Link

Darwin was an IQ hawk before the invention of the IQ test:

The variability or diversity of the mental faculties in men of the same race, not to mention the greater differences between the men of distinct races, is so notorious that not a word need here be said. Link

The influence of Darwin's younger half-cousin, the much denounced Sir Francis Galton, coiner of the term "eugenics" and author of the 1869 book Hereditary Genius, on Darwin's 1871 Descent of Man is evident just from the index of Darwin's book:


For example:

With man, we see similar facts in almost every family, and we now know through the admirable labours of Mr Galton that genius, which implies a wonderfully complex combination of high faculties, tends to be inherited, and on the other hand it is too certain that insanity and deteriorated mental powers likewise run in families... Link

And here's Darwin sounding like a cross between Galton, Malthus, and Gregory Clark of 2007's A Farewell to Alms:

We will now look to the intellectual faculties; if in each grade of society the members were divided into two equal bodies the one including the intellectually superior and the other the inferior there can be little doubt that the former would succeed best in all occupations and rear a greater number of children. Even in the lowest walks of life skill and ability must be of some advantage, though in many occupations owing to the great division of labour, a very small one Hence in civilised nations there will be some tendency to an increase both in the number and in the standard of the intellectually able. But I do not wish to assert that this tendency may not be more than counterbalanced in other ways, as by the multiplication of the reckless and improvident, but even to such as these ability must be some advantage. ... When in any nation the standard of intellect and the number of intellectual men have increased we may expect from the law of the deviation from an average that prodigies of genius will, as shewn by Mr Galton. appear somewhat more frequently than before Link

Darwin advanced a theory of group selection:

A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes and as morality is one important element in their success the standard of morality and the number of well endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase.


Natural Selection as affecting Civilised Nations — I have hitherto only considered the advancement of man from a semi human condition to that of the modern savage But some remarks on the action of natural selection on civilised nations may be worth adding This subject has been ably discussed by ... W.K. Greg and previously by Mr Wallace and Mr Galton. Most of my remarks are taken from these three authors. With savages the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health We civilised men on the other hand do our utmost to check the process of elimination...

Here's a particularly amusing part of The Descent of Man:

"Or as Mr Greg puts the case: "The careless squalid unaspiring Irishman multiplies like rabbits; the frugal foreseeing self respecting ambitious Scot, stern in his morality, spiritual in his faith, sagacious, and disciplined in his intelligence, passes his best years in struggle and in celibacy marries late and leaves few behind him. Given a land originally peopled by a thousand Saxons and a thousand Celts, and in a dozen generations five sixths of the population would be Celts but five sixths of the property of the power of the intellect would belong to the one sixth of Saxons that remained. In the eternal struggle for existence, it would be the inferior and less favoured race that had prevailed and prevailed by virtue not of its good qualities but of its faults." There are however some checks to this downward tendency ... Link

And Darwin goes on to lay out some Greg Clark-style caveats, but with no apology to the poor Irish.

And how about this?

"The remarkable success of the English as colonists compared to other European nations has been ascribed to their daring and persistent energy, a result which is well illustrated by comparing the progress of the Canadians of English and French extraction; but who can say how the English gained their energy? There is apparently much truth in the belief that the wonderful progress of the United States as well as the character of the people are the results of natural selection for the more energetic, restless, and courageous men from all parts of Europe have emigrated during the last ten or twelve generations to that great country and have there succeeded best. Looking to the distant future, I do not think that the Rev Mr Zincke takes an exaggerated view when he says: "All other series of events as that which resulted in the culture of mind in Greece and that which resulted in the empire of Rome only appear to have purpose and value when viewed in connection with, or rather as subsidiary to, the great stream of Anglo Saxon emigration to the west." Obscure as is the problem of the advance of civilisation, we can at least see that a nation which produced during a lengthened period the greatest number of highly intellectual, energetic, brave, patriotic, and benevolent men would generally prevail over less favoured nations." Link


On the other hand:

It even appears from what we see — for instance in parts of S. America — that a people which may be called civilised, such as the Spanish settlers, is liable to become indolent and to retrograde when the conditions of life are very easy. Link

Ay carumba ...

Print Friendly and PDF