Via Ed Driscoll comes a link to an op-ed about the relationship between Darwin and racism in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Dr. Tony Campolo, a minister and professor of sociology at Eastern University. I find the op-ed interesting because virtually every statement about Darwin in the piece is dead wrong.
“Those who argue at school board meetings that Darwin should be taught in public schools seldom have taken the time to read him. If they knew the full title of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life, they might have gained some inkling of the racism propagated by this controversial theorist.”
Campolo seems unaware that the word “race” has shifted meaning since the mid-1800s. Today, race means “ethnic group” but in Darwin’s day, the words “race”, “breed”, “species” and “subspecies” were often used interchangeably because scientists of the day lacked a modern understanding of genetics. For example, in Origin (p22-23) Darwin writes:
It has often been loosely said that all our races of dogs have been produced by the crossing of a few aboriginal species but by crossing we can only get forms in some degree intermediate between their parents and if we account for our several domestic races by this process we must admit the former existence of the most extreme forms as the Italian greyhound bloodhound bull dog &c in the wild state. Moreover, the possibility of making distinct races by crossing has been greatly exaggerated. Many cases are on record showing that a race may be modified by occasional crosses if aided by the careful selection of the individuals which present the desired character but to obtain a race intermediate between two quite distinct races would be very difficult. The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection Or, The Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life By Charles Darwin [Emphasis added.]
Clearly, in the subtitle Darwin is just using “race” as a synonym for “species” or “breed”. (As a side note, the use of race to mean sub-species really brings home how alien people in the 1800s considered those of another race to be.)
Next Campolo says that:
Had they actually read Origin, they likely would be shocked to learn that among Darwin’s scientifically based proposals was the elimination of “the negro and Australian peoples,” which he considered savage races whose continued survival was hindering the progress of civilization
Had Campolo actually read Origin he would have known that: (1) the quoted phrase, “the negro and Australian peoples,” does not appear anywhere in the book and (2) Darwin intentionally shied away from the entire subject of humanity in Origin because he thought the subject too provocative. Darwin didn’t say anything about either the past or future of human evolution in Origin.
In his next book, The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin ranked races in terms of what he believed was their nearness and likeness to gorillas.
Nope, in fact, Darwin goes out of his way to note that even the most “savage” of humans differers significantly both in anatomy and behavior from apes. (Descent p33) Darwin would have never made such an argument in any case because natural selection theory does not have any concept of “higher” or “lower” evolution. Similarity between gorillas and humans doesn’t imply inferiority from the perspective of natural selection. That concept came out of a competing theory called orthogenesis which Darwin rejected. Darwin argued that most differences between races were trivial and he thought such differences arose from sexual selection. He spent half of the book explaining how sexual selection worked.
Then he went on to propose the extermination of races he “scientifically” defined as inferior. If this were not done, he claimed, those races, with much higher birthrates than “superior” races, would exhaust the resources needed for the survival of better people, eventually dragging down all civilization.
Darwin never argued for the extermination of anyone. Neither did he believe such action necessary. He believed that the “superior” civilized races would overwhelm “savage” races and drive them to extinction. (Descent p193) Such a position seemed to be only common sense for a man who lived in a time when civilized and uncivilized people often collided to the detriment of the uncivilized.
Darwin even argued that advanced societies should not waste time and money on caring for the mentally ill, or those with birth defects. To him, these unfit members of our species ought not to survive.
No, Darwin argued just the opposite. After acknowledging that saving the unfit would weaken the entire species over time, he nevertheless argued:
The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts but subsequently rendered in the manner previously indicated more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy if so urged by hard reason without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself while performing an operation for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless it could only be for a contingent benefit with a certain and great present evil. Hence, we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely the weaker and inferior members of society not marrying so freely as the sound and this check might be indefinitely increased, though this is more to be hoped for than expected, by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage The Descent of man By Charles Darwin [Emphasis added.]
Darwin’s ideas were complicit in the rise of Nazi ideas. Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson, in her insightful essay on Darwin, points out that the German nationalist and anti-Semitic writer Heinrich von Treitschke and the biologist Ernst Haeckel also drew on Darwin’s writings to justify racism, nationalism and harsh policies toward the poor and less privileged.
Ernst Haeckel, the grandfather of Nazi biological mysticism, was actually a Lamarckian who believed that organisms acquired traits through use. He vigorously rejected Darwin’s core idea that evolution began with diversity and variation. For Haeckel, variation represented only degenerative deviation from an ideal form.
Although communist, fascist and various lesser authoritarians claimed to embrace Darwin and natural selection, in reality they merely used the general idea of naturalistic origins of humanity as a crude ideological cudgel with which to attack traditional religion-based social orders. Otherwise, they rejected or ignored the actual functional details of how Darwin argued that natural selection worked. They could not have done otherwise, because natural selection is driven by variation between individuals and by individual success or failure in fitting into the immediate environment. The theory inherently clashes with authoritarian models that seek to enforce uniformity and suppress free experimentation and which claim an eternal and ultimate truth.
A lot of people projected their own desires and needs onto the general idea of evolution just as many projected their desires and needs onto the tenets of various religions. Darwin is not responsible for or associated with such projections anymore than the historical Jesus is responsible for the Crusades or pre-Enlightenment anti-Semitic mass murders.
Campolo got everything wrong. Worse, he got things wrong which he could have gotten right with just a little honest research. For someone who claims to be both a minister and a professor, Campolo seems uninterested in fulfilling the basic responsibilities of either vocation.