Edward Larson, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Scopes trial (which I highly recommend), writes in Bookforum about the influence of racism on Darwin's thinking. Creationists argue (as most recently exemplified in Ben Stein's widely panned film Expelled) that "practically all the harmful practices and deadly philosophies that plague mankind have their roots and pseudo-rationale in evolutionism." To these people, in this year of big Darwin bicentennial celebrations,  "all the hoopla must seem like throwing a birthday party for Hitler."

On the other hand,

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.

In the US creation/evolution battles, Darwin is frequently blamed for racism, which is ironic considering that in many of the states where opposition to evolution is strongest, Jim Crow took a long time to loose his grip.  The tears shed by some of Darwin's contemporary critics over racism tend to be of the crocodile sort.

There is another incongruity in these claims: to suggest that Darwin's scientific ideas are the foundation of racism, immorality, Fascism and Communism, and neglect of the poor is to blithely ignore the fact that most of the social ills Darwin's ideas are supposedly responsible for have been around long before Darwin was born.

Larson reviews two books that deal with the subject of Darwin and race. Larson questions the argument made in one book that Darwin was strongly motivated by a desire to debunk pro-slavery theories of separate racial origins. The record is clear that Darwin despised slavery, but how much he was inspired by his abhorrence of it is unsettled.

Before Darwin came along, slave-holders and other racists in the US had come up with plenty of pseudo-scientific theories to justify their peculiar institution. That some of them later latched on to non-scientific notions about evolution to find new ways to justify their prejudice suggests that Social Darwinism (more appropriately called Spencerism, after the British philosopher who pushed the idea) was just the latest excuse for, and not a cause of racism.

As Larson points out, discoveries in evolutionary biology tell us that we are all family, that human races were not created separately, nor are differences in skin color the result of God's cursings. More recent discoveries tell us that as a family, humans are genetically close-knit when compared with the diversity found in many animal species.

Not only are humans family, but we are connected, through genealogy, to all life on this planet. That profound idea, a direct result of Darwin's thinking, is something worth celebrating.