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    Darwin And Racism
    By Michael White | January 19th 2009 09:50 PM | 11 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Michael

    Welcome to Adaptive Complexity, where I write about genomics, systems biology, evolution, and the connection between science and literature,

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    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.

    Comments

    Steve Davis
    Nicely put Michael. We need to keep reminding ourselves that we are products of our particular era, that those of us who consider ourselves as progressive thinkers, will in a century or so be regarded at the very least as quaint, and possibly reactionary. This is because knowledge keeps increasing as shown in the article. We have no way of knowing what will turn up in years to come, so it's best to keep comments balanced. 
    adaptivecomplexity
    We are products of our times, and Larson indicates that Darwin was a product of his. He opposed slavery, and his work on evolution convinced him that races were not separate creations. He was fairly progressive for his day, but he still held then-common beliefs about races that many of us would cringe at today.

    I should emphasize the qualifier I put into my post:  resistance to evolution doesn't only come from states with the most racist legacies. California has been where some big creation/evolution battles have been thought, and the Intelligent Design home at the Discovery Institute is in Seattle.

    But think of Bob Jones University - until it's recent image makeover, it was both unabashedly creationist and racist.
    Mike
    rholley
    Darwin wrote in Descent of Man:
    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.
    If I may go into Pagan mode for a moment, it would seem that the Gods have taken offence at this hubristic statement, and much of the subsequent history of England has been the payback. Particularly since WWII, successive governments, the present one above all, have been the instruments of Nemesis.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    adaptivecomplexity
    That is a priceless quote.
    Mike
    The word "racism" appears to be of twentieth-century vintage, based on an admittedly less than exhaustive search on my part. Its origin, definition(s) and use are hopelessly politicized, which is why I always bracket the word in double quotes.

    Is it "racist" to acknowledge that physical differences between human subgroups are more than skin deep, however "genetically close-knit" we are?

    That quote from Descent of Man is basically saying that the low drags down the high, rather than the high elevating the low. As a general principle of existence, I would have to concur.

    BTW, if you told East Asians that they were "racist," and they certainly are by any definition of the word, most would agree, and would see nothing wrong in it. This is no doubt why so many Japanese reject immigration as a "solution" to their demographic problem.

    (Note: the verifier never seems to work for me. Sorry.)

    adaptivecomplexity
    Is it "racist" to acknowledge that physical differences between human subgroups are more than skin deep, however "genetically close-knit" we are?
    Well, one issue here is that traditional race categories don't correlate very well with geniune human subpopulations. For example, the notion of a black race doesn't hold biologically - blacks native to Oceania - Austrialia, New Guinea, etc. are at least as genetically distinct from African blacks are white Europeans are, and black populations in Africa are genetically very diverse. So making a black/white racial distinction doesn't tell you much about the underlying genetics.
    Mike
    I realize that we often do reality an injustice by overlaying it with inadequate conceptual grids. But whatever categories we choose to employ, traditional or otherwise, differences between groups are still more than skin deep.

    adaptivecomplexity
    Differences between groups are still more than skin deep.


    It depends on what you mean. There are different genetic predispositions to disease in different populations, but claims about genetic differences in temperament or cognitive capability don't have much scientific support from rigorous genetic studies. Most genetic diversity does not fall along population lines.
    Mike
    For you people who are trying to bury the facts and lie to us by saying Darwin wasn't racist, please reply and explain some of the quotes from Decent of Man:

    1. At some future period not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes...will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest Allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as the baboon, instead of as now between the Negro or Australian and the gorilla (1874, p. 178).

    adaptivecomplexity
    No where above do I say "Darwin was not racist." Go back and read my post, and the review by Larson I linked to. The point of this post is to note that 1) racism and race theories did not originate with evolution, and 2) Darwin was opposed to slavery.

    Larson's piece argues that, while, contra Ben Stein, Darwin's science was not motivated by racism, however, neither was it strongly motivated by anti-slavery concerns. 

    And this is what I said in a comment above:

    "We are products of our times, and Larson indicates that Darwin was a product of his. He opposed slavery, and his work on evolution convinced him that races were not separate creations. He was fairly progressive for his day, but he still held then-common beliefs about races that many of us would cringe at today."



    Mike
    Steve Davis
    You (anonymous) have deliberately avoided any attempt to understand what's been written here.
    The quote you've given is, by the standards of Darwin's era, non-racist.