Darwinism and Racism: A Short History

It was not until the 18th century that serious attempts were made to systematize racial divisions. Most of these divisions merged pseudo-science and folklore to create a mythos of race that has not yet been fully exterminated, even though mountains and mountains of scientific evidence point to the absolute genetical insignificance of racial distinctions. The idea of “different races” still lives on. And in many ways, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why did race become such an important concept? There are two theories, both claiming to be scientific, that need to be explored in order to understand the modern distortions of race and the connection between Darwinism and racism.

In the late 18th century, a theory of human racial origins called polygenism started gaining steam. Science, polygenic proponents said, had proven that humans came from distinct roots. In other words, the Adam and Eve story was completely false. Humans, and animals for that matter, didn’t come from a single pair of distant ancestors, but from many distinct pairs (each pair corresponding to a particular color of human, or a particular “breed” of animal). This explanation apparently explained all the variation among animals and men. There was variation because all the animals and humans had different ancestral starting points.

Though polygenism gained a huge following  among scientists and even among some compromising Christians, others started developing, or rather returning to, a radically different theory: monogenism. ((Ironically, this monogenism—separated from macro-evolution—was fully in line with Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark. Orthodox Christians had been ridiculed in the heyday of polygenism for holding to “superstition” and fables against the rising tide of “science.” Then science came along and re-adopted a monogenic model—but continued to ridicule Christians as “behind the times.”)) Monogenism taught that all animal kinds (including humans) came from single pairs of ancestors. Migration and selective breeding could account for all the variation within species. This theory later came to be explained by “natural selection,” and there is hardly a person on earth now who does not adopt a monogenic model. Yet racism still survives. Why?

It is helpful to understand what polygenism was being used to support: colonialism. It was considered right to subjugate the “lesser” races. According to the imperialist polygenists, other races were inferior, having been spawned from an entirely different, and obviously lesser, pair of ancestors that had failed to achieve any level of civilization. Most polygenists, in spite of evidence to the contrary, even believed that the different races were not able to produce children together.

Darwin’s theories challenged all of this. But they would not have been so readily accepted in England if they had not offered an alternative justification for the subjugation of the “savage” races. In fact, Darwin’s theory went a step further. Polygenism had said that the other races were the children of a different human pair, but that they were capable of achieving equality by being civilized.

Darwinism, on the other hand, said that the other races were inferior because they were closer to lower animals. Polygenism required only civilizational development to bring “inferior” races to the same level of the “superior” ones. Darwinism said no amount of civilization or culture could alter “savages.”  They were biologically fated to be inferior. The Darwinist explanation was even more comforting to imperialists the world over, and it explains why the theory of evolution was so readily adopted by the Western world.

According to Darwin, the “savage” races (which included Africans, aborigines of all continents, and the tribes of South America, among others) were closer to their animal ancestors. Though Darwin himself may have had a personal esteem for those he called “savages,” his writings, especially The Descent of Man, were the basis for a wholesale justification of treating colonized peoples like dangerous animals. Darwinism justified enslaving the strong members of the “savage” races and exterminating the rest. If some races are closer to the animal form, they might not even have souls, right? Darwin surmised:

He who believes in the advancement of man from some lowly-organised form will naturally ask how does this bear on the belief in the immortality of the soul. The barbarous races of man . . . possess no clear belief of this kind; but arguments derived from the primeval beliefs of savages are . . . of little or no avail. Few persons feel any anxiety from the impossibility of determining at what precise period in the development of the individual, from the first trace of the minute germinal vesicle to the child either before or after birth, man becomes an immortal being; and there is no greater cause for anxiety because the period in the gradually ascending organic scale cannot be possibly determined. ((Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and selection in relation to sex, 2 vols. (London: John Murray, 1871), 2:395.))

Well, actually, both of those questions have turned out to be very important. Darwin didn’t think they were important perhaps, because he would have been appalled by the modern justifications of abortion-on-demand. To him, exactly when an unborn baby becomes an “immortal being” was  irrelevant, since the unborn certainly deserved all due and civilized protection during their whole course of development. Perhaps he would have extended that same protection to the “savage” races during their whole “development.” But his contemporaries, armed with Darwin’s own theories, were not so accommodating. Darwin certainly foresaw the possibility, perhaps the certainty, of this interpretation:

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 a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla. ((Ibid., 1:201))

Darwinism and racism go hand in hand. This is hardly debatable. It has been well-documented, even by evolutionists (e.g., Stephen Jay Gould) who mourn the prescriptive out-workings of what they believe should remain a wholly descriptive model. American racism, for better or worse, was legitimized and reinforced by Darwinism. And the arguments of American “Social Darwinists” concerning black Americans are entirely based on a causal fallacy resting on the American institution of slavery. More on that here.