Darwin's Ideological Motivation

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I've been wanting to post some thoughts on a recent piece by Richard Gray in The Telegraph on a new book by Adrian Desmond and James Moore that details Charles Darwin's anti-slavery motivations. I've been putting it off, but I decided it would be fitting to write it up on the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth. Gray points to some journals from Darwin's voyages on the Beagle and letters of family members that reveal his disgust at the practice of enslaving fellow humans and involvement in the abolitionist movement. This is so contrary to the false portrayal of him in some circles that applies later Social-Darwinist ideas to Darwin himself, something he never endorsed and would not have tolerated.

This wasn't all that surprising to me, even though I didn't know of his outright abolitionist views. After all, Darwin was such a strong supporter of the common descent of all humans in explicit opposition to views that had different ancestries of different races without a single common ancestor population for humans. Such views were around in his day and had been put to use in support of slavery. In this way Darwin was closer than some of his contemporaries to the view found among many Christians that three races had arisen from Noah's three sons, with further divergence later on at the tower of Babel.

There were alternative Christian (or, I would argue, sub-Christian) views at the time as well, most notably the outright racist idea borrowed from Islam that the curse on Ham's son Canaan was really a curse on all of Ham's descendants (or more precisely the darker-skinned ones, in contrast to Canaan's middle-eastern descendants in what became Israel, who were the actual group referred to in the Genesis curse). This view involved a number of curse elements not in the Genesis text that mentions Noah's curse on Canaan, including intellectual and moral inferiority to other races among the darker-skinned Hamites from Africa and the moral justification of slavery (rather than the text's simple report that Canaan would serve Shem and Japheth without saying whether it would be morally ok for those who enslaved them). So not all support for slavery came from the view that humans arose in different and unrelated races in different parts of the world completely independently. But it's easy to see how Darwin's opposition to that view was part of his motivation for providing an account of human origins that resisted such a view.

Two things have occurred to me while reflecting on this and reading some people's responses to it. One is that it's a clear case of being motivated to adopt a thesis based on ideology. It's true that Darwin's support for the view ultimately is supported by his actual reasons presented in his work. He does in fact give arguments for his view, and he expects people to accept his view based on those arguments rather than because of his ideological motivation. It's probably true that he accepted it at least in part based on those arguments and not because it happened to fit with his preferred social view. At least he believed the arguments supported the view. But he did have an ideological motivation.

The irony is that his intellectual descendants refuse to allow an exactly parallel situation with supporters of intelligent design, who present arguments for their view that don't rely on ideological assumptions, expect people to accept the view based on such arguments, and probably believe the view at least in part because of those arguments. At least they see those arguments supporting the view. Yet opponents of intelligent design regularly deride intelligent design proponents for having ideological motivations to want to find arguments for their theistic view. I haven't yet seen anyone of that ilk deriding Darwin for his parallel motivation. Perhaps that's merely because they happen to agree with Darwin's motivation but don't agree with theism. If so, then it's an unfair double-standard, because it can't be in principle intellectually dishonest to believe something you have arguments for but also have ideological reason to want to be true unless that's true of every case of believing something you have arguments for and ideological reason to want to be true. But it's common among those who are anti-ID to confuse the motivation for an argument with its theoretical basis, as I've pointed out before.


The other thing I wanted to say about this has to do with some very strange responses I've seen from the anti-religious or anti-Christian side of things, for example here. I would expect those who have an interest in restoring the good image of Darwin from the misrepresentations out there to have an interest in representing people accurately and not throwing around ridiculous charges that have nothing remotely to do with the people they're attribute immoral views to. But nevertheless there are people who say they are morally concerned about justice and racial progress who would pretend the motivations of those who oppose evolutionary theory have something to do with ensuring the perpetuation or racial injustice.

I've spent a lot of time among people who don't accept very much of what Darwin said. Some of them don't understand the view well, and others do. Some recognize the evidence for small changes within a species and simply deny common descent with animals. Some insist on six 24-hour periods for creation and a 6000-year-old earth, while others accept a much longer period of creation with an age of the earth pretty much in agreement with contemporary science. I'm sure there are people in this group who happen also to be racists. But to claim that the view is inspired by a desire to further racist structures in society? And they say this while recognizing that such people have consistently opposed evolutionary theory by saying that Darwin was a racist, which involves at least a presumption of anti-racism even if it doesn't recognize all the ways racism can manifest itself.

There's misrepresentation all over the place when you have people who don't actually read what they criticize. (On that note, I should register my complaint that there are criticisms of The Bell Curve in that comment thread that show a pretty serious misunderstanding of what the book actually says, and this is from someone resisting the claim that racism and anti-science are always bedfellows.) But it goes well beyond the usual misrepresentation of your ideological opponents to say that the only reason they hold their view is because they want to maintain social control over other races.

I'm generally reluctant to accept charges of racism without especially strong evidence, since it's counterproductive to fight racism by turning off well-intentioned people to the anti-racist cause, especially in situations where there may just be a misunderstanding of what actual motivation someone might have. But this sort of thing makes it even worse because it's additionally counterproductive to the cause of defending the mainstream scientific view against those who deny it, by ignoring their arguments and just calling them racists.

4 Comments

Peter, I guess I've been busy enough that I haven't been back your way in a while. Thanks for letting me know about those.

Hey Jeremy, This is a biggee for me. What was the subtitle of the Origin of Species?? "The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life."

It is well documented that when Darwin saw the natives of Australia and Negroes, he classified them as being at the same level as gorillas and claimed that these races would disappear. As for the other races which he saw as "inferior," he maintained that it was essential to prevent them multiplying and so for these races to be brought to extinction. So the traces of racism and discrimination which we still come across in our time were lent justification by Darwin in this way. The "Common Ancestor" clause was not a conclusion in his "Origin of Species." Common ancestor came much later.

In his view, the “civilized races” would eventually replace the “savage races throughout the world.” Darwin applied his evolutionary idea of natural selection not only to animal development but also to the development of human “races.” He saw natural selection at work in the killing of indigenous peoples of Australia by the British, wrote here of blacks (some of the “savage races”) being a category close to gorillas, and spoke against social programs for the poor and “weak” because such programs permitted the least desirable people to survive.

Remember he also wrote this :
"At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized 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 civilized 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." Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

Deb, without reading larger segments it's hard for me to see who is correct, you or those who say that Darwin made claims of what he expected to happen but morally opposed those who would carry that out.

The only quote you give does seem to indicate a hierarchy, but is it a hierarchy of intrinsic worth? If not, then there's no reason to think he supported slavery, and this new evidence is perfectly consistent with it.

Also, see the quotes in the Panda's Thumb discussion where he indicates that he was impressed by the intelligence of Negro children, which indicates that he must have thought they were held back by other factors. That's still a sign of being less fit for survival, but unless he confused fitness for survival with intrinsic worth then I'm not sure there's a strong argument for thinking he's a racist, as long as quotes like the one you give can have been meant in terms of fitness rather than intrinsic worth or innate capacity.

One other factor that seems to be going on is that Darwin believed moral development to have to do with living in culturally advanced societies, and groups he called savages (which is to be distinguished from racial groups because he's not talking biology but culture) are less morally developed. I wonder if a lot of the criticism of him as a racist is assuming that he means certain races as savages, but that's not how these passages read to me. He also always notes that there are some especially good moral features of some savage societies.

He does seem at points to talk of different mental capacities for different races, but he's not talking about intellectual capacity. The examples he gives are things like being more talkative or more morose.

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