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Darwin: The Father of Modern Racism?

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August 25, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's video features Denis Alexander. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Editor's Note: The popular commentator Glenn Beck referred to Charles Darwin as "the father of modern-day racism." Certainly, Beck's sentiments are nothing new; links between Darwin and racism, as well as to eugenics and other destructive ideologies, are mentioned constantly by opponents to the modern theory of evolution. But are these links valid? In the video above, Denis Alexander shares his thoughts on the relationship between evolution and ideologies.

Alexander notes that while the biological theory of evolution is not itself an ideology, it has been used for ideological purposes since 1859 to defend everything from eugenics to capitalism to racism to atheism. The reason, he asserts, is not because of any true support, but rather because people often try to use the popular scientific theories of the day to support all sorts of ideologies.

He also notes that the phrase "survival of the fittest", often tied to Darwin and stated as a core part of evolution, was in fact coined by science popularizer Herbert Spencer, and that the phrase is in fact a poor description of the complicated processes involved in evolution. Unfortunately, the phrase was picked up during the World War I-era as a way to support the "might makes right" mentality, and the misunderstanding was used to justify all sorts of failed ideologies.

Similarly, Alexander notes that the fact that evolution admits there are variations between people in regards to genetics has been used to justify racist ideology. However, once again, this is a case of ideology using something for its own agenda; the biological process of evolution itself does not in any way justify such racist thinking, and in fact diversity is beneficial to populations.

For more on the supposed links between racism and eugenics, see Michael Zimmerman's post "Social Darwinism: A Bad Idea with a Worse Name" and Karl Giberson's post "Who Cares About Darwin?"

UPDATE: Michael Zimmerman has just posted another article on the topic. You can find it here.

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

Denis Alexander is the Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, to which he was elected a Fellow in 1998. Alexander writes, lectures, and broadcasts widely in the field of science and religion. He is a member of the International Society for Science and Religion.

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Jimpithecus - #26863

August 25th 2010

This is not so different from the modern-day idea that without Darwin you would not have had Hitler.  As with the Darwin=racism meme, this has little support.

Jon Garvey - #26864

August 25th 2010

As is well-known, the slave trade began immediately after the publication of the Origin of Species after centuries of equality and brotherhood between the races…

That (un)said, the racist presuppositions of Enlightenment Christian Europe were taken as axiomatic by many of the first generation of Darwinian biologists. It would simply not have occurred to them that there was any methodological error in placing a negroid skull between a caucasian and a chimp as an “intermediate type” (as in my “Cambridge Zoology” of 1923).

Now, of course, once more largely for non-Darwinian reasons, it is equally axiomatic in educated western society that there cannot be significant developmental differences between races. We have the Holocaust and Martin Luther King to thank for that rather than evolutionary theory.

Cal - #26865

August 25th 2010

Jon Garvey:

I would rephrase “Enlightenment Christian Europe”. I would argue that there never has been a Christian “nation” besides Heaven, but I digress. My main point of contention is that, even before the Enlightenment, true Christianity never was vogue. It demanded virtue when corruption was so much more popular. I mean consider this example: Though every member of Parliament was nominally a Christian, do you think that the slavetraders and profiteers who fought Wilberforce on the issue of Slavery, were really Christian?

Racism in Europe was a way by the wicked to maneuver around the Biblical idea that all men were the “image of God”. If the colored races were not real men, then they didn’t have much to worry about.

pds - #26866

August 25th 2010

Alexander’s analysis is woefully simplistic.

“Survival of the fittest” is not part of Darwinian theory?  Really?  Random mutations produce variation.  Natural selection means the fittest survive.  The phrase may have come later, but it accurately summarizes “natural selection.”

Is “all men are created equal” part of Darwinian theory?  No, it is axiomatic in Darwinian theory that all men are not “equal.”  They only exist because of variations that allow the more fit to survive.

Racism has been around for a long time.  But when did “scientific racism” appear?  What was the conceptual foundation?  Although racism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled racist (at least from 1880 to 1940 or so).

Did any serious scientists consider it sound science for any length of time?  Yes, absolutely, many.  You can read a very good summary of the history and prominence of “scientific racism” and eugenics here.

Biologos should be educating people, not dumbing them down as to important aspects of the history of science.

pds - #26867

August 25th 2010

Anticipating an inevitable misunderstanding, Darwinism’s racist heritage does not mean that it is not true.  But it does mean that we should be cautious in endorsing it wholesale, and we should evaluate the evidence carefully. 

If we hold the position that evolution is the best explanation of some of biological history but not all of it, and that design is the better explanation for many elements of biological history, scientific racism has much less foundation.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #26868

August 25th 2010

To say that the phrase “Survival of the fittest.” was coined by Herbert Spenser, while true does not absolve Darwin of any responsibility for the phrase.  Evidence demonstrates that he accepted this view in that he incorporated Survivalm of the Fittest into his chapter on Natural Selection in the 2nd edition of The Origin. 

The question is the basic nature of reality. Is it based on harmony or conflict?  You can find both in the writings of Darwin, but when he came down to his theory of natural selection, he choose to base it on the ideas of Thomas Malthus, which are based on conflict and competition. 

Malthusian conflict has been rejected in all other areas of thought, but remains the intellectual foundation of Darwinian evolution.  As long as it has this type of “scientific” credence, ideologies based also on conflict such as Marxism, capitalism, and racism can use it. 

Racism existed long before Darwin.  Beck said, “modern racism.”  If evolutionary struggle seems to favor white folk, who is to say that they are not superior.  If Germany was superior to other nations in technology and learning, that is evidence of the superiority of Aryan genes. 

The problem is not evolution, but Malthus.

Headless Unicorn Guy - #26872

August 25th 2010

By today’s standards, EVERYBODY in the 19th Century would have been hardcore racists.

Gould covers this in several of his essays on the history of science, as well as at least one book (The Mismeasure of Man).  White Supremacy was as basic and as inexorable a law of nature as Gravity well into the 20th Century (on BOTH sides of Mason-Dixon), and all kinds of junk science (and not-so-junk science) were invoked and selectively used to prop it up.

“Men of Sin” will invoke ANY Cosmic-level authority—Torah, Bible, Koran, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Nature, you name it—to get Cosmic-level justification for what they wanted to do anyway.

pds - #26875

August 25th 2010

Headless U Guy,

Wrong.  Many opposed “scientific racism,” like GK Chesterton and the people who defended Carrie Buck.  I could go on.  Your history is stunted.

Some Christians jumped on the eugenics bandwagon.  Some did not.  We know now who was right.

Christians should not jump on the eugenics bandwagon, the Republican bandwagon, the Democratic bandwagon, or the evolution bandwagon.

Karl - #26876

August 25th 2010

Another ideology with a long history of misappropriating Darwinian ideas is American capitalism. Early industrialists such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie were quite explicit in praising Darwin as their justification and inspiration. They said more about him than Hitler did. And the idea that emerged from economics’ so-called “values revolution” of the 1870s, when the labor theory of value—which not just Marx but Adam Smith and David Ricardo also had used—was influenced by popular interpretations of Darwin, such as Spenser’s. The idea that the best possible order emerges naturally from the free competition of self-interested actors, in which the fittest survive, is clearly Spenserian. It also is why attempts to inject normative values into market relations by labor unions, government regulators, social activists (often religious) or any other “non-market” forces are said to be “unnatural.” I have long found it profoundly ironic that so many Americans who warn that “Darwinism” undermines morality are the most enthusiastic champions of the very thing they claim to hate—as long as it’s called something else.

pds - #26878

August 25th 2010


“Free market economics” is not “Darwinism,” just like “racism” is not “Darwinism.”  Darwinism has been used to justify both.

Free market economics was considered to be good economics at the time.  Scientific racism was considered to be good science at the time.  Let’s not deny history with regard to either.

Sam Sutter - #26879

August 25th 2010

for me it depends what Beck meant by “modern”.  If by modern(ity) he’s referring to the rise of scientific rationalization of a already popular practice then maybe he’s right.

obviously if by modern he means contemporary, it’s a silly claim, but if modern means a scientific rational, then he may have a case. Not that the science leads explicitly to racism, but people who are/were using science to justify racism typically look to Darwin.

John VanZwieten - #26881

August 25th 2010

While I agree with Alexander that Darwin should not be called the “Father of Modern Racism,” I disagree with his major supporting points.

First, Alexander equates Darwin with the “biological theory of evolution” as if Darwin only developed and commented on that biological theory to the exclusion of any ideology.  In reading OofS, one finds not only biological theorizing, but at least some ideology as well, and Darwin should be held accountable for both.

Consider this from Darwins concluding paragraph in OofS:
Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.

If one accepts Darwin’s ideology that the production of higher animals is the “most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving” then it is not a huge leap to justify war, famine, and death as instruments toward producing even higher animals.  (At the same time, I’m sure Darwin himself would have been horrified by such an application of his thoughts.)

Jon Garvey - #26884

August 25th 2010

@Cal - #26865

I think your summary’s too simplistic as well. Blind spots belong to good men as well as evil men.

Back in the 18th century George Whitefield advocated the use of slave labour in Virginia because white men lacked the ability to cope with the climatic conditions. It was only the realisation of the inhumane conditions they suffered, rather than the fact of slavery, that changed his mind.

John Newton remained a slave trader for some time after his conversion - clearly there was enough Evangelical support for the trade for it to be an option for a new believer.

Wilberforce started out as a minority voice in the Evangelical community.

And I have read contemporary believers confessing to institutional racism amongst Evangelicals in the southern US just a generation ago, whilst a friend of mine was taught in a South African evangelical theological college that the Hamitic races were under a cvurse - that was around 1990.

There may never have been a Christian nation, but Christians have always been susceptible to the prevailing worldview of the nation. The reason for stressing this is to make us aware that we are not out of danger of this by being genuine believers.

John VanZwieten - #26885

August 25th 2010

Alexander’s point that “survival of the fittest” was not coined by Darwin seems to me a distinction without a difference.  The “modern synthesis” view of evolution considers a much broader range of causes for differential inheritance of variations, but Darwin’s natural selection relied almost exclusively on mutations confering survival advantages in the midst of competition for scarce resources in the face of otherwise geometrical growth of populations.

I don’t see that as a major flaw, since it does seem to characterize non-human interaction fairly well.  I’m not aware that Darwin himself made any attempt to apply his natural theories to human interaction (maybe someone could help me here?)

pds - #26892

August 25th 2010


From Darwin’s The Descent of Man:

“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, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, 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.”

Cal - #26896

August 25th 2010

Jon Garvey:

I never said Christians never have blind spots on what truth is and I was critiquing the idea of racism and racial supremacy as ideas propagated as a way to play around the Law (ie. Bible) that had set into the culture of Europe.

When I mentioned Wilberforce and the slavers in Parliament, you must examine the life of Wilberforce. Many in the upper echelons of British society thought Wilberforce repugnant. Why? His anti-slavery views? No, it was because he was such an avid Evangelical, that he wanted to preach Jesus in everything he did and that was not vogue in Britain.

I agree that we must stress not to be conformed to the prevailing world view and stand strong for Christ in all we do.

Francis Beckwith - #26899

August 25th 2010

Several months ago I published a piece on the alleged parallel between the ban on interracial marriage and the opposition to same-sex marriage. What I found astounding—though I am not entirely surprised since much of our popular history is bunk—is that interracial marriage was a common law liberty, and only becomes forbidden after the beginning of the Enlightenment (and almost exclusively in the United States). The bans on interracial marriage reach their ascendancy during the height of the eugenics movement, an entirely secular enterprise motivated by “scientific racialism.” Sure, some churches and church-men jumped on the bandwagon, but it was not from the ground-up. It was from the top-down, meaning that it was the pressure of the wider elite secular culture doing the work and not the theological tradition.

Read my piece here: http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2010/05/1324

conrad - #26903

August 25th 2010

I think this is an excellent talk.

The point of the Scopes trial was that Bryan said misuse of theory could lead man to extremes of cruelty UNLESS HE HAD MORAL DIRECTION FROM RELIGION.

But he was out-lawyered.

It was not a fair debate because Bryan never got a chance to deliver his speech.
[Darrow pleaded his client “guilty” and paid the $100.00 fine just before Bryan was due to speak.]

The liberal press was all over Bryan calling him an idiot etc.
[They still ride that horse.]

But Bryan was RIGHT!!
  The ACLU won a huge PR victory but shortly after that Hitler and the NAZIs took over Europe,... not only militarily but philosophically as well.

  If Bryan had been allowed to speak he might have contributed toward preventing that,... who knows?.... but the ACLU out-lawyered the Christians,.... big time.

BUT,.... it was not a GOOD THING.

That is I think a cautionary tale for our time.

unapologetic catholic - #26904

August 25th 2010

“Many opposed “scientific racism,” like GK Chesterton.”

Yeah let’s hear what a fat antisemite has to say about racism.  Nice job.

The fact is, that Darwin’s theory of evolution is not frozen in time.  Darwin did not have all the answers.  His theory however has led to to scietific discoveries that “race’ is a human construct, not a scientific thoguth.  Chesterton’s contributions to this understansing:  Zero.  Luther’?  Less than Zero.  Hitler?  He banned Darwin and revered Luther so we know what he thought.

Those who say “survival of the fittest” have no idea what that phrase means.  The question is “fittest for what?”  If you are livign in the African plains, melanin rich skin is “fitter.”  If you are living in northern climates with less sun, then skin lacking in melanin and more capable of absorbing viamin D is “fitter.”  Niether skin type is “better.”  That thought seeems to escape buffoons like Chesterton.

Bilbo - #26908

August 25th 2010


Interesting paper.  It sounds like the early anti-miscegenation laws were to help preserve the institution of slavery, and had little to do with the Enlightenment .  I imagine it would be more difficult to justify slavery if the slaves looked no different than your children.  The later anti-miscegenation laws do seem to be rooted in notions that could be traced to Darwin.

As an aside, was same sex marriage not part of common law?

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