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 The BioLogos Foundation. 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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pds - #26909

August 25th 2010

unapologetic catholic - #26904

“Hitler?  He banned Darwin . . .”

What backup do you have for this? 

Did Hitler ban racial hygiene and scientific racism from Nazi ideology?


Cal - #26910

August 25th 2010

unapologetic catholic:

I’m unsure why you are spitting such venom and vitriol when it comes to Chesterton or Luther. Luther was hijacked by Hitler because Luther, unjustly, maligned Jews (though he never really viewed Jews as a ‘race’ but a religious system).

Hitler took Luther’s mistake, turned it into Luther’s message and combined with Luther’s “germaness” made him a hero to the Nazis. Funny enough, Luther sighed at the sometimes violence that he saw inherent in German culture (Hitler excluded this!).

Darwin’s ‘Survival of the Fittest’ would probably be best summed up by what you are saying. However, this was used as a spring board into “scientific racism” by others who deemed a). human intelligence is fittest in Whites B) We need to cultivate and speed up the process of ‘progress’ of humanity. Both are false but these racialists turned Darwin’s idea into a philosophy of Nietzschean proportions!

Also, I’m curious to where Chesteron says anything “anti-semitic”? I’ve never read anything to that affect, but I’m curious. And even if he had made such an error, his other writings on many other topics are quite insightful. I don’t think that calls for the insults.


pds - #26915

August 25th 2010

Francis,

Thanks for that.  The 1920’s were a wild decade.

So it’s only popular history that is bunk?  Henry Ford was wrong? 


R Hampton - #26920

August 25th 2010

pds,
The assumption of Caucasian superiority precedes Darwin’s birth - it was a staple of British Empirialist thought and in part explains why most of the American colonies (Pennsylvania an exception) mistreated native Americans and why Britian and America engaged in slavery. Unlike political theories and policies, however, Science - in the pursuit of better understanding Evolution - discovered that racism has no grounding in fact.


Raphael Wong - #26922

August 25th 2010

Hmm,

I suppose then that Adam Smith could be called the Father of Modern Racism. Darwin got his idea of “survival of the fittest” from the Wealth of Nations, apparently.


pds - #26924

August 25th 2010

Has anyone seen the 2008 film “Good”?  Looks interesting and relevant to this topic.

http://goodthemovie.com/


pds - #26925

August 25th 2010

RH,

“Unlike political theories and policies, however, Science - in the pursuit of better understanding Evolution - discovered that racism has no grounding in fact.”

So “Science” was against racism after it was for it?

So “Science” discovered that all men are equal and are of equal worth?  Science discovered that all people should be treated fairly and respectfully regardless of race?

How exactly did Science “discover” this?


R Hampton - #26927

August 25th 2010

pds,
The study of genetics has led Science to the conclusion that the “appearance” or racism is just that - a superficial appearance. In truth, each of us, regardless of our parents or place of birth, belongs to only one genetic race - the Human race. When the word “race” is used today, it most often refers to a combination of skin color and cultural background.

DNA studies do not indicate that separate classifiable subspecies (races) exist within modern humans. While different genes for physical traits such as skin and hair color can be identified between individuals, no consistent patterns of genes across the human genome exist to distinguish one race from another. There also is no genetic basis for divisions of human ethnicity. People who have lived in the same geographic region for many generations may have some alleles in common, but no allele will be found in all members of one population and in no members of any other. Indeed, it has been proven that there is more genetic variation within races than exists between them.
- Human Genome Project, 2010


R Hampton - #26928

August 25th 2010

correction: The study of genetics has led Science to the conclusion that the appearance of race is just that…


pds - #26929

August 25th 2010

RH, 

What is that quote from?  What is the “Human Genome Project, 2010”?

Science can tell us 2 things we know already.  1.  All people have certain things in common.  2.  There are many differences between people.  The (real) Human Genome Project did not tell us anything different than that.

Racism is has always been about perceived differences.  Science won’t end it.  Facts won’t end it.  It’s about attitudes and how we treat our fellow man.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #26934

August 25th 2010

Raphael,

Darwin got his theory of Survival of the Fittest from Thomas Malthus.  There is no doubt about that.

People should be aware that the Origin was published in 1859.  This was just before the American Civil War.  This means it appeared at a time when many in the US were against slavery, but not a majority.  Lincoln won the election because the Democrats were divided between three candidates. 

I would say that in the North there was a consensus against slavery, but not one that Blacks were equal.  After the Civil War political equality was resisted in the South and could not be enforced. 

I believe that racism is a poor name for this problem.  Ethnocentrism is much better.  American Blacks are better described as an ethnic group, rather than a group based on race.  This ethnic group might be defined and enforced by some white racial attitudes, but it still is more of an ethnic conflict, because race did not create the ethnicity.


merv - #26936

August 25th 2010

Wasn’t Darwin deeply affected by seeing how slaves were treated in S. America, and subsequently hoped that his theory would lead to all humans seeing themselves as much more related and therefore worthy of respect?  I thought he was actually repulsed by the common practice of slavery.  But I can’t remember where I read this.  Is all of that urban legend, then?

—Merv


merv - #26937

August 25th 2010

H.U.G. wrote “By today’s standards, EVERYBODY in the 19th Century would have been hardcore racists.”

I remember our pastor starting a sermon with a quote (he got it from ‘Lies My Teacher Told Me’) that was very racist sounding and grated on all our ears & against all our sensibilities.  Then he asked us who we thought said it, and of course we volunteered names like Hitler or other white supremacists.  Then he revealed that it was Abraham Lincoln who had said it.  His (our pastor’s) point then was that some men may eventually rise partly (or impressively) above their culture to point towards better directions; but they were still rooted and steeped in that culture of their origin.  They won’t change it (or themselves) suddenly or overnight. 

I can see H.U.G.‘s assertion as a valid one provided we recognize the hyperbole in the point.  It may be that the exceptions help prove the rule by their stark contrast.

-Merv
B.T.W, pds, I’m a big admirer of Chesterton’s writings & never thought of him as antisemitic.  What did he write that became such a burr in your saddle?


conrad - #26938

August 25th 2010

I am no expert on Darwin but I think he gets accused of abuses committed by others.

These people take his theory back to first life and eliminate God.
I don’t think Darwin ever did that.

Now modern science shows that DNA chemistry is what we are talking about .....AND…. THERE IS NO WAY DNA FORMED ITSELF,.... NOR CAN IT REPRODUCE ITSELF.

IT WAS NEVER A SELF-REPLICATING MOLECULE.


Headless Unicorn Guy - #26939

August 25th 2010

What happened is that “Social Darwinism” (applying Darwin’s ideas on biology as a social ideology) split into three main streams, all based on differing ideas of who “the fittest” were and who were the macro-organisms competing in “nature red in tooth and claw” to the death.

1)  “Yuppieism”—the first type, from the above-cited John D Rockefeller through capitalism gone wild to the Yuppies of today.  The organisms competing to the death are individuals, and the scorecard is how much money you’ve piled up.  The rich and powerful are the Fittest, and their inferiors must inevitably go Extinct.

2)  Communism—the organisms competing to the death are the “macro-organisms” of social classes, Worker vs Capitalist.  And social systems, evolving from Primitive Communism to Slavery to Feudalism to Capitalism to Communism.  And since Communism is the most evolved (end of the March of Evolution), all others will Inevitably face Exinction.

3)  Naziism—the organisms competing to the death are the “macro-organisms” of Race, and since the Aryan Master Race is by definition the fittest, all others deserve Extinction.


Headless Unicorn Guy - #26940

August 25th 2010

Also, in his essay “Kropotkin was no Crackpot”, Gould points out how social and temporal Zeitgeist shaped English and Russian ideas on evolution and what “survival of the fittest” entailed.

England—small densely-populated island, with Malthus’s “Population Bomb” ideas in living memory.  It’s form of Social Darwinism emphasized individuals competing with each other to be The Fittest.  Individual competition, Individual Man vs Man.

Russia—HUGE sparsely-populated land extending over a continent, with a harsh climate and dangerous wildlife, where settlers had to band together to survive and tame the land.  Cooperation between individuals enhances the chances of survival.  Collective Man vs Nature.

In another essay, about “March of Evolution” vs “Branching Bush” imagery, Gould relates how Darwin’s (and the first to accept his theory) were Victorians, and Victorian society already had a cultural myth of Linear Upward Progress. 

“The Victorians thought history ended well—because it ended with the Victorians.”—Chesterton

And that Darwin himself didn’t like the term “Evolution” because of its baggage of Linear Upward Progress; he preferred the more neutral term “Descent with Modifications”.


Headless Unicorn Guy - #26942

August 25th 2010

I believe that racism is a poor name for this problem.  Ethnocentrism is much better.  American Blacks are better described as an ethnic group, rather than a group based on race.  This ethnic group might be defined and enforced by some white racial attitudes, but it still is more of an ethnic conflict, because race did not create the ethnicity.—Roger A Sawtelle #26934

“Racism I can understand.  It’s one tribe shaking its spears at another.  YOU NOT LIKE US!”
—Steven Barnes, (black) Science Fiction writer, at a LosCon or WesterCon panel years ago


R Hampton - #26945

August 25th 2010

Racism is has always been about perceived differences. Science won’t end it. Facts won’t end it. It’s about attitudes and how we treat our fellow man.

Exactly. Evolution and Science in general did not create racism, instead it comes from Man’s irrational fears and ignorace. In other words, Darwin’s theory is not to blame.

FYI, the link to the Human Genome Project from which I quoted:
http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/humanmigration.shtml

see also -
Genetics for the Human Race, a Nature Genetics (November 2004, Volume 36 No 11s) supplement sponsored by the DOE:
http://www.nature.com/index.html?file=/ng/journal/v36/n11s/index.html

the Genographic Project, a 5-year nonprofit study (started in 2006) that will produce the largest DNA database ever collected for genetic anthropology, sponsored by the National Geographic Society, IBM, geneticist Spencer Wells, and the Waitt Family Foundation
https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/genographic/index.html


unapologetic catholic - #26947

August 25th 2010

“And even if he had made such an error, his other writings on many other topics are quite insightful. I don’t think that calls for the insults.”

Exactly true for many 19th century intellectuals, including both Darwin and Chesterton.


unapologetic catholic - #26951

August 25th 2010

PDS asks:


“Hitler?  He banned Darwin . . .”

What backup do you have for this?


“6.  Writings of a philosophical and social nature whose content deals with the false scientific enlightenment of primitive Darwinism and Monism (Häckel).”


http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/burnedbooks/documents.htm#guidelines

Yes, Hitler was anti-Darwin and also very Christian and based his antisemitism on 2000 years of Christian history.  It’s a real shame when the facts get in the way of the DI propaganda machine.


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