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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Cal - #26954

August 25th 2010

unapologetic catholic:

Hitler a Christian? Are you serious? Please don’t tell me you are buying the revisionist history? Hitler allowed the corrupted and distorted Christianity (Positive Christianity) that completely rewrote the gospels and gutted the old testament as being “too jewish”. They saw Jesus as an anti-jewish aryan fighting against the jewish establishment and bringing about Aryan enlightenment.

How is that remotely Christian?!?

Also note my wording, he allowed it. Hitler had no intention of keeping Christianity around. He very much planned to revive the ancient pagan religion that Germans had followed, revering such warrior gods as Wotan. Hitler was very much a Nietzschean. He saw Judaic-Christian value as weak and the pagan ancient cultures of Greece, Rome and Germany strong. That is why Hitler tried to imitate the Roman Empire with the pageantry and pomp of his parades.

Christ warned us wolves in sheep’s clothing would come among the flock and that there would be false prophets and false teachers. Though Hitler supported the twisting of Christianity to destroy it, he was never a Christian in bloody reign.

Here’s some info:

Cal - #26955

August 25th 2010

Unapologetic Catholic:

Also, if you can and have the time, please find atleast one source that shows Chesterton as an anti-semite. Everything I’ve read points away from it.

Here is one site that absolves him of the charge:


beaglelady - #26963

August 25th 2010

I thought he was actually repulsed by the common practice of slavery.

You are correct. Darwin visited Brazil on his famous voyage aboard the Beagle (love that name!)  and he was aghast at the cruel treatment of the slaves.  The whole Darwin/Wedgewood clan vehemently opposed slavery.

On the subject of race, if I had a nickel for every Southern Baptist racist I met down South years ago I’d be rich.  I even heard the n-word used in a sermon!  They misused the bible to justify racism and slavery.  And even many Christian schools had racist beginnings, having been founded as a response to court-ordered desegregation.  We shouldn’t pretend that Christians don’t sin, because we’re very good at it.(All of us, not just the SBC)

Of course things are different there now. I believe the SBC has retracted its position.  And for a wonderful story of how a person raised in a racist environment can transcend it, I recommend “The Blind Side.”  Both the book and the movie are excellent.

Rich - #26968

August 26th 2010

To All:

This is one of the best threads on Biologos so far, because the commenters (in most cases) appear to have read some significant factual material about the subject at hand.  To the number of good historical comments by Cal, pds, fbeckwith, etc. I would add a reference to good scholarly work done by Richard Weikart and John West on the connection between Darwinian thought and racism and eugenics. 

Of course, to show that Darwinian thinking has contributed to bad social policies is not to disprove Darwinian theory on the level of biology.  Nonetheless, it is important to study the trajectory of Darwinian thinking, which, as *The Descent of Man* shows, leads beyond biology proper.

On a side-point, the charge of anti-Semitism should never be made against Chesterton or anyone else without evidence.  The person making the charges against his fellow Catholic should either provide Chesterton quotations or withdraw the comments.

On another side point, Hitler was no Christian, either ethically or theologically.  That he used Lutheranism to promote his agenda makes no difference at all.  Demagogues do things like that.
And the connection between Nazi and evolutionary thought was evident long before the DI existed.

conrad - #26981

August 26th 2010

You know, whether these guys are bad or good makes no difference in whether or not the science is correct or incorrect.

Most people are a mixture of bad and good.
But a bad man can have a good scientific theory.

Darwin wrote about the origin of the species,..... NOT THE ORIGIN OF LIFE!

Others projected it back to inorganic molecular reactions.
In fact now that we know more about chemistry we know that DNA cannot EVER originate itself.

It serves as a pattern for RNA and another protein takes the RNA and makes DNA.
It is not even theoretically possible to make DNA the original self-replicating molecule.
So the people who projected Darwinianism back to the original creation of life were wrong.



Gregor Mendel was a contemporary of his but Darwin never read his work.

Darwin knew less than a third grader about genetics.

He lived too early for it.
But I think he was a nice old eccentric country gentleman and not a slaver.

Gregory - #26982

August 26th 2010

“I wouldn’t say that evolution is in itself an ideology.” - D. Alexander

Hmm…evolution used *in defence* of -isms, but can’t actually be/become an -ism itself, i.e. there is NO meaning for the terms ‘evolutionism’ or ‘evolutionistic ideology’?

Sure, ‘evolution’ is not an ideology, but *only* to those who are not ‘reflexive!’ Once one ‘gets reflexive’ @ evolutionary biology, cosmology &/or culturology *as a human being,* not as some pseudo-objectivity-seeking NPS (i.e. the role Alexander plays in the film), then one realizes that evolution is ABSOLUTELY DRENCHED in ideology. Few words are ‘more-ideology!’

Evolution is THE great untackled ideology of the 20th century. Dangerous some think it is asleep. It is already so good it is obsolete! We’re just waiting to up-rate its obsolescing.

‘Prestige?’ Indeed, said Joe scientist to Sue sociologist of science, who wore a grin.

(Evolution is just like ‘change,’ didn’t you know? & Change isn’t an ideology!)

D. Alexander ‘evolution’ = ‘natural history.’

Once one wakes up to see that ‘politics’ is not the sole violator of the ‘purity’ of evolution, e.g. eVo psYch, it is much easier to see the ideological dimension to this interdisciplinary concept.

Erp - #26990

August 26th 2010

Supported scientific theories like evolution/natural selection or gravity or the various theories about chemistry are ethically neutral.  How people use them is a different matter, whether to create poisons or medicines. 

I will note that issues like anti-slavery cut across religious/non-religious lines.  The earliest anti-slavery people tended to belong to minority groups such as the Quakers and the Unitarians (the Wedgwoods were Unitarians/deists) or evangelicals like Wilberforce (and of course slaves, who rarely had a voice, and former slaves).  Charles Darwin was anti-slavery and had quarreled with the captain of the Beagle over slavery.  With many of his letters online one can explore his views, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/advanced-search (look in particular his correspondence with Asa Gray) .  In the case of eugenics one of the chief opponents in Parliament of various eugenics laws was Darwin’s great nephew, Josiah Wedgwood (not exactly a religious person) though other members of the family were for them (as were a great number of non-Catholic clergy).

Headless Unicorn Guy - #27028

August 26th 2010

Editor’s Note: Last week, popular television commentator Glenn Beck referred to Charles Darwin as “the father of modern-day racism.”

Wait a minute—this thread started with Glenn Beck?

pds - #27033

August 26th 2010


That link proves only that someone in Germany added “writings of a philosophical and social nature whose content deals with the false scientific enlightenment” to some list.

Is that how you describe Darwin’s theory?  It doesn’t even come close to proving “Hitler banned Darwin.”

Apparently you ignored this from the link you posted:

“What was forbidden? What was burned? It is difficult to say for sure, in part because there were so many agencies which got involved. According to Leonidas Hill, author of “The Nazi Attack on Un-German Literature, 1933-1945,” by 1934, over forty agencies had lists ennumerating (sic) 4,100 publications to be banned.”

pds - #27038

August 26th 2010

Unapo Catholic,

I am also guessing that you are using famed non-historian Nick Matzke as your Historian In Chief.

Bad idea. Everyone knows that he was the “Public Information Project Director” aka “Information Spin Master” for the NCSE.

JMFK - #27134

August 26th 2010

Karl @ #26876: “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.”

Amen brother!

It seems some folks are entirely comfortable getting their science from the Bible and their ethics from nature.

Robert Byers - #27169

August 27th 2010

I am a biblical creationist.
Darwin was not a father or advocate in any serious ideas of innate abilitys of the ‘races”. Yes he believed that women were innately intellectually inferior but even there saw a chance for acquired traits to be biologically translated to later daughters.
There is no such thing as racism. this is just a word used to discredit ideas peole have about other peoples. based on race biologically or culturally.
Yet it doesn’t exist in the human heart as a thing. Its a fraud of a concept used to control peoples ideas. Right or wrong.
If people think people are inferior or superior then they sincerely think that for reasons. Its not a unjust condition of the heart. it malice or hurt follows then that is. Yet not the presumptions behind the motives behind the actions.
Yes evolutionism is the organized origin of all modern ideas on racial standing. 
Yet as long as there is no harm theres nothing wrong with it.
What has happened is that others got aggressive about race etc and then the society was unable to argue against it having accepted evolutions take on race.
I don’t see race as having been relevant in human affairs and the few times it pop uped were marginally related to structures evolutionism created.

Jon Garvey - #27177

August 27th 2010

@Robert Byers - #27169

I suspect you’re not black (neither am I, incidentally).

Just last evening, in an English pub, my friend was talking about his visit to the Southern States, as late as the 1990s. His wife asked someone (in all innocence) why there were plenty of blacks serving in the bar they were in, but none amidst the clientele. “They’re just not as intelligent as us,” was the reply she got.

The speaker could have had no idea how ironic the stupidity of her reply was - but her attitude clearly prevailed in the locale, and glaring injustice was the result. Wilful ignorance that results in social injustice is an unjust condition of the heart.

Secondly, that part of the USA is not renowned for its support for evolution, and the slave trade that fostered those attitudes predates evolution by several centuries.

I’m glad you accept that racism has cropped up occasionally, because it’s good to have some explanation for the European and Arab slave trades, the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide, the decimation of Amerindians and Australian aborigines, African colonialism, the Jim Crow laws, Apartheid, the expulsion of Ugandan Asians, the British Raj and other minor inconveniences.

beaglelady - #27197

August 27th 2010

I’m glad you accept that racism has cropped up occasionally, because it’s good to have some explanation for the European and Arab slave trades, the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide, the decimation of Amerindians and Australian aborigines, African colonialism, the Jim Crow laws, Apartheid, the expulsion of Ugandan Asians, the British Raj and other minor inconveniences.

Not to mention the rabid antisemitism that was part of the church for many centuries

Stephen - #27238

August 27th 2010

Most interesting to me about all this is that both hard-right and hard-left folks draw on this kind of rhetoric about Darwinism and the like. In much of the (generally Left-leaning) Humanities parts of the academy the same Hitler, eugenics, racism, etc. claims are shouted at anthropologists who would dare to suggest that evolution can help us understand differences between people or commonalities in how all people think.

For those interested in a fascinating discussion and assessment of this phenomenon in public discourse and the academy (that also synthesizes many contributions of various areas of modern science), see Steven Pinker’s excellent book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. GREAT BOOK!

Pinker enjoys pointing out many of the serious flaws here. For example, if indeed evolution is correct, and/or it is shown that people differ in their innate cognitive capacities, and/or that there really are differences between one ‘race’ versus another…do we really want to have to admit that Nazism wasn’t all that bad? The problem with Nazism or ethnic-cleansing or racism, etc., is that THEY ARE WRONG and hurt people…not that some of their leaders claimed to believe in biology and evolution

unapologetic Catholic - #27271

August 27th 2010

“I would add a reference to good scholarly work done by Richard Weikart and John West on the connection between Darwinian thought and racism and eugenics.”

Hololcaust denial takes many forms, all anti semitic.  Some dispute the number killed.  Some deny that any were intentionally killed.  Some deny the casues of the holcaust.  Weikert and West are in the latter category.

I suggest an experiment.  Go check any of the neo Nazi websites on the internet.  I woln’t link, but I mean sites like Vang***gard,  Stormf***ront or Whi***te Ary***an Resistance.  {  *** will prevent a google link between thsi site and those]  Every single one of those will have a Chrsitan Crucifix promiently displayed on the front page of the website.  None will mention evolution except to condemn it. 

If Darwinism was such a support to the Nazis you’d think their philosophical sucessors would empahsize that point.  Alas, they mention Christianity and often provide Bible quotes.

A very clever way of concealing their philosophical debt to Darwin!

unapologetic Catholic - #27273

August 27th 2010

As to Chesterton, a quiz:

Who advocated that Jews wear dsiticntive clothign so they coudl be readily identified and distinguished from Cheistians?

Pick fromt he following:

a.  Pope Innocent III

b.  Edward I of England

c.  St. Louis of France

d. GKK Chesterton

e.  Adolf Hitler

f.  All of the Above. 

Give yourself a Gold Star if you picked “f.”

Bonus points—Identify the author of this quote:

“It is perfectly true that the Jews have been very powerful in Germany .... But the Germans will find it very hard to cut up their culture on a principle of Anti-Semite amputation .... But again, it is but only just to Hitlerism to say that the Jews did infect Germany with a good many things less harmless than the lyrics of Heine or the melodies of Mendelssohn. It is true that many Jews toiled at that obscure conspiracy against Christendom; and sometimes it was marked not by obscurity but obscenity. It is true that they were financiers, or in other words usurers; it is true that they fattened on the worst forms of Capitalism.”

unapologetic catholic - #27279

August 27th 2010

PDS attemtps to disstract us from the unfortunate fact for hsi thesis that the Nazis banned Darwin by offering up that no books were actually burned.  Too bad we can’t sayt he same for people.  Peopel were burned in the tradition of St Simon of Trent and many others throughout the middle ages.

Read about little St. Simon here and then tell me with a straight face that Darwin played a bigger role in the anti-Semitic practices of the Nazis than Chrstianity did:  http://www.stsimonoftrent.com/

If Hilter and his henchmen relied on Darwin we would expect Hilter and others to have liberally quoted Darwin when arguing for the racial supremacy.  In fact can anybody find a a pssage from Darwins writigns where HE said anything at all about Jews?  Instead, as PDS can’t seem ot read, the Nazis banned “Writings of a philosophical and social nature whose content deals with the false scientific enlightenment of primitive Darwinism.”  See the Dawinism?  They considered Darwin part of the evils of the enlightenment (incidentally the same complaint Chersterton lodged against evolution)

Blaming Darwin for the Holocaust is like blaming Newton for plane crashes.

beaglelady - #27299

August 27th 2010

I would add a reference to good scholarly work done by Richard Weikart and John West on the connection between Darwinian thought and racism and eugenics.

While we’re at it, let’s point out the connection between Bill Dembski’s Southern Baptist church and slavery/racism.

Rich - #27301

August 27th 2010


Please give *sources* for the information and quotation you provide regarding Chesterton.  Those of us who are scholars like to read these things in context rather than as proof-texts drawn from who knows where.

I would never say that Darwin is to “blame” for the Holocaust, as if Darwin wanted it to happen or would have approved of it.  But what is known from careful scholarship in primary sources (written by German scientists, philosophers, writers, political figures, etc.) is that Darwinian thought had an influence on Nazi thinking.  For a starting point, look at Richard Weikart’s book on Darwinism and and Nazism.  (Weikart is a serious academic historian who teaches at a secular university, not some little fundamentalist Bible college.)

Of course racial prejudice existed before Darwin, but Darwinian thinking for a time appeared to give a “scientific” basis for racialist theories.  And it doesn’t matter if Hitler banned Darwin’s books for a time; wherever the language of “survival of the fittest” and so on was brought into racial discussion, a Darwinian “justification” was operating.  It’s not a question of blaming Darwin personally, just a recognition that ideas have social consequences.

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