Denis Alexander
 on February 12, 2018

Darwin: The Father of Modern Racism?

While biological evolution is not itself an ideology, it has been used for ideological purposes to defend everything from eugenics to capitalism to racism.


Video Transcript

I wouldn’t say evolution is in itself an ideology. It’s often been used for ideological purposes. I mean, it’s been used since 1859–since Darwin published his Origin of Species–in defense of almost every kind of -ism you can imagine: communism, capitalism, racism, eugenics, and on and on you could go–atheism today, of course–all those -isms. And I think what happens in the history of science and you find this quite often actually is you get a big theory of science that is really successful, and then people try and use the prestige of that scientific theory to support all kinds of ideologies. And I think that’s very much what’s happened in the case of evolution.

Well i think one of the ideas is the idea that in evolution there’s a kind of struggle for existence, a survival for the fittest. Now actually the phrase “survival of the fittest” doesn’t come from Darwin himself, but it comes from Herbert Spencer, who was one of the great popularizers of Darwinism in the late nineteenth century and he introduced that idea. And it’s actually not a very good description of what happens in biology. But people have picked up on that idea. And of course it was picked up by the Kaiser during the First World War, and the idea that “might is right.” And so that was one of the ideologies that were used to justify German militaristic expansion during the first world war.

And again you get the same in Hitler, you know the idea that might is right, the struggle for survival, that the pure race is the one that’s going to survive and is going to conquer the world. So evolution has been used in that way, and abused. There’s nothing intrinsically in the biology itself to say you should try and copy what’s going on there. But I think politicians have seen it as an opportunity to justify their expansionist and, in the case of Hitler, really terrible, cruel policies. So that’s one, very dramatic way in which it’s been taken,

Another way, I suppose, is in racism, where the very fact that people do vary somewhat in genetics, and in the way they look and so forth, they’ve tried to justify the evolutionary process as a way of being racist, and of treating people differently just because they have black skin, or whatever it might be. Again, completely unjustified by the theory of evolution, but people have tried to take the ideology in that direction.

About the author

Denis Alexander

Denis Alexander

Denis Alexander is the Emeritus Director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, where he is a Fellow. He has spent the past 40 years in the biological research community. From 1992-2012 he was editor of the journal Science & Christian Belief, and he currently serves as an Executive Committee member of the International Society for Science and Religion. In his book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? Alexander presents his belief in both the biblical doctrine of creation and the coherence of evolutionary theory. Alexander’s other books include Rebuilding the Matrix – Science and Faith in the 21st CenturyScience, Faith and Ethics: Grid or Gridlock? (co-authored with Robert White); and The Language of Genetics – an Introduction. Dr Alexander gave the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews University in December 2012 on the theme ‘Genes, Determinism and God’ to be published by Cambridge University Press 2016/17