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Ted Davis
 on February 28, 2018

Did Darwin Promote Genocide?

Darwin’s views on race and culture are backwards by today’s standards, but it's wrong to blame him for the atrocities that followed his life and work.


In 1787 the Wedgwood Company made this famous jasperware medallion for the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave trade, depicting a slave in chains with the motto, “Am I not a Man and a Brother?” Josiah Wedgwood was Charles Darwin’s maternal grandfather, and his other grandfather Erasmus Darwin was also a vigorous opponent of slavery—as was Charles Darwin himself. Those who portray him as a proponent of genocide ignore this very inconvenient fact (among others). (image source)

Evolution, Racism, and Genocide

Unquestionably, some of Darwin’s observations about conflict between various groups of humans have been used—all too often—to support racism and even genocide. In his article, Moore offers several examples, and it wouldn’t be hard to find more. By today’s standards Darwin was a racist himself (as I’ve said before), but then so was Abraham Lincoln and undoubtedly most other white people born in the nineteenth century.  As Matt Cartmill pointedly wrote, “From Darwin’s time down to the beginning of World War Two, most scientists who studied human evolution were shocking racists by today’s standards. Most of them firmly believed that some living human races are closer to the apes than others” (A View to a Death in the Morning, p. 199). Numerous German intellectuals at the turn of the nineteenth century used evolution to justify racism and militarism, and Hitler later used their ideas to disastrous effect. In America, eugenics was probably the most virulent form of using Darwin to justify immoral practices, although (perhaps surprisingly) it was Mendelian genetics, not Darwinian evolution, that really made eugenics take off. The sterilization of people seen as mentally or physically handicapped made sense only if laws of inheritance existed and specific genetic factors could be removed from the mix.


As historian Christine Rosen has shown in her book, Preaching Eugenics (2004), liberal clergy (including Protestants, Jews, and for a short period also a few Catholics) were among the most outspoken supporters of several eugenic practices in America during the Progressive Era, especially those related to marriage and child rearing. Indeed, eugenics was central to the beliefs of some religiously liberal scientists at that time. (image source)

According to Moore, it is fair to blame Darwin for all of that. In his view, Darwin was wrong—not only about biological evolution (which is not the main subject of his essay), but especially about morality. Instead of lifting up Darwin, Moore wants his countrymen to emulate “the Christian reformers of the early 19th century, like William Wilberforce and the Earl of Shaftesbury, who argued from belief in divine creation that slaves should be freed and that children shouldn’t be forced to work themselves to death in factories …”

Wilberforce and Shaftesbury were remarkable men who did great things. They were both evangelical Christians who tirelessly worked to abolish social ills, for reasons linked inextricably with their religious beliefs: I share Moore’s admiration for them and I resonate with their worldview. In the moral sphere, they were giants and Darwin was not—nor was almost every other person who has ever lived, including me.

Christian Views on Race and Slavery in the 19th Century

However, Moore goes badly off the rails when he talks about Darwin’s own views on slavery and genocide. The passage I just quoted about Wilberforce and Shaftesbury reveals a fatal problem with his analysis: Moore apparently believes that opposition to slavery necessarily depended on “belief in divine creation,” whereas Darwin opposed slavery no less than Wilberforce—and he never changed his mind, not even after becoming an evolutionist and losing his Christian faith. As Darwin and his family background show, some important British opponents of slavery were neither creationists nor Trinitarian Christians. In the United States many supporters of slavery were Bible-believing Christians, including some leading Reformed clergy in the South shortly before the Civil War.

A prominent Christian racist from the early twentieth century was George McCready Price, whose young-earth creationist teachings crucially influenced Henry Morris and John Whitcomb. Around 1910 he wrote this short poem, “The White and the Brown,” which speaks for itself (see below for citation):

The poor little fellow who went to the south
    Got lost in the forests dank;
His skin grew black, as the fierce sun beat
And scorched his hair with its tropic heat,
    And his mind became a blank.

In his creationist book The Phantom of Organic Evolution (1924), Price grounded his racism in the Bible no less than in science. “The more prominent races, such as the negro, the Caucasian, and the Mongolian, do not differ from one another by merely one or two characters, but by many associated ones,” with “probably a dozen or more … in respect to which the negro differs from the white man.” Even though “these races prove to be cross-fertile,” so are “many natural species [of] plants and animals,” and Price regarded the three types of humans similarly as separate species. He then added, “The believer in the Bible will also point out a moral and social reason for the differentiation of mankind into distinct races.” God had formed them after the Tower of Babel when he “interposed” not only “artificial barriers of language to keep [people] from again blending into one world-embracing despotism,” but also “barriers of race and colour” to assist “in segregating the people of the world into self-contained groups, thus most effectively preventing them from ever again uniting.” If humans “had always been as true to their natural instincts as are the species among the higher animals,” Price concluded, “there never would have been amalgamation among these races which had thus been set apart from one another by a special intervention of Providence” (pp. 104 and 106).


Price published dozens of books stretching through six decades, most of them with Seventh-day Adventist publishers. However, this one containing his view of the human “races” was published by an evangelical firm, Fleming H. Revell, one year before the Scopes trial. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.

In other words, the general historical situation relative to slavery and religion is immensely more complicated than Moore implies, and his erroneous assumption about a one-to-one relationship between worldview and slavery results in a gross misrepresentation of the facts. Moore is not only silent about these pertinent facts, his syntax can easily lead uninformed readers wrongly to believe that Darwin had no sympathy for Wilberforce’s accomplishments. Consider this sentence:

Whereas the British Empire of the early 19th century had been dominated by Christian reformers such as William Wilberforce, who sold slave badges that proclaimed, “Am I not a man and a brother?”, Darwin’s writings converted an empire with a conscience into an empire with a scientific philosophy.

This is very misleading. Moore seems wholly unaware that Wilberforce’s badges (bearing an image similar to the one depicted at the start of this column) were manufactured by none other than Darwin’s Unitarian grandfather, one of Wilberforce’s strongest supporters. Nor does he seem to realize that Darwin’s other grandfather, an early proponent of evolution, also argued against slavery. These facts are well known among creationists, but apparently not to Moore.

Misreading Darwin on Genocide

Unfortunately, it gets worse when we consider whether Darwin promoted genocide. According to Moore, this passage from Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871) “spelled out his racial theory”:

The Western nations of Europe . . . now so immeasurably surpass their former savage progenitors [that they] stand at the summit of civilization. . . . The civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races through the world.

Those words are all Darwin’s, but they are taken from two separate passages more than twenty pages apart, and in context they don’t mean what Moore thinks they mean. They don’t mean that Darwin wished for, let alone actively sought, the extermination of “the savage races”—a term that many British writers, including some Christians, used at that time to describe people who lacked some of the knowledge and technology of nineteenth-century European civilization. Rather, Darwin was describing what he believed the future would look like. It was a grim picture that probably frightened him, but he prophesied it nonetheless. As we shall see, however, he did not applaud it.

Let’s see what Darwin actually said in those two passages. The first sentence quoted by Moore comes from the first edition of Descent of Man, vol. 1, pp. 177-78; I’ve bolded the part he quotes:

It has been urged by several writers that as high intellectual powers are advantageous to a nation, the old Greeks, who stood some grades higher in intellect than any race that has ever existed, ought to have risen, if the power of natural selection were real, still higher in the scale, increased in number, and stocked the whole of Europe. Here we have the tacit assumption, so often made with respect to corporeal structures, that there is some innate tendency towards continued development in mind and body. But development of all kinds depends on many concurrent favourable circumstances. Natural selection acts only in a tentative manner. Individuals and races may have acquired certain indisputable advantages, and yet have perished from failing in other characters. The Greeks may have retrograded from a want of coherence between the many small states, from the small size of their whole country, from the practice of slavery, or from extreme sensuality; for they did not succumb until “they were enervated and corrupt to the very core.” The western nations of Europe, who now so immeasurably surpass their former savage progenitors and stand at the summit of civilisation, owe little or none of their superiority to direct inheritance from the old Greeks; though they owe much to the written works of this wonderful people.

Promoting genocide? Hardly. Darwin is simply refuting an objection to natural selection by proposing an explanation as to why the ancient Greeks didn’t take over the rest of Europe.

The second sentence comes from pp. 200-201:

The great break in the organic chain between man and his nearest allies, which cannot be bridged over by any extinct or living species, has often been advanced as a grave objection to the belief that man is descended from some lower form; but this objection will not appear of much weight to those who, from general reasons, believe in the general principle of evolution. Breaks often occur in all parts of the series, some being wide, sharp and defined, others less so in various degrees; as between the orang and its nearest allies—between the Tarsius and the other Lemuridæ—between the elephant, and in a more striking manner between the Ornithorhynchus or Echidna, and all other mammals. But these breaks depend merely on the number of related forms which have become extinct. 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.

Again, I find no evidence here that Darwin endorsed genocide; having already observed it happening in diverse places, he simply extrapolated to the endpoint. This passage is about “missing links” in the fossil record, not a call to exterminate anyone. Moore has sloppily cobbled together phrases from two unrelated passages, neither of which advocates genocide.

Moore did something even more egregious directly under his heading, “Enabling Genocide.” Here is the relevant part of his paragraph about Darwin’s attitude toward the Aboriginal Australians:

When The Melbourne Review used Darwin’s teachings to justify the genocide of indigenous Australians in 1876, he didn’t try and stop them. When the Australian newspaper argued that “the inexorable law of natural selection [justifies] exterminating the inferior Australian and Maori races”—that “the world is better for it” since failure to do so would be “promoting the non-survival of the fittest, protecting the propagation of the imprudent, the diseased, the defective, and the criminal”—it was Christian missionaries who raised an outcry on behalf of this forgotten genocide. Darwin simply commented [this link to a print source for the following quotation is provided by Moore], “I do not know of a more striking instance of the comparative rate of increase of a civilized over a savage race.”

Moore directly implies that the sentence quoted from Darwin sums up his response to genocide in Australia, for which his ideas had been offered as justification. Nothing could be further from the truth. Darwin wrote those words in his portion of a jointly authored work, The Narrative of the Voyages of His Majesty’s Ships Adventure and Beagle (London, 1839), nearly four decades before the incident described above. Here is the paragraph from which those words were ripped (p. 533):

All the aborigines have been removed to an island in Bass’s Straits, so that Van Diemen’s Land enjoys the great advantage of being free from a native population. This most cruel step seems to have been quite unavoidable, as the only means of stopping a fearful succession of robberies, burnings, and murders, committed by the blacks; but which sooner or later must have ended in their utter destruction. I fear there is no doubt that this train of evil and its consequences, originated in the infamous conduct of some of our countrymen. Thirty years is a short period, in which to have banished the last aboriginal from his native island,—and that island nearly as large as Ireland. I do not know a more striking instance of the comparative rate of increase of a civilized over a savage people.

To present the final sentence so outrageously out of context is dishonest, to put it mildly. Darwin called the forcible moving of native people “most cruel,” and then he unambiguously condemned the whole “infamous” situation as a “train of evil” for which the English were to blame. If that is not an expression of moral opposition to genocide, then I don’t know what such an expression would look like.

What Did Darwin Really Think about Competition Among Humans?

Darwin didn’t endorse genocide, even if it seemed (to him) an inevitable result of contact between peoples at different stages of cultural development. Actually he believed that diseases and other natural forces, not military conquest, would do much of the elimination. For example, consider this passage from Descent (p. 132):

There is reason to suspect, as [Thomas] Malthus has remarked, that the reproductive power is actually less in barbarous than in civilised races. We know nothing positively on this head, for with savages no census has been taken; but from the concurrent testimony of missionaries, and of others who have long resided with such people, it appears that their families are usually small, and large ones rare. This may be partly accounted for, as it is believed, by the women suckling their infants for a prolonged period; but it is highly probable that savages, who often suffer much hardship, and who do not obtain so much nutritious food as civilised men, would be actually less prolific.

Elsewhere (p. 238) he listed some factors favoring “civilised nations” over “savages,” including “new diseases and vices [that] are highly destructive, … evil effects from spirituous [European] liquors, … [and] changed habits of life, which always follow from the advent of Europeans,” with ill effects on health. Again, Darwin was observing what can happen when previously separated cultures collide.


Jeremy Button (image source)


Fuegia Basket (image source)

Now, Darwin surely thought Europeans are culturally superior to “savage races”—a view that would have been shared by nearly all other Englishmen at the time, including most English Christians. He believed in progressive evolution and this was part of that larger story. However, it’s unclear whether he regarded “savages” as intellectually inferior to Europeans. Perhaps he did, but there are passages in which he seemed to believe that it was all just a result of cultural heritage and environment. When Darwin embarked on the HMS Beagle, he shared the vessel with three natives of Tierra del Fuego, who had been taken back to England to be “civilized” on a previous voyage. In the second edition of Journal of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (pp. 207-8), Darwin spoke in generally complimentary terms consistent with what I just said about two of the Fuegians, a man the English called “Jeremy Button” and a woman called “Fuegia Basket.” Pay special attention to the part after the ellipsis:

[Jeremy Button] was of a patriotic disposition; and he liked to praise his own tribe and country, in which he truly said there were ‘plenty of trees,’ and he abused all the other tribes: he stoutly declared that there was no Devil in his land. Jemmy was short, thick, and fat, but vain of his personal appearance; he used always to wear gloves, his hair was neatly cut, and he was distressed if his well-polished shoes were dirtied. … It seems yet wonderful to me, when I think over all his many good qualities, that he should have been of the same race, and doubtless partaken of the same character, with the miserable, degraded savages whom we first met here. Lastly, Fuegia Basket was a nice, modest, reserved young girl, with a rather pleasing but sometimes sullen expression, and very quick in learning anything, especially languages. This she showed in picking up some Portuguese and Spanish, when left on shore for only a short time at Rio de Janeiro and Monte Video, and in her knowledge of English.

Is this the language of a virulent racist who desired the elimination of all non-white peoples, as Moore depicts Darwin to be?

Placing Darwin in Context

Finally, we need to recognize a crucial fact: if Darwin had never lived, the same basic beliefs, attitudes, and terminology about racism, cultural superiority and genocide that Moore attributes causally to Darwin and evolution would still have been there anyway. After all, they had been there for centuries alongside the Bible and Christianity, and they had already been given both “scientific” and “biblical” justification long before Darwin was born. His theory simply enabled racists and cultural imperialists to find a new “scientific” basis for their hatred, justifying actions that Darwin himself abhorred.

When it comes to science, racism is not inherent to either  evolution or special creation, although it has all too often been added to both of them. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

About the author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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