Darwin, Race and Slavery

They seem to be in desperate need of a fact checker at the Worldnetdaily. One of their features is called The American Minute, written by Bill Federer. Federer is president of Amerisearch, which is described as “a publishing company dedicated to researching America’s noble heritage.” Based on this snippet from one of his columns, I’d say their dedication to research far exceeds their ability to research. After noting that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were both born on the same day, he says:

Lincoln is best known for freeing the slaves by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, affirming that all men are equal. Darwin is best known for the theory of evolution, arguing that all men are not equal because some are more evolved.

It’s always amusing when someone who obviously knows nothing about a subject nonetheless tries to make statements about that subject and puts their foot in their mouth. Let’s examine this claim in a bit more detail. He is really making two statements: A) that Darwin believed that some humans (the “savage races”) were “less evolved” than other humans; and B) that he therefore argued that they were “not equal” in a political sense and could therefore be oppressed. Both of those statements are false.

While it’s certainly true that by today’s standards Darwin would be considered a racist because he did consider White europeans to be “civilized” while other groups of humans were “savage”, that was a cultural distinction, not a biological one. Indeed, chapter 7 of Descent of Man is devoted to examining the question of whether the different races were actually subspecies that had evolved separately, and he concluded that they were not. And in point of fact, the notion that any species is “more evolved” than another in evolutionary theory is nonsense right from the start. Evolution is not a goal-directed process and it doesn’t go in a simple linear sequence from less-evolved to more-evolved. All species are equally evolved – all that are alive have been selected for their ability to surive in their local environment and are well evolved to live in it. There is no more or less evolved.

The second statement, that Darwin believed that other races were unequal to whites in a political sense in contrast with Lincoln, is equally false. Darwin was in fact very much opposed to slavery and took a stand against it many times. In June of 1861, he wrote in a letter to the American biologist Asa Grey,

I have not seen or heard of a soul who is not with the North. Some few, & I am one, even and wish to God, though at the loss of millions of lives, that the North would proclaim a crusade against Slavery. In the long run, a million horrid deaths would be amply repaid in the cause of humanity. What wonderful times we live in. Massachusetts seems to show noble enthusiasm. Great God how I should like to see the greatest curse on Earth Slavery abolished.

Many times Darwin wrote of his concern and compassion for blacks who had suffered at the hands of whites, particularly during his voyage on the Beagle as he saw how the blacks were oppressed in Brazil and elsewhere. By today’s standards, Darwin was probably a racist. By Victorian standards, he was extraordinarily liberal. And contrast his attitude with his creationist opponents, like the Harvard biologist Louis Aggasiz, who regarded blacks as an entirely separate species.

In another article by Mr. Federer, we find this bizarre statement:

But if there is no God – then men are not only not “created,” they are not “equal,” as Darwin espoused, some are more evolved than others…This concept influenced the Dred Scott Case, 1856, which stated slaves “had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order…so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

One wonders how on earth Darwin’s ideas, misinterpreted as they are by Mr. Federer, could have influenced a judicial decision in the United States that took place 3 years before he published Origin of Species and a full 15 years before he published Descent of Man. Amazing powers this Darwin has, managing to influence court decisions in another country before his work was even published!

What makes this claim about the Dred Scott case all the more ridiculous is that Federer is attempting to argue that equality can only be had if there is a God and he quotes the Declaration of Independence about equal rights coming from God, yet that is precisely what the Dred Scott decision is based upon! Look at the entire context of the quote from that decision that Federer uses to blame it on Darwin:

In the opinion of the court, the legislation and histories of the times, and the language used in the Declaration of Independence, show, that neither the class of persons who had been imported as slaves, nor their descendants, whether they had become free or not, were then acknowledged as a part of the people, nor intended to be included in the general words used in that memorable instrument.

It is difficult at this day to realize the state of public opinion in relation to that unfortunate race, which prevailed in the civilized and enlightened portions of the world at the time of the Declaration of Independence, and when the Constitution of the United States was framed and adopted. But the public history of every European nation displays it in a manner too plain to be mistaken.

They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics, which no one thought of disputing, or supposed to be open to dispute; and men in every grade and position in society daily and habitually acted upon it in their private pursuits, as well as in matters of public concern, without doubting for a moment the correctness of this opinion.

So contrary to Federer’s patently ridiculous assertion that the Dred Scott decision was “influenced” by Darwin in contrast to the equality-loving theism of the founding fathers, the entire decision was made on the factual basis that those same founding fathers who declared that our rights came from God owned slaves. Contrast that with Darwin, who was vehemently opposed to slavery, and you are left with the unmistakable conclusion that Mr. Federer is peddling nonsense.

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  • Jim Foley

    Ed, you missed some supporting data which shows that Lincoln was probably *more* of a racist than Darwin was. The following quotes by Lincoln can be found in Stephen Gould’s book “The Mismeasure of Man”:

    “There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

    “Negro equality! Fudge! How long, in the Government of a God great enough to make and rule the universe, shall there continue knaves to vend, and fools to quip, so low a piece of demagogism as this.”

  • http://www.mblog.com/dispatches_from_the_culture_wars/ Ed Brayton

    Hi Jim, good to see you here. I thought about putting material in about Lincoln’s racism but I was in a bit of a hurry when I wrote it. Despite the fact that he ended slavery, he did not want blacks to stay here. He wanted them colonized somewhere else, and he certainly didn’t think blacks were in any way equal.

    For those who don’t know the name, Jim Foley is the author of the Hominid FAQ at the Talk.Origins Archive. If you’re looking for information on human evolution, that’s the place to look. He does a brilliant job of maintaining that archive.