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At The Guardian: What to do about the Political Incorrectness of Darwin’s Descent of Man


They love the naturalist atheism; they don’t love the fact that naturalist atheism can sponsor sexism:

Darwin was a liberal, and an abolitionist, perhaps influenced by his taxidermy tutor in Edinburgh, a Guyanese man called John Edmonstone who had once been enslaved. But we must be honest in our assessment of him and his work. He was a man of his time, and The Descent of Man contains many passages that seriously jar today, being scientifically specious and politically outmoded. Darwin never mentions Edmonstone by name, only as a “full-blooded negro with whom I happened once to be intimate”. He speaks of how the “civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races”.

In the more elegant quotations, you may note the typically Victorian use of “man” to mean all humans. It is less forgivable given Darwin’s belief that women were intellectually inferior: “If men are capable of a decided pre-eminence over women in many subjects, the average of mental power in man must be above that of woman.” At least part of his incomparable legacy is that we now know this to be incorrect. Adam Rutherford, “How should we address Charles Darwin’s complicated legacy?” at The Guardian

Rutherford’s tactic is to slather on the praise because Darwin’s ideas (“He was right about some of the most important ideas anyone ever had, and wrong about others”) make up for the racism and sexism. And — we are told — on no account must Darwin be Cancelled.

This is ultimately why The Descent of Man is my favourite Darwin book, because even the greatest of us are merely people – complex and flawed. It is a deeply humanist book. Darwin casts aside the idea that “savage races” are distinct from the civilised, while using language that bears the indelible stamp of imperial dominance. Yet at the same time, he sees that humankind’s strength lies in cooperation, liberalism and kindness…

Adam Rutherford, “How should we address Charles Darwin’s complicated legacy?” at The Guardian

We don’t think Darwin should be Cancelled either because we don’t live in the Year Zero. But if some were minded to Cancel Darwin, this would not be a very good argument against it.

See, for example, Darwin Reader: Darwin’s racism


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