Did Charles Darwin ever invoke his own theory in order to justify the extermination of one race by another? If the term “extermination” refers to systematic genocide, the answer is an emphatic “No”; but if “extermination” is defined more broadly to include the displacement and consequent extinction of one race by another, more technologically advanced race in the battle for scarce resources, then I would argue that the answer is “Yes.” I recently came across some highly revealing correspondence between the celebrated author and Anglican divine, Charles Kingsley (see here) and Charles Darwin, whom he greatly admired, (see here) indicating that Darwin, like Kingsley, looked forward to “the higher races of men, when high enough, replacing & clearing off the lower races” at some stage in the future. In 1862, Darwin wrote: “In 500 years how the Anglo-saxon race will have spread & exterminated whole nations; & in consequence how much the Human race, viewed as a unit, will have risen in rank.” Darwin seems to have viewed the extinction of “the lower races” as a great step forward for humanity, and hence an improvement in its overall welfare. Since we also know from Darwin’s writings that he viewed “the general good or welfare of the community” as “the test of morality,” it seems to follow that he not only regarded the displacement of the “lower races” by the “higher races” as inevitable, but that he also saw it as morally justifiable.
Three important caveats
Before we proceed, let’s be clear about three things up-front. First, Darwin was not the father of “scientific racism.” So-called scientific racism goes back to the mid-eighteenth century Enlightenment, one century before Darwin published his Origin of Species. For those readers who wish to learn more about the origins of this twisted ideology, I would recommend Ignorant Science: The Eighteenth Century’s Development of a Scientific Racism by Scott David Foutz (Quodlibet Journal, Volume 1 Number 8, December 1999) and Race and Genealogy: Buffon and the Formation of the Concept of ‘Race’ by Claude-Olivier Doron (Humana Mente Journal of Philosophical Studies, 2012, Vol. 22, 75-109).
Second, Charles Darwin vehemently detested slavery, as well as all forms of cruelty to people of other races. Darwin’s humanitarian sentiments are copiously chronicled by Tony Britain in his article, Darwin on race and slavery. The following excerpts will serve to convey the tenor of Darwin’s views on slavery:
I have watched how steadily the general feeling, as shown at elections, has been rising against Slavery. What a proud thing for England, if she is the first European nation which utterly abolish is it. I was told before leaving England, that after living in slave countries: all my options would be altered; the only alteration I am aware of is forming a much higher estimate of the Negros character. It is impossible to see a negro & not feel kindly toward him; such cheerful, open honest expressions & such fine muscular bodies; I never saw any of the diminutive Portuguese with their murderous countenances, without almost wishing for Brazil to follow the example of Haiti; & considering the enormous healthy looking black population, it will be wonderful if at some future day it does not take place.
― Charles Darwin to Catherine Darwin (May 22 – July 14 1833), The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Vol. 1, 1821-1836 (1985), pp. 312-313.
It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing the state of slaves with our poorer countrymen: if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin; but how this bears on slavery, I cannot see; as well might the use of the thumb-screw be defended in one land, by showing that men in another land suffered from some dreadful disease. Those who look tenderly at the slave owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter; what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children – those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own – being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty: but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice, than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin.
― Charles Darwin, Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the world, under the command of Capt. Fitz Roy R.N. (1860). London: John Murray. Tenth thousand. Final text. Chapter XXI, p. 500.
“But I suppose you are all too overwhelmed with the public affairs to care for science. I never knew the newspapers so profoundly interesting. N. America does not do England Justice: 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.”
― Charles Darwin to Asa Gray (June 5, 1861), in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Vol. 9, 1861 (1994), p.163.
After producing these and many other similar quotes from Darwin’s writings, Britain concludes:
What we do know of Darwin from the above quotes is that for a mid-19th century upper class, white, English male, he was very enlightened and “liberal” minded. He was a staunch abolitionist, he considered blacks and Indians to be people, he felt disgust and horror at their mistreatment, and he had much sympathy for their plight. Therefore singling Darwin out among 19th century scientists for the label of racist is hardly fair.
However, Britain displays his ignorance when he naively asserts that there is no evidence that Darwin ever viewed some races as being inferior to other races:
… [I]f you were to ask him if he thought that Europeans were on average intellectually superior to non-Europeans, he may have said that they are. But this is merely speculation and I have yet to see any hard evidence that he did.
In fact, as we’ll see, Darwin’s own writings leave absolutely no doubt that he viewed the Anglo-Saxon race as superior to other races. What’s more, he seems to have looked forward to the future extinction of the “lower races” of humanity, as an inevitable result of being out-competed by the Anglo-Saxon race, in the battle for scarce natural resources.
Third, it has to be acknowledged that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection does not, in and of itself, imply that the different races of humanity are inherently unequal, although it certainly implies that they might be (in this context, we should recall evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s dictum that “Human equality is a contingent fact of history”). On the other hand, it is important to recall that Darwin’s theory of human nature was an avowedly materialistic one. While the belief that the various races of humanity were intellectually unequal was common in the nineteenth century, it was nevertheless held in check to some degree by the belief (shared by most people, even then) that all human beings, regardless of their race, possessed an immortal soul and were capable of entering Heaven, making them spiritually equal. On a Darwinian worldview, however, the concept of “spiritual equality” had no meaning.
Darwin on racial inequality
What’s more, there is abundant evidence from Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871) that he explicitly rejected the idea of a spiritual equality of all human beings. Darwin repeatedly refers to the people of Tierra del Fuego and the Australian Aborigines as “savages.” Darwin’s remarks on the people whom he called “savages” are very telling. He regarded them as: (i) differing only in degree from the “higher” animals (such as dogs and apes) in their mental capacities; (ii) lacking in the concept of a universal morality; and (iii) utterly incapable of entertaining the concept of a universal Creator God. Let us remember that Darwin attributed these inabilities not to individuals, but to entire races. There can be no question, then, that Darwin rejected the concept of racial equality in a fairly radical fashion.
For Darwin, there was little difference between the capacities of the lowest “savages” and the highest animals for abstract thought
Self-consciousness, Individuality, Abstraction, General Ideas, &c. — It would be useless to attempt discussing these high faculties, which, according to several recent writers, make the sole and complete distinction between man and the brutes, for hardly two authors agree in their definitions. Such faculties could not have been fully developed in man until his mental powers had advanced to a high standard, and this implies the use of a perfect language. No one supposes that one of the lower animals reflects whence he comes or whither he goes, — what is death or what is life, and so forth. But can we feel sure that an old dog with an excellent memory and some power of imagination, as shewn by his dreams, never reflects on his past pleasures in the chase? and this would be a form of self-consciousness. On the other hand; as Buchner has remarked, how little can the hard-worked wife of a degraded Australian savage, who uses hardly any abstract words and cannot count above four, exert her self-consciousness, or reflect on the nature of her own existence.
– Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and selection in relation to sex (London: John Murray, 1871, Volume 1, 1st edition.), Chapter II, p. 62.
Darwin regarded savages as devoid of religion, and viewed the spiritual beliefs of “savages” as “intermediate” between that of human beings and animals
Belief in God — Religion. — There is no evidence that man was aboriginally endowed with the ennobling belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God. On the contrary there is ample evidence, derived not from hasty travellers, but from men who have long resided with savages, that numerous races have existed and still exist, who have no idea of one or more gods, and who have no words in their languages to express such an idea…
If, however, we include under the term “religion” the belief in unseen or spiritual agencies, the case is wholly different; for this belief seems to be almost universal with the less civilised races. Nor is it difficult to comprehend how it arose. As soon as the important faculties of the imagination, wonder, and curiosity, together with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed, man would naturally have craved to understand what was passing around him, and have vaguely speculated on his own existence… It is probable, as Mr. Tylor has clearly shewn, that dreams may have first given rise to the notion of spirits; for savages do not readily distinguish between subjective and objective impressions… But until the above-named faculties of imagination, curiosity, reason, &c., had been fairly well developed in the mind of man, his dreams would not have led him to believe in spirits, any more than in the case of a dog.…
The belief in spiritual agencies would easily pass into the belief in the existence of one or more gods. For savages would naturally attribute to spirits the same passions, the same love of vengeance or simplest form of justice, and the same affections which they themselves experienced. The Fuegians appear to be in this respect in an intermediate condition, for when the surgeon on board the “Beagle” shot some young ducklings as specimens, York Minster declared in the most solemn manner, “Oh! Mr. Bynoe, much rain, much snow, blow much;” and this was evidently a retributive punishment for wasting human food. So again he related how, when his brother killed a “wild man,” storms long raged, much rain and snow fell. Yet we could never discover that the Fuegians believed in what we should call a God, or practised any religious rites; and Jemmy Button, with justifiable pride, stoutly maintained that there was no devil in his land. This latter assertion is the more remarkable, as with savages the belief in bad spirits is far more common than the belief in good spirits.
– Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and selection in relation to sex (London: John Murray, 1871, Volume 1, 1st edition.), Chapter II, pp. 65-67.
Darwin on the moral inferiority of “savages”
While Darwin was prepared to grant that “savages,” as he called them, “undoubtedly do possess, and often in a high degree, those virtues which are serviceable, or even necessary, for the existence of a tribal community”, he considered them morally inferior to the civilized races, regarding them as being poor at reasoning, lacking in self-restraint, and having no concept of a universal moral law:
The great sin of Slavery has been almost universal, and slaves have often been treated in an infamous manner. As barbarians do not regard the opinion of their women, wives are commonly treated like slaves. Most savages are utterly indifferent to the sufferings of strangers, or even delight in witnessing them. It is well known that the women and children of the North-American Indians aided in torturing their enemies. Some savages take a horrid pleasure in cruelty to animals, and humanity with them is an unknown virtue. Nevertheless, feelings of sympathy and kindness are common, especially during sickness, between the members of the same tribe, and are sometimes extended beyond the limits of the tribe. Mungo Park’s touching account of the kindness of the negro women of the interior to him is well known. Many instances could be given of the noble fidelity of savages towards each other, but not to strangers; common experience justifies the maxim of the Spaniard, “Never, never trust an Indian.”…
The chief causes of the low morality of savages, as judged by our standard, are, firstly, the confinement of sympathy to the same tribe. Secondly, insufficient powers of reasoning, so that the bearing of many virtues, especially of the self-regarding virtues, on the general welfare of the tribe is not recognised. Savages, for instance, fail to trace the multiplied evils consequent on a want of temperance, chastity, &c. And, thirdly, weak power of self-command; for this power has not been strengthened through long-continued, perhaps inherited, habit, instruction and religion…
– Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and selection in relation to sex (London: John Murray, 1871, Volume 1, 1st edition.), Chapter III, pp. 94-95, p. 97.
Darwin’s utilitarian morality
The next piece of the jigsaw puzzle that needs to be assembled before we can understand his views on genocide is that Darwin was a utilitarian: he defined happiness in terms of the greatest good of the greatest number. (Darwin preferred the more precise term, “greatest good,” to the nebulous phrase, “greatest happiness.”)
Darwin’s views on morality are succinctly summarized by Doris Schroeder in her article, Evolutionary Ethics, in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Being influenced by utilitarianism, Darwin believed that the greatest-happiness principle will inevitably come to be regarded as a standard for right and wrong (ibid. 134) by social beings with highly evolved intellectual capacities and a conscience…
Darwin’s distinction between good and evil is identical with the distinction made by hedonistic utilitarians. Darwin accepts the greatest-happiness principle as a standard of right and wrong. Hence, an action can be judged as good if it improves the greatest happiness of the greatest number, by either increasing pleasure or decreasing pain…
Darwin (1930: 234) writes that “happiness is an essential part of the general good.” … Thus, Darwin derives ought from is when he moves from the empirical fact of unhappiness to the normative claim of a duty to relieve unhappiness.
Darwin explains the logic underlying his views on morality in a short passage in his Descent of Man (1871):
As all men desire their own happiness, praise or blame is bestowed on actions and motives, according as they lead to this end; and as happiness is an essential part of the general good, the greatest-happiness principle indirectly serves as a nearly safe standard of right and wrong. As the reasoning powers advance and experience is gained, the more remote effects of certain lines of conduct on the character of the individual, and on the general good, are perceived; and then the self-regarding virtues, from coming within the scope of public opinion, receive praise, and their opposites receive blame.
– Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and selection in relation to sex (London: John Murray, 1871, Volume 2, 1st edition), Chapter XXI, p. 393.
In another passage, however, Darwin, writing as a biologist, maintained that “the general good or welfare of the community” was a more sensible moral yardstick than John Stuart Mill’s vague term, “the greatest happiness”:
Concluding Remarks. — Philosophers of the derivative school of morals formerly assumed that the foundation of morality lay in a form of Selfishness; but more recently in the “Greatest Happiness principle.” According to the view given above, the moral sense is fundamentally identical with the social instincts; and in the case of the lower animals it would be absurd to speak of these instincts as having been developed from selfishness, or for the happiness of the community. They have, however, certainly been developed for the general good of the community. The term, general good, may be defined as the means by which the greatest possible number of individuals can be reared in full vigour and health, with all their faculties perfect, under the conditions to which they are exposed. As the social instincts both of man and the lower animals have no doubt been developed by the same steps, it would be advisable, if found practicable, to use the same definition in both cases, and to take as the test of morality, the general good or welfare of the community, rather than the general happiness; but this definition would perhaps require some limitation on account of political ethics.
– Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and selection in relation to sex (London: John Murray, 1871, Volume 1, 1st edition.), Chapter III, pp. 97-98.
Why Darwin rejected the extermination of the unfit as immoral
Darwin held that natural selection improves races by eliminating unfit individuals. Writing as a biologist, he deplored the fact that weak individuals in civilized societies were allowed to survive and breed. Despite this, Darwin insisted that the elimination of the unfit for the good of the race would be highly unethical, since “it could only be for a contingent benefit, with a certain and great present evil.” Inflicting deliberate harm on a sentient human being for the sake of a possible future benefit (i.e. building a fitter race) was immoral according to Darwin’s utilitarian principles, and could not be condoned. In a civilized society, Darwin held that it was only right to allow the weak to survive and breed, although he also thought it was perfectly appropriate to discourage them from getting married:
With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.…
The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with a certain and great present evil. Hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely the weaker and inferior members of society not marrying so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased, though this is more to be hoped for than expected, by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage…
– Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and selection in relation to sex (London: John Murray, 1871, Volume 1, 1st edition), Chapter V, pp. 168-169.
Darwin and Kingsley’s exchange of letters in 1862 on the extermination of future races
In 1862, the celebrated Anglican divine and personal chaplain to Queen Victoria, Charles Kingsley, exchanged letters with Darwin, in which the topic of race was discussed.
Darwin had a special personal reason to value Kingsley’s friendship, as Russell Grigg of creation.com explains in his article, Darwin’s quisling (Charles Kingsley). Kingsley was the first clergyman to endorse his Origin of Species:
Darwin sent Kingsley a copy of the first edition of his Origin. Kingsley, in his letter of thanks, was fulsome in his praise. ‘All I have seen of it awes me,’ he wrote, ‘both from the heap of facts and the prestige of your name, and also with the clear intuition, that if you be right, I must give up much that I have believed and written.’2 This apparently posed no problem to him, for he went on to say that he was now free from the ‘superstition’ that God needed a fresh act of creation for each type of creature.
Darwin was so delighted at receiving this endorsement from an Anglican prelate that he hastily added part of Kingsley’s letter to the last chapter of the second edition of the Origin, published just two months later, as follows:
‘A celebrated author and divine has written to me that “he has gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws.”3
2. Kingsley’s letter of thanks was dated 18 November 1859, which means he received his copy at least a full week before the official publication date. ‘Kingsley to Darwin, November 18, 1859’, Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, D. Appleton and Co., London, Vol. II, pp. 81–2, 1911.
3. Darwin, C., On the Origin of Species, 2nd edit., John Murray, London, p. 481, 1860. Note that this is slightly different from the wording that appears in Ref. 2. Himmelfarb suggests that either Kingsley altered it when he gave permission for it to be used or Darwin himself altered it for greater clarity.
Kingsley, as it turned out, shared the racist views of his scientific contemporaries, as Anthony S. Wohl, Professor of History at Vassar College, narrates in his essay, Racism and Anti-Irish Prejudice in Victorian England:
During the nineteenth century theories of race were advanced both by the scientific community and in the popular daily and periodical press. Even before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, the old concept of the great chain of being, marking the gradations of mankind, was being subjected to a new scientific racism…
In much of the pseudo-scientific literature of the day the Irish were held to be inferior, an example of a lower evolutionary form, closer to the apes than their “superiors”, the Anglo-Saxons . Cartoons in Punch portrayed the Irish as having bestial, ape-like or demonic features and the Irishman, (especially the political radical) was invariably given a long or prognathous jaw, the stigmata to the phrenologists of a lower evolutionary order, degeneracy, or criminality. Thus John Beddoe, who later became the President of the Anthropological Institute (1889-1891), wrote in his Races of Britain (1862) that all men of genius were orthognathous (less prominent jaw bones) while the Irish and the Welsh were prognathous and that the Celt was closely related to Cromagnon man, who, in turn, was linked, according to Beddoe, to the “Africanoid”. The position of the Celt in Beddoe’s “Index of Nigrescence” was very different from that of the Anglo-Saxon. These ideas were not confined to a lunatic fringe of the scientific community, for although they never won over the mainstream of British scientists they were disseminated broadly and it was even hinted that the Irish might be the elusive missing link! Certainly the “ape-like” Celt became something of an malevolent cliche of Victorian racism. Thus Charles Kingsley could write
I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw [in Ireland] . . . I don’t believe they are our fault. . . . But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much. . . .” (Charles Kingsley in a letter to his wife, quoted in L.P. Curtis, Anglo-Saxons and Celts, p.84).
Bearing these facts in mind, we can now understand the twisted mental framework within which Kingsley was operating, when he penned the following passage, in a letter to Darwin, dated January 31st, 1862:
I want now to bore you on another matter. This great gulf between the quadrumana & man; & the absence of any record of species intermediate between man & the ape. It has come home to me with much force, that while we deny the existence of any such, the legends of most nations are full of them. Fauns, Satyrs, Inui, Elves, Dwarfs—we call them one minute mythological personages, the next conquered inferior races—& ignore the broad fact, that they are always represented as more bestial than man, & of violent sexual passion.
The mythology of every white race, as far as I know, contains these creatures, & I (who believe that every myth has an original nucleus of truth) think the fact very important.
The Inuus of the old Latins is obscure: but his name is from inire —sexual violence.
The Faun of the Latins (or Romans, I dont know wh.) has a monkey face, & hairy hind legs & body— the hind feet are traditionally those of a goat, the goat being the type of lust.
The Satyr of the Greeks is completely human, save an ape-face & a short tail—
The Elves Fairies & Dwarfs puzzle me, the 2 first being represented, originally, as of great beauty, the Elves dark, & the Fairies fair; & the Dwarfs as cunning magicians, & workers in metal— They may be really conquered aborigines.
The Hounuman, monkey God of India, & his monkey armies, who take part with the Brahminæ invaders, are now supposed to be a slave negro race, who joined the new Conquerors against their old masters. To me they point to some similar semi-human race. That such creatures shd. have become divine, when they became rare, & a fetish worship paid to them—as happened in all the cases I have mentioned, is consonant with history—& is perhaps the only explanation of fetish-worship. The fear of a terrible, brutal, & mysterious creature, still lingering in the forests.
That they should have died out, by simple natural selection, before the superior white race, you & I can easily understand.
That no sculls, &c. of them have been found, is a question wh. may bother us when the recent deposits of Italy & Greece have been as well searched as those of England. Till then, it concerns no man.
I hope that you will not think me dreaming— To me, it seems strange that we are to deny that any Creatures intermediate between man & the ape ever existed, while our forefathers of every race, assure us that they did— As for having no historic evidence of them—How can you have historic evidence in pre-historic times? Our race was strong enough to kill them out while it was yet savage — We are not ni**ers, who can coexist till the 19th. century with gorillas a few miles off. I do not say that this notion is true, as a fact: but I do say that it has to be looked to, & weighed patiently quantum valeat.
What did Darwinn think of this? An excerpt from his letter to Charles Kingsley, of February 6th, 1862 reveals that he acquiesced in Kingsley’s view that the elimination of unfit races as a result of the “higher” races out-competing them, would be a good thing for humanity as a whole:
That is a grand & almost awful question on the genealogy of man to which you allude. It is not so awful & difficult to me, as it seems to be most, partly from familiarity & partly, I think, from having seen a good many Barbarians. I declare the thought, when I first saw in T[ierra] del Fuego a naked painted, shivering hideous savage, that my ancestors must have been somewhat similar beings, was at that time as revolting to me, nay more revolting than my present belief that an incomparably more remote ancestor was a hairy beast. Monkeys have downright good hearts, at least sometimes, as I could show, if I had space…
It is a very curious subject, that of the old myths; but you naturally with your classical & old-world knowledge lay more stress on such beliefs, than I do with all my profound ignorance. Very odd those accounts in India of the little hairy men! It is very true what you say about the higher races of men, when high enough, replacing & clearing off the lower races. In 500 years how the Anglo-saxon race will have spread & exterminated whole nations; & in consequence how much the Human race, viewed as a unit, will have risen in rank.
Whereas Darwin had stated in his Descent of Man that the deliberate culling of the unfit, such as was practiced by “savages” was morally wrong, as it inflicted certain harm for an uncertain future benefit, the same objection would not apply here. The harm done was indirect and uncertain, as the people being displaced would not die immediately – they were merely being out-competed in the battle for land and resources – while the future benefit was, for Darwin, quite certain. It appears, then, that Darwin would have viewed with equanimity the elimination of these unfit races in the struggle for survival.
Or is it? What do readers think?