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Science historian Michael Flannery offers resources on Darwin and racism

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Readers might remember the recent, rather desperate attempt at Scientific American to claim that non-Darwinists are white supremacists — which would be entertaining if the reality were not serious.

Darwin’s Sacred Cause

At any rate, Michael Flannery weighs in on an attempt to defend Darwin from charges of racism: For example, in a review of Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009, 448 pages)

… the essential problem with Desmond and Moore’s effort is their naive assumption that anti-slavery somehow means egalitarian and humanitarian. This is a conceptual problem that haunts the book throughout. There really is no reason to assume an immediate and direct relationship between the one and the other, and the example they themselves give of Charles Loring Brace on p. 328 is misguided and shows the selective treatment they give to this whole subject. Brace was indeed a vocal opponent of slavery and also an ardent Darwinist. What Desmond and Moore do not tell the reader is that Brace viewed blacks as inherently inferior and was himself a vocal opponent of miscegenation. In the words of historian George M. Fredrickson, Brace made “the Darwinian case for differentiation of the races by natural selection . . . [and] ended up with a view of racial differences which was far from egalitarian in its implications” (see his Black Image in the White Mind: the Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914, p. 234). Fredrickson quite accurately points out that “Brace’s pioneering effort to develop a Darwinist ethnology in opposition to the American School, although animated to some degree by antislavery humanitarianism, had demonstrated that most of the hierarchical assumptions of the polygenists could be justified just as well, if not better, in Darwinian terms” (p. 235).

The example of Josiah Clark Nott underscores this point. Desmond and Moore spend considerable time showing how the Alabamian’s rabid polygenism formed the basis for an extreme racism and justification for slavery; they fail to point out that in the end Nott was able to reconcile with Darwinism.

Michael Flannery, “Darwin’s Sacred Cause Offers Little New and Nothing of Importance” at Discovery Institute (April 8, 2010)

As noted earlier, in any Darwinian scheme, someone must be the subhuman. Otherwise, there is no beginning to history.

It may be helpful to keep in mind that opposition to slavery was not a radical position for a British gentleman like Darwin. Britain’s economy did not depend on slavery and most of the injustices of the Industrial Revolution were done to people who were not technically slaves. The issues around exploitation in his own environment were fought out on different grounds.

Making heavy weather out of Darwin’s — doubtless sincere and commendable — opposition to slavery seems intended to distract attention to views of his that would certainly be considered racist today.

Louis Agassiz H6.jpg
Louis Agassiz

Dr. Flannery also draws our attention to a lesser known figure, Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) who has baggage in this area that “cannot be lightly discarded or ignored.”

Note: A reader kindly writes to say that Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle is actually worse in this regard than The Descent of Man. Any who have read it are welcome to weigh in. Is the reader correct?

See also: At Scientific American: “Denial of Evolution Is a Form of White Supremacy” Wow. Has the Darwin lobby hired itself a PR firm that recommended getting someone on board to accuse everyone who doubts Darwin of being a “white supremacist”? Quite simply, Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man is surely by far the most racist iconic document ever to be lauded by all the Right People! And getting someone to holler about “white supremacy” among Darwin doubters is, ahem, just a cheap shot, not a response to the stark raving racism in print of the actual document. Guys, try another one.

4 Replies to “Science historian Michael Flannery offers resources on Darwin and racism

  1. 1
    Seversky says:

    Readers might remember the recent, rather desperate attempt at Scientific American to claim that non-Darwinists are white supremacists — which would be entertaining if the reality were not serious

    Most of the antipathy towards the theory of evolution emanates from the political and religious right, some of whom – although not all – espouse white supremacy.

    As noted earlier, in any Darwinian scheme, someone must be the subhuman. Otherwise, there is no beginning to history.

    Pre-hominid does not mean the same as sub-human. Ancestral does not mean the same as inferior.

    It may be helpful to keep in mind that opposition to slavery was not a radical position for a British gentleman like Darwin.

    Perhaps, but it does not change the fact that Darwin was an abolitionist.

    Britain’s economy did not depend on slavery and most of the injustices of the Industrial Revolution were done to people who were not technically slaves.

    Quite true. The Industrial Revolution was built in part on the exploitation of the poor and weak by the rich and powerful, a “survival of the fittest” economic system which persists to this day and which, ironically, is vigorously defended by those who strongly object to the principle when applied to biology.

    Quite simply, Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man is surely by far the most racist iconic document ever to be lauded by all the Right People!

    One of the most viciously anti-Semitic works you will ever read is On The Jews And Their Lies written by Martin Luther, the founding father of the Protestant Reformation. Does that mean Christianity is irredeemably tainted by anti-Semitism?

    Even if Darwin were as racist as you are desperately trying to portray him, does that have any bearing on his theory of evolution through natural selection?

    In both cases, I would say the answer is ‘no’.

  2. 2
    zweston says:

    “Most of the antipathy towards the theory of evolution emanates from the political and religious right, some of whom – although not all – espouse white supremacy…..”

    Does the people group that espouses a view have anything to do with its validity?… People are correctly skeptical to the theory because it’s nonsense, not because of the color of their skin or who they vote for…..it’s nonsense…. basically everything turns into “well, that’s racist”

    What percent of the political and religious right do you think espouse white supremacy? And could you define what you mean by white supremacy if you would, since you made the claim?

  3. 3
    bornagain77 says:

    Seversky claims,

    Pre-hominid does not mean the same as sub-human. Ancestral does not mean the same as inferior.

    LOL, just as long as you define humanity as being equivalent to insects, slime mold, and chemical scum, then there is no problem whatsoever with the term ‘sub-human’ is there, eh Seversky?

    You Chemical Scum, You – Raymond Tallis
    Excerpt: Voltaire got things off to a jolly secular start quite a while back, by instructing the eponymous hero of his novel Zadig (1747) to visualise “men as they really are, insects devouring one another on a little atom of mud.”,,,
    But the competition to find the most scathing description of humanity seems to have intensified, particularly over the last few decades.,,,
    The philosopher and professional misanthrope John Gray has argued that Darwin has cured us of the delusions we might have had about our place in the order of things – we are beasts, metaphysically on all fours with the other beasts. “Man” Gray asserts in Straw Dogs (2003), “is only one of many species, and not obviously worth preserving.” And in case you’re still feeling a bit cocky, he adds: “human life has no more meaning than that of slime mould.” Slime mould? Yikes! Can it get any worse?
    Yes it can. For physics has again been recruited to the great project of disproving our greatness. Stephen Hawking’s declaration in 1995 on a TV show, Reality on the Rocks: Beyond Our Ken, that “the human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate size planet, orbiting round a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a billion galaxies” is much quoted. If we beg to differ, perhaps is it only because we are like the mosquito who, according to Nietzsche, “floats through the air… feeling within himself the flying centre of the universe”? (‘On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’, 1873.)
    There is something repugnant about this nihilistic grandstanding. For a start, it’s insincere. Voltaire did not consider himself merely an insect, any more than Gray considers slime mould his peer, or Hawking regards Hawking as a quantum of chemical scum.
    https://philosophynow.org/issues/89/You_Chemical_Scum_You

    While we are on the subject, perhaps Seversky can enlighten us as to exactly how it is remotely possible to ground the abstract concept of humanity, and the abstract concept of species, in the reductive materialistic framework of his Darwinian worldview.

    As the following article points out, if Darwinian evolution is true, there can be ‘no human nature’
    i.e. “What About Man? , Now we see Chesterton’s point. Man, the universal, does not really exist. According to the late Stanley Jaki, Chesterton detested Darwinism because “it abolishes forms and all that goes with them, including that deepest kind of ontological form which is the immortal human soul.” And if one does not believe in universals, there can be, by extension, no human nature—only a collection of somewhat similar individuals.,,,”

    Darwin, Design & Thomas Aquinas
    The Mythical Conflict Between Thomism & Intelligent Design by Logan Paul Gage
    Excerpt:,,, In Aristotelian and Thomistic thought, each particular organism belongs to a certain universal class of things. Each individual shares a particular nature—or essence—and acts according to its nature. Squirrels act squirrelly and cats catty. We know with certainty that a squirrel is a squirrel because a crucial feature of human reason is its ability to abstract the universal nature from our sense experience of particular organisms.
    Denial of True Species
    Enter Darwinism. Recall that Darwin sought to explain the origin of “species.” Yet as he pondered his theory, he realized that it destroyed species as a reality altogether. For Darwinism suggests that any matter can potentially morph into any other arrangement of matter without the aid of an organizing principle. He thought cells were like simple blobs of Jell-O, easily re-arrangeable. For Darwin, there is no immaterial, immutable form. In The Origin of Species he writes:
    “I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given, for the sake of convenience, to a set of individuals closely resembling each other, and that it does not essentially differ from the term variety, which is given to less distinct and more fluctuating forms. The term variety, again, in comparison with mere individual differences, is also applied arbitrarily, for convenience’s sake.”
    Statements like this should make card-carrying Thomists shudder.,,,
    The first conflict between Darwinism and Thomism, then, is the denial of true species or essences. For the Thomist, this denial is a grave error, because the essence of the individual (the species in the Aristotelian sense) is the true object of our knowledge. As philosopher Benjamin Wiker observes in Moral Darwinism, Darwin reduced species to “mere epiphenomena of matter in motion.” What we call a “dog,” in other words, is really just an arbitrary snapshot of the way things look at present. If we take the Darwinian view, Wiker suggests, there is no species “dog” but only a collection of individuals, connected in a long chain of changing shapes, which happen to resemble each other today but will not tomorrow.
    What About Man?
    Now we see Chesterton’s point. Man, the universal, does not really exist. According to the late Stanley Jaki, Chesterton detested Darwinism because “it abolishes forms and all that goes with them, including that deepest kind of ontological form which is the immortal human soul.” And if one does not believe in universals, there can be, by extension, no human nature—only a collection of somewhat similar individuals.,,,

    https://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=23-06-037-f

    No matter how much Seversky might try to ignore this, this inability of Darwin’s theory to ground the concepts of humanity and species, is certainly NOT a minor problem for a ‘theory’ that purports to be the explanation for the “Origin of Species”

    Supplemental notes,

    What is a species? The most important concept in all of biology is a complete mystery – July 16, 2019
    Excerpt: Enough of species?
    This is only the tip of a deep and confusing iceberg. There is absolutely no agreement among biologists about how we should understand the species. One 2006 article on the subject listed 26 separate definitions of species, all with their advocates and detractors. Even this list is incomplete.
    The mystery surrounding species is well-known in biology, and commonly referred to as “the species problem”. Frustration with the idea of a species goes back at least as far as Darwin.,,,
    some contemporary biologists and philosophers of biology have,,, suggested that biology would be much better off if it didn’t think about life in terms of species at all.,,,
    https://theconversation.com/what-is-a-species-the-most-important-concept-in-all-of-biology-is-a-complete-mystery-119200

    In fact, Charles Darwin himself admitted that he did not have a rigid definition for what the term ‘species’ actually meant when he stated that, “I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given, for the sake of convenience.,,,”

    “I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given, for the sake of convenience, to a set of individuals closely resembling each other, and that it does not essentially differ from the term variety, which is given to less distinct and more fluctuating forms. The term variety, again, in comparison with mere individual differences, is also applied arbitrarily, for convenience’s sake.”
    – Charles Darwin

    As should be needless to say, the inability for a supposedly scientific theory, a supposedly scientific theory that seeks to explain the “Origin of Species” in the first place, to clearly define what a species actually is is a clear indication that that supposedly scientific theory cannot possibly be the proper ‘scientific’ explanation for the “Origin of Species” in the first place!

  4. 4
    ET says:

    seversky:

    Most of the antipathy towards the theory of evolution…

    There isn’t any scientific theory of evolution. You lose.

    Pre-hominid does not mean the same as sub-human.

    Yes, it does.

    Ancestral does not mean the same as inferior.

    It does if the alleged ancestral form is extinct.

    Darwin’s natural selection has proven to be impotent with respect to his claims. Darwin couldn’t muster testable hypotheses, let alone a scientific theory.

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