December 5, 2009


Darwin's idea has cost lives: The naturalist is a secular saint yet he has left a legacy of mass sterilisation and murder (Dennis Sewell, 4 December 2009, The Catholic Herald)

Darwin's decision to represent as a scientific fact that the several races of mankind had travelled different distances down the evolutionary path - that white Europeans were, in short, more highly evolved than Africans or Australian Aborigines - has had appalling consequences. Today, Darwin's supporters frequently make light of his racial views, claiming that he was no more racist than the average upper-middle-class gentlemen of his day, and warning that we should not try to impose the politically correct attitudes of our own times on to the past. But Darwin's racism was very different from that of his contemporaries.

Though any Victorian Englishman might have regarded himself as socially superior to the lawless, savage tribes he encountered throughout the Empire, only Darwin - as the man who discovered evolution by natural selection - could provide an underpinning for racial superiority in biology and evolutionary science. Only Darwin could establish the notion of a hierarchy of races as a scientific orthodoxy that would prevail through much of the following century.

In the autumn of 1906 a group of the most eminent figures in American science decided to give the New York public an object lesson in human evolution. They put a 23-year-old African from the Congo on display in the monkey-house of the Bronx Zoo alongside an orang-utan and a gorilla, presenting the unfortunate young pygmy as the missing link between ape and human. I have found that many people are not in the least surprised to hear of this appalling violation of a person's dignity, perhaps believing such outrages were common in the United States before the Civil Rights Movement of the Sixties. Yet black people had been entitled to vote in New York State for more than a century by the time this Congolese pygmy was put on such humiliating display.

The scientists responsible defended their actions in Darwinian terms. As a member of one of the "lower races" in the evolutionary scale, the pygmy was closer to a dog or a pig than to a white New Englander, therefore his life should be accorded a different value. Certainly the organisers of the exhibit felt no more compelled to ask for the pygmy's consent than to obtain the permission of the orang-utan or the gorilla to their incarceration and display.

In any case, Darwin had shown that human life was not qualitatively different from animal life, and Darwin's theories, it was stressed, were "no more contestable than the multiplication tables".

Truths that America's founding fathers had held to be self-evident - that all men were created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights - were now scorned as gross sentimentalities that had been overtaken by Darwinian science

...but because the true believers are now forced to pretend that races aren't species it is incoherent as science.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 5, 2009 11:59 AM
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