Was Darwin a racist?

Since Ed Darrell made such a comprehensive comment on the question of whether Darwin was as wicked a racist as the illiterate ideologues of Uncommon Descent would like you to believe, I’m just copying his list here.

  1. Remember the famous quarrel between Capt. FitzRoy and Darwin aboard the Beagle? After leaving Brazil, in their mess discussions (remember: Darwin was along to talk to FitzRoy at meals, to keep FitzRoy from going insane as his predecessor had), Darwin noted the inherent injustice of slavery. Darwin argued it was racist and unjust, and therefore unholy. FitzRoy loudly argued slavery was justified, and racism was justified, by the scriptures. It was a nasty argument, and Darwin was banned to mess with the crew with instructions to get off the boat at the next convenient stop. FitzRoy came to his senses after a few days of dining alone. Two things about this episode: First, it shows Darwin as a committed anti-racist; second, it contrasts Darwin’s views with the common, scripture-inspired view of the day, which was racist.

  2. Darwin’s remarks about people of color were remarkably unracist for his day. We should always note his great friend from college days, the African man who taught him taxidermy. We must make note of Darwin’s befriending the Fuegan, Jeremy Button, whom the expedition was returning to his home. Non-racist descriptions abound in context, but this is a favorite area for anti-Darwinists to quote mine. Also, point to Voyage of the Beagle, which is available on line. In it Darwin compares the intellect of the Brazilian slaves with Europeans, and notes that the slaves are mentally and tactically as capable as the greatest of the Roman generals. Hard evidence of fairness on Darwin’s part.

  3. Darwin’s correspondence, especially from the voyage, indicates his strong support for ending slavery, because slavery was unjust and racist. He is unequivocal on the point. Moreover, many in Darwin’s family agreed, and the Wedgewood family fortune was put behind the movement to end slavery. Money talks louder than creationists in this case, I think. Ironic, Darwin supports the Wilberforce family’s work against slavery, and Samuel Wilberforce betrays the support. It reminds me of Pasteur, who said nasty things about Darwin; but when the chips were down and Pasteur’s position and reputation were on the line, Darwin defended Pasteur. Darwin was a great man in many ways.

  4. Watch for the notorious quote mining of Emma’s remark that Charles was “a bigot.” It’s true, she said it. Emma said Charles was a bigot, but in respect to Darwin’s hatred of spiritualists and seances. Darwin’s brother, Erasmus, was suckered in by spiritualists. Darwin was, indeed, a bigot against such hoaxes. It’s recounted in Desmond and Moore’s biography, but shameless quote miners hope their audience hasn’t read the book and won’t. Down here in Texas, a lot of the quote miners are Baptists. I enjoy asking them if they do not share Darwin’s bigotry against fortune tellers. Smart ones smile, and drop the argument.

  5. One might hope that the “Darwin-was-racist” crap comes around to the old canard that Darwin’s work was the basis of the campaign to kill the natives of Tasmania. That was truly a terrible, racist campaign, and largely successful. Of course, historians note that the war against Tasmanians was begun in 1805, and essentially completed by 1831, when just a handful of Tasmanians remained alive. These dates are significant, of course, because they show the war started four years prior to Darwin’s birth, and it was over when Darwin first encountered Tasmania on his voyage, leaving England in 1831. In fact, Darwin laments the battle. I have often found Darwin critics quoting Darwin’s words exactly, but claiming they were the words of others against Darwin’s stand.

  6. Also, one should be familiar with Darwin’s writing about “civilized” Europeans wiping out “savages.” In the first place, “savage” in that day and in Darwin’s context simply means ‘not living in European-style cities, with tea and the occasional Mozart.’ In the second, and more critical place, Darwin advances the argument noting that (in the case of the Tasmanians, especially), the “savages” are the group that is better fit to the natural environment, and hence superior to the Europeans, evolutionarily. Darwin does not urge these conflicts, but rather, laments them. How ironic that creationist quote miners do not recognize that.

Isn’t it odd how the creationists are so divorced from reality that they can’t even concede that Darwin was an abolitionist, and are so reduced in their arguments against evolution that they’ve had to resort to the desperate “Darwin beats puppies!” attack?


  1. #1 Louis
    March 22, 2007

    While I applaud the excellent efforts of PZ and Ed, this is a “debate” that causes me to sigh enormously and reach for my copy of “Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman” which I read as solace in times of great trauma. The blame I place at the feet of the IDCists and their ilk btw, don’t worry.

    Was Darwin a racist by 21st century standards? Yes, read his works and you’ll find ample evidence. Was Darwin a racist by 19th century standards? Well excepting the fact that as someone mentions racism was a fledgling concept at best during the 19th century, no he was not. He was far in advance of the 19th century zeitgeist. Dawkins has made this point well as have many others. It also appears that Darwin could teach more than a few modern people about humility and tolerance. Were Darwin’s ideas about race different from many of his peers? Yes they were. Were they vastly ahead of their time in their racial and abolitionist sentiments? Yes they were. As a matter of personal opinion would Darwin struggle to cope with 21st century racial tolerance? No he wouldn’t. Guess what: BIG FUCKING DEAL.

    As many, many, MANY others have pointed out, this is supremely irrelevant to evolutionary biology. Not only that but it’s supremely stupid for the cretinous IDCists and their vile ilk to bring this up. If they would have us believe that a series of ideas rises or falls not on the basis of the evidence but on the basis of a skewed analysis of their adherents’ morality then they are in DEEP shit.

    Obviously should anyone have the temerity to point this out one is deemed committing argumentum ad hominem, prejudiced etc etc.

    Kudos to those people who assemble the evidence to contradict their claims.


  2. #2 rgz
    February 16, 2009

    This should be taught in schools, and should have be taught to adults on Darwin’s day.

    Also Hitler’s involvement with the church should be taught in schools again. People seem to be forgiving.

  3. #3 Nicole
    February 16, 2009

    Thank for clearing that up – now I’m lying in wait for someone to dare call Darwin a racist in front of me… I love arguments I can win in six seconds flat!

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