Over at Uncommon Descent (no link provided due to censorship of comments), Denyse O’Leary is urging “Darwinists” to “divorce” The Descent of Man because not to do so is to support “Darwin’s racism” and to thus support racism today.
I’m wondering if O’Leary actually ever read Descent and followed Darwin’s logic. I know, I know, it’s a big book, and Denyse may not have the attention span to handle all that fuddy-duddy Victorian prose but she needs to do so before yammering on. Then she may want to read some of the historical literature on the subject. She claims to be a journalist, so I’m hoping she stayed awake during the class on research. If not, I’d be glad to send her to the secondary literature in Descent, the history of race theories, Victorian attitudes to race, Darwin’s own involvement with the abolitionist movement, his personal politics, all that sort of thing. Now, of course Darwin felt that other groups were culturally inferior – he was a privileged Englishman at the height of the Empire – but to rip that out of its own historical and cultural context is to be profoundly ahistorical and, frankly, disingenuous.
One of the central aims of Descent is to use sexual selection (in this case, mate choice) to explain human racial differences (e.g. skin color) that Darwin felt were inconsequential but were being used by polygenists (and others) to claim inferiority for non-whites. Racial differences – to Darwin – became a matter of aesthetic choice, not inherent value. That is a really weird position for a racist to hold, now isn’t it?
I recently ran a seminar in which students had to read Descent (among other works by Darwin) and talk about what Darwin really said in the context of his arguments, versus the claims made by the likes of O’Leary. The students – who largely came from conservative religious backgrounds – came to the conclusion that Darwin was not the racist that they had heard about in church but was actually working against the ideas of his time. One African-American student was noticeably overjoyed by the explanation that Darwin gave for skin color and suchlike. All agreed that actually reading the text – sympathetically and in historical context – was required.
There is no reason to “divorce” Descent . Using Darwin’s idea of sexual selection to explain differences does not make one a racist. Attempts to imply that “Darwinists” are racist is nothing more than a cheap shot in a culture war.