Stranger Fruit

Divorcing Darwin

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.

Comments

  1. #1 MikeMa
    March 11, 2009

    John,
    The ‘cheap shot’ you refer to is just about all they have left to counter the overwhelming body of work Darwin left us.

    Glad your students got to see the value in context.

  2. #2 lurker boy
    March 11, 2009

    Could kin selection and racism be related?

  3. #3 John Lynch
    March 11, 2009

    I managed to ignore the obvious … I’m wondering if O’Leary is willing to divorce herself from the racism, slavery, misogyny, incest and genocide contained in a book she holds dear. Will she “divorce” the Old Testament?

  4. #4 Wes
    March 11, 2009

    Have you had a chance to check out Darwin’s Sacred Cause by Desmond and More? Piers Hale was highly recommending it when I spoke to him, and I’ve been thinking of adding it to my summer reading list. It addresses the role of Darwin’s anti-slavery stance in his views on the evolution of the races.

  5. #5 Wes
    March 11, 2009

    Oops, that should say Desmond and Moore above. Two o’s.

  6. #6 Pineyman
    March 12, 2009

    I’ve been reading her screeds the past few days. It is hilarious. She was lambasted on her initial posts by several commenters (UD must’ve dropped the comment filter), so she started a new thread whereupon she immediately was lambasted again…and then the cycle repeated.

    Several commenters did the same as you John, suggesting a line by line walkthrough of both books…one even quoted Catholicism’s support for slavery through the ages…prompting on of the more clueless among the UD crowd to explain why slavery = good, but racism = bad.

    I’d really recommend anyone who needs a good laugh to surf on over. I hadn’t had this much fun since DaveScot shrivelled up.

  7. #7 J-Dog
    March 12, 2009

    Denyse is to writing what Sarah Palin is to speaking… also, in this great country of ours.

  8. #8 Amadán
    March 12, 2009

    Worse still, she describes herself as ‘Irish’.

    Perhaps the Famine was intelligently designed after all…