Myth 7: Darwin thought that Australian aborigines were closer to apes than to Europeans

Actually, this one is better called "Darwin was a racist", but as the text concerned is from the same source as those claims, I thought it might be easier to evaluate a single claim and generalise from that.

Our gospel for today is chapters V and VI of The Descent of Man, published in 1871.

If you read Darwin sloppily, or to find evidence that he really was a Very Bad Man for rhetorical - usually religious - purposes, you soon come across this statement. In fact, you can find paraphrases of it in literally hundreds of creationist documents and sites. Here is the offending passage, from towards the end of chapter VI of the Descent:

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla. [p201]

Many folk read this to be making the following claims:

1. It is right that civilised races should exterminate the savage races

2. It is right that the great apes (which Darwin calls "anthropomorphous" or "humanlike") will be made extinct.

3. When this happens the gap between humans and apes will be wider because the intermediates, apes and negroes or Australian aborigines, will be gone.

Hence: Aborigines and negroes are more apelike than Caucasians.

Let's look at a bit of context here. I do not propose to defend Darwin from his biases, but let's be quite clear on what they are first (and note, if Darwin turned out to be a baby eating white supremacist, it no more makes evolution false than the fact that most baby eating white supremacists are Christians discredits Christianity).

The full passage, which begins on the previous page is this:

The great break in the organic chain between man and his nearest allies, which cannot be bridged over by any extinct or living species, has often been advanced as a grave objection to the belief that man is descended from some lower form; but this objection will not appear of much weight to those who, convinced by general reasons, believe in the general principle of evolution. Breaks incessantly occur in all parts of the series, some being wide, sharp and defined, others less so in various degrees; as between the orang and its nearest allies—between the Tarsius and the other Lemuridæ [JSW: Tarsiers and Lemurs]—between the elephant and in a more striking manner between the Ornithorhynchus [JSW: platypus] or Echidna, and other mammals. But all these breaks depend merely on the number of related forms which have become extinct. At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.

The argument given here is not one of progress but of taxonomy. Darwin is arguing that there is no simple continuous "carpet" of forms of intermediates because breaks are formed by extinction. On Lamarck's older view in which there is constant evolution of forms along set lines, there ought to have been no such breaks - all taxonomic groups should be artificial and conventional or arbitrary. But Darwin is trying to convince his readers that this is not to be expected. The use of the term "organic chain" is one of many unfortunate terms Darwin uses here - it brings to mind the late medieval notion of a continuous scale or ladder of nature - but I think Darwin gets it from the critics he mentions, the ones who argue for a "missing link" in that chain. Missing linkism is a common criticism of Darwin still.

Then Darwin does something I would not have expected him to do, for reasons that I think will become clear, though no more admirable: he arrays human variation from "civilised" to "savage", with Europeans at one end, and great apes at the other. Why? He clearly doesn't need this - as far as he is concerned, according to his theory of common descent all human races must be equally evolved, and no races of humans need be especially more apelike than any other. I think Darwin exhibits here a failing he shows in the Origin and elsewhere: Darwin doesn't tell the difference between culture and biology. He has no nature/nurture distinction, and neither did anyone else much until the rise of genetics forty years after the Origin. So for him if a culture does well relative to other cultures, and extinguishes them, it must be the same sort of thing as when a variety of wolf replaces another by natural selection.

We can see this operating in the prior chapter, where Darwin tries rather unsuccessfully to deal with the vexed problem of the effects of natural selection on humans in a state of civilisation. At first he tries to argue, based on published ideas of W. R. Greg and those who responded to his essay, which I put up here, that contrary to the received wisdom of commentators at the time, natural selection doesn't fail with humans - while the "intemperate" may outbreed the intellectuals, their squalor leads to them dying more often. But under the influence, I think, of his cousin Galton, Darwin is forced to admit that this is not inevitable, and too often societies will "retrograde".

Then he tries to argue the beginnings of a cultural evolution view - we owe almost nothing to descent from the Greeks, but we owe much to their intellectual heritage. But then he moves immediately back to a biological selection process - Spain is surpassed because it had institutions that selected against better natures, like the Inquisition! And the English and their progeny America are obviously the result of natural selection.

But Darwin is more liberal than that - even civilised nations like Britain [!] have become so very rapidly, able to raise themselves in a few generations. And even religion has evolved: "The highest form of religion — the grand idea of God hating sin and loving righteousness—was unknown during primeval times" [p182]. He concludes that chapter by saying

To believe that man was aboriginally civilised and then suffered utter degradation in so many regions, is to take a pitiably low view of human nature. It is apparently a truer and more cheerful view that progress has been much more general than retrogression; that man has risen, though by slow and interrupted steps, from a lowly condition to the highest standard as yet attained by him in knowledge, morals, and religion.

So Darwin appears vague because, I think, he is confused. He lacks the distinctions necessary to make sense of the anthropological literature, itself imbued with racism from the common European heritage of the day. He concedes to the racism of his peers, but its a cultural racism, not a biological one, I think. Darwin is not so much a racist as he is a Eurocentrist. Of course, racism need not be at all biological to be racism.

One point that I think is important to stress: Darwin repeatedly lists what he thinks are facts about the future of this or that race or culture or society. This is in no way an endorsement. He says fairly clearly that to act in a way so as to eliminate the "inferior" one would do great harm to our better natures:

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with a certain and great present evil. Hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind;

But he then spoils the liberal effect by hoping for some direct action:

but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely the weaker and inferior members of society not marrying so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased, though this is more to be hoped for than expected, by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage. [p168]

Again the confusion. Why does Darwin do this? In the early days of a theory or new view, it is hard to puzzle out all the ramifications of the idea, and to isolate it from superficially similar ideas already in the air. Darwin's notion of evolution does not require progress, or inferior versus superior races, but he's being led down that path by the culture around him, and the fact, after all, that he is a member of a privileged class (historically fairly recently so) of an imperial society, with a history of devaluing those who were not in control. It turns out, Darwin is human after all.

This is not the first time Darwin backs down from his theory in the face of criticism by those who "know better". He failed to stick with his theory in the face of the common belief that inheritance was blending.Greg's, Wallace's and Galton's writings led him to conclude that natural selection doesn't work well in the case of Man; why, one cannot say. Haeckel, who is also often quoted as being in favour of baby eating (and wasn't), got it right when he wrote:

If, as we maintain, natural selection is the great active cause which has produced the whole wonderful variety of organic life on the earth, all the interesting phenomena of human life must also be explicable from the same cause. For man is after all only a most highly-developed vertebrate animal, and all aspects of human life have their parallels, or, more correctly, their lower stages of development in the animal kingdom. The whole history of nations, or what is called "Universal History," must therefore be explicable by means of "natural selection," — must be a physico-chemical process, depending upon the interaction of Adaptation and Inheritance in the struggle for life. And this is actually the case. [Haeckel 1880: p170]

It's a pity Darwin was not so forthright.

A nice discussion of the Great Chain and it's relation to racism is this paper by Bynum:

William F. Bynum, "The Great Chain of Being after Forty Years: An Appraisal", History of Science 13 (1975): 1-28.


Haeckel, Ernst Heinrich Philipp August. 1880. History of creation: Or the development of the earth and its inhabitants by the action of natural causes. A popular exposition or the doctrine of evolution in general and of that of Darwin, Goethe, and Lamarck in particular. Translated by G. R. Lankester. 2 vols. Vol. 1. New York: D. Appleton and Company. Online at


More like this

I haven't spent much energy parsing these pages; typically it's not necessary because the nefarious interpretations used by Darwin-haters are simple and easy to refute.

But, in reading this post, I was struck by a grammatical construction. I don't want to be an unequivocal Darwin apologist, but...well, how's this.

In the offending paragraph, Darwin seems to be talking about an extension into the future--"At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries... ." It seems to me the Caucasian he mentions is a future man, "in a more ideal state" than the present. Clearly the extinction of the apes is a prediction, too. Is he creating a hypothetical, or describing the status quo?
Does this interpretation vary from the orthodoxy, or am I just restating the obvious?

I first read Darwin to be saying that humans, who don't want to grant credence to evolution theory, would be less inclined to do so in the future if there were no humans living in primitive ("savage" to the Victorians) states, none in primitive conditions, none in conditions in Africa that might in any way be comparable to gorillas.

That is all.

In other places Darwin notes with sadness that "savage" (read: primitive) cultures always suffer when they collide with Europeans with guns. He cites the Tasmanian "war" as an example. He says it's likely the primitive cultures and peoples will be wiped out, even though they are better suited to the area evolutionarily. If Darwin's a racist, why does he call the dark-skinned, "primitive" people superior, evolutionarily?

Sometimes we need to read Darwin carefully, and not quickly.

Alas, this "Darwin was a racist" idea keeps getting recycled by people too lazy to read Darwin. See here, for example:…

"...imbued with racism from the common European heritage of the day."

I think this is the main point on Darwin's attitude towards races and how he saw them under his theory, other than the point made in this post. But whatever the case may be, using this perceived racism to argue for the validity of evolution is like denouncing Marie Curie because x-rays may cause cancer.

Oh jeez, Campolo's still going on about this nonsense? (James, the new piece you linked, if I'm reading the date right, is a very slightly revised version of a piece published last January (and ably dissected in Ed's link back then) . . - I would have hoped that he had paid some attention to the response, rather than simply republishing it a bit later, with the worst bits - from incomprehension to outright falsehood - left completely intact.. Has he been hanging out with George Will?

(No comments on the '09 piece, or am I just not seeing them for some reason or other?)

Actually, the Campolo piece is worse than I thought. He's corrected a single (though telling) factual error - misattributing an apparently imagined quote about the proposed elimination of "the negro and Australian peoples" to the Origin, when the actual passage that he's utterly misunderstanding (the very one John quotes above) is from Descent. The seemingly imaginary (at least, the text doesn't appear in the text I'm looking at - perhaps another edition?) "the negro and Australian peoples" quote is still there, still utterly misrepresented as a genocidal proposal - but at least now he has the right book. The rest - downhill from there.

So he's responded to feedback - just in the worst way.

I didn't see any comments, either, so I left a rather pointed one.

I suspect that site is highly moderated. It's not Christianity Today, after all (and it's bad enough).

Heck, maybe we should take this directly to Campolo. Surely his ministry has an address somewhere.

Campolo seems hell bent on making the case that Christianity is a crackpot idea. Aaarrrggghhhh, as Linus might say.