What shall become of Charles Darwin?

When the Woke Cultural Revolution reached a local maximum last summer – around the time that Thomas Jefferson was defenestrated – I wrote a piece for RT expressing my concern that “even Charles Darwin might not be safe”. Although Darwin has traditionally been considered something of a hero on the left (due to the religious right’s evolution-denialism) his writings about sex and race differences are highly “problematic” by today’s standards. For example, he observed that women are “intellectually inferior” to men, and noted that races differ “partly in their intellectual faculties”.

While it would be wrong to say that Darwin has been “cancelled” – his reputation remains in better shape than that of as his half-cousin, Sir Francis Galton – my contention that he “might not be safe” now looks rather prescient. What events have transpired since the publication of my article last June? Aside from the attempted cancellation of Carl Linnaeus and David Hume, there have been calls to revisit Darwin’s legacy in particular. Note that Darwin is being discussed more than usual this year because 2021 marks The Descent of Man’s 150th anniversary.

On 5 September, The Telegraph reported that the London Natural History Museum was reviewing its Charles Darwin exhibitions on the grounds that they could be seen as “offensive”. A curator reportedly described the voyage of the Beagle as one of Britain’s many “colonialist scientific expeditions”. The newspaper also noted that a statue of Thomas Henry Huxley, an ardent supporter of Darwin, “could be questioned due to the scientist’s racial theories.”

On 5 February, the New York Times ran a piece titled ‘Darwin’s Dim View of the Second Sex’. It recounts some of Darwin’s interactions with Harriet Martineau, a pioneering social theorist, who won the admiration of Queen Victoria. The piece isn’t particularly scathing, though it portrays Darwin as somewhat chauvinistic, noting that he once commented on Martineau’s appearance in a letter to his sister. And it goes on to say that, “despite many respectful and admiring interactions” with Martineau, Darwin “comprehensively dismissed women’s intellectual potential”.

On 13 February, the Guardian ran a piece by Adam Rutherford (whose book Bo Winegard and I reviewed) titled ‘How should we address Charles Darwin's complicated legacy?’ Rutherford describes The Descent of Man as his “favourite” of Darwin’s works “because it is the one where he holds humans up to the light”. He praises Darwin for showing that all races belong to the same species, and for arguing against “racial essentialism”. (Though he omits Darwin’s observation that the “mental characteristics” of different races are “very distinct”.) He also cites Darwin’s liberal political views, and his abolitionism.

However, he proceeds to claim that “we must be honest in our assessment of him”, noting that The Descent of Man contains many passages that are “scientifically specious and politically outmoded”. According to Rutherford, “No one sensible is calling for the cancelling of Darwin, though that does not mean that he and his work are exempt from historical reassessment”. He contrasts Darwin with Galton, seeing the latter as more deserved of cancellation on the grounds that he was a “committed racist and eugenicist” whose work had “policy implications”. (Rutherford has elaborated on his objections to Galton, and to Sir Ronald Fisher, in an academic article.)

On 23 February, the website DW (Deutsche Welle, a German broadcaster) ran an article titled ‘What Darwin's 'Descent of Man' got wrong on sex and race — and why it matters’. The article includes snippets from various contributors to a new edited volume, A Most Interesting Problem, on what Darwin “got right and wrong” about human evolution. One contributor, the historian Janet Browne, characterises Darwin’s views on race as “problematic”. Another, the anthropologist Jeremy DeSilva, says that he would “read these chapters about race and sex differences and just cringe”, adding, “Wow was he off.”

The anthropologist Agustin Fuentes argues that Darwin would have “championed the lack of biological ‘races’” today. Though anthropologist Holly Dunsworth cautions, “He could do better today because he would benefit from all the rest of us who are doing better than he was!” She adds that if his ideas were published now, “anthropologists and many others would be putting out fires everywhere”. And she goes on to mention “a stream of social media storms” and names such as Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins.

On 8 May, The Telegraph reported that Darwin had been included in a new guide for “decolonising” the curriculum at Sheffield University. In that document, Darwin appears alongside Galton, Fisher and Huxley under the heading, ‘Useful resources for decolonising’. It says that Darwin believed “his theory of natural selection justified the view that the white race was superior to others”, and that he used “his theory of sexual selection to justify why women were clearly inferior to men”. As to why “decolonising” the curriculum is important, the document notes that Western dominance has led to “colonial theories of racism, white superiority, civilisation and capitalism”.

The most significant call to revisit Darwin’s legacy came on 21 May when the journal Science published an editorial by Agustin Fuentes (whom I mentioned above) titled ‘“The Descent of Man,” 150 years on’. Fuentes argues that the book is “often problematic, prejudiced, and injurious”, and that it “offers a racist and sexist view of humanity”. According to Fuentes, Darwin “went beyond simple racial rankings, offering justification of empire and colonialism, and genocide”. What’s more, “His adamant assertions about the centrality of male agency and the passivity of the female in evolutionary processes … resonate with both Victorian and contemporary misogyny.”

For Fuentes, “Darwin was a perceptive scientist whose views on race and sex should have been more influenced by data and his own lived experience.” Indeed, his “racist and sexist beliefs … were powerful mediators of his perception of reality.” As a consequence, students should be taught Darwin not only as a “genius”, but also as “as an English man with injurious and unfounded prejudices”. Fuentes concludes that we “can reject the legacy of bias and harm in the evolutionary sciences by recognizing, and acting on, the need for diverse voices and making inclusive practices central to evolutionary inquiry.” (My recent paper might be of interest to him.)

It’s worth noting that Fuentes’ editorial isn’t the first academic publication to cast Darwin the man in an unflattering light. For example, in 2006, the neuroscientist Steven Rose (co-author of Not in Our Genes) argued that Darwin’s work on race helped to establish “race differences and a racial hierarchy”, and that his work on sex helped to provide a “biological basis for the superiority of the male.” According to Rose, “Any attempt to separate a ‘good' Darwin from a ‘bad' Social Darwinist cannot be sustained against a careful reading of Darwin's own writing.” (Evolution man bad.)

Fuentes’ editorial has prompted two major critical responses: one by evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, the other by science writer Robert Wright. They make the same basic arguments, though with different emphasis. Coyne stresses that Darwin should be judged by the standards of his time, and that in comparison with other Victorian Englishmen, he was very moral. (The man was, after all, a staunch abolitionist.) Wright emphasises that Darwin did not seek to justify things like colonialism and genocide, but only to explain them.

As to the latter argument, I suspect Fuentes would reply that, by contrasting “savage races” with “civilised races”, and claiming that they “differ much from each other”, Darwin was helping to justify European colonialism, even if that was not his intention. In a 1862 letter to the Anglo-Saxonist Charles Kingsley, Darwin even went so far as to say, “In 500 years how the Anglo-saxon race will have spread & exterminated whole nations; & in consequence how much the Human race, viewed as a unit, will have risen in rank.” Which sounds like a value judgement.

So far as I’m concerned, however, this does not undermine the case for honouring Darwin. And nor does it mean we should regard him as “racist” in the same way that, say, members of the Ku Klux Klan are racist. Indeed, we should continue to honour not only Darwin, but also Galton, Fisher, Linnaeus, Huxley and all the other great scientists who’ve been marked for defenestration. Like the philosopher Sean Welsh, I’m not convinced you can put Darwin in one box, and Galton and Fisher in another. They all used language that would now be regarded as inappropriate or offensive, but which was commonplace at the time. (As Jerry Coyne notes, for real bigotry, you need to read Marx.) More significantly, they all made immense contributions to science, and therefore deserve our continued admiration.

An amusing irony of recent efforts to malign Darwin’s reputation is that the deceased evolutionist now finds himself assailed by two more-or-less opposing ideological factions. On the one hand, creationists on the religious right wish to discredit Darwin because his theory (which, as Richard Dawkins notes, is more properly regarded as fact) undermines the veracity of the Bible. On the other hand, equalitarians on the progressive left want to besmirch him because his observations contradict their belief in the biological sameness of groups. And in fact, a recent paper in the Journal of Controversial Ideas argues that these two factions often rely on the same modes of reasoning when rejecting the scientific conclusions that threaten their sacred values.

Based on the largely critical reaction to Fuentes’ editorial, Darwin may not suffer the same fate as Galton and Fisher – both of whom were ignominiously “de-named” at UCL earlier this year. He is perhaps “too big to fail”. (The costs alone of renaming over 200 animal species could be prohibitive.) What may happen instead is that Darwin will be celebrated with less enthusiasm than before, and his legacy will be regarded as “complicated”, rather than monumental and extraordinary – as it deserves to be.

Image: John Collier, Charles Darwin, 1881


The Kaufmann affair

I wrote a piece for Quillette about the attempted cancellation of academic Eric Kaufmann. Here’s an excerpt:

On May 19th, a Twitter account called “Birkbeck Students Anti-Racist Network” posted a long thread denouncing one of the academics at that institution, the political scientist Eric Kaufmann. In typical self-righteous fashion, the thread begins, “Kaufmann is a politics professor & former head of that department at Birkbeck … We want to publicly denounce him as a white supremacist and racist apologist.” (Accusing Kaufmann of being a “white supremacist” is particularly risible, given that the man is not only Jewish, but part Chinese and part Latino.)


The García Martínez affair

I wrote a short piece for UnHerd about the cancellation of writer and tech entrepreneur Antonio García Martínez. Here’s an excerpt:

More interesting than the Apple employees’ collective denunciation of García Martínez is the company’s decision to fire him. (Even the petition didn’t call for his firing.) They must have known about his controversial statements, as they caused a bit of a stir when the book was published, and it was a New York Times bestseller. This suggests the company fired him to placate the mob, rather than because they had a principled objection to what he wrote.


Lockdown Sceptics

I’ve written eight more short posts since last time. The first examines whether lockdown shifted the burden of COVID-19 onto the working class. The second reports that 18 leading scientists have called for a new investigation into the origins of COVID-19. The third provides a point-by-point response to Dominic Cummings’ pro-lockdown Twitter thread. The fourth notes that England’s age-standardised mortality rate fell to the lowest level on record for the month of April. The fifth examines Cummings’ claim that achieving herd immunity was part of the government’s original plan. The sixth notes that, if you take the average of 2019 and 2020, Sweden had lower mortality than both Denmark and Finland. The seventh criticises a recent pro-lockdown article in the LA Times. The eighth summarises a study finding that remote learning caused large increases in school dropout and learning losses in Brazil.


Thanks for reading. If you found this newsletter useful, please share it with your friends. And please consider subscribing if you haven’t done so already.