Adam Rutherford presents a balanced assessment of Darwin.
Darwin was a liberal, and an abolitionist, perhaps influenced by his taxidermy tutor in Edinburgh, a Guyanese man called John Edmonstone who had once been enslaved. But we must be honest in our assessment of him and his work. He was a man of his time, and The Descent of Man contains many passages that seriously jar today, being scientifically specious and politically outmoded. Darwin never mentions Edmonstone by name, only as a “full-blooded negro with whom I happened once to be intimate”. He speaks of how the “civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races”.
In the more elegant quotations, you may note the typically Victorian use of “man” to mean all humans. It is less forgivable given Darwin’s belief that women were intellectually inferior: “If men are capable of a decided pre-eminence over women in many subjects, the average of mental power in man must be above that of woman.” At least part of his incomparable legacy is that we now know this to be incorrect.
That’s fair. Basically, everyone who lived over 50 years ago was stuffed to the gills with wrong ideas — wrong as we know them to be now, and 50 years from now the next generation will be appalled at what the majority believes now (“You went to church, and thought capitalism was good?”) — but at least he was in the vanguard of those trying to bring about a better world for all.
Still, when Bill & Ted fetch him back to the modern day in their telephone booth, I expect to be disappointed. I can imagine Darwin tut-tutting on Twitter about all those women in comic book movies, and suggesting, in the name of the betterment of mankind, that maybe those ladies should be home tending the children, and maybe they aren’t better than a dog anyways, what with all these modern ideas. Let’s keep him in the 19th century!
Hmm. Maybe we could use that telephone booth to send a lot of 21st century babblers back the 19th, where they’d be happier.