It’s like reading the letters section of my local newspaper!

Small town newspapers occasionally get letter-feuds going — it fuels subscriptions, since you really want to know how angry Sally Jo is going to get with Fred over his dog tearing up her petunias, and the back and forth can go on for months. Sometimes science gets that way, too.

The backstory: Augustin Fuentes wrote an editorial for Science in which he pointed out that Charles Darwin was a flawed, prejudiced Victorian man, as part of a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Descent of Man. While he may have been somewhat more progressive than many of his contemporaries, he still had awful racist views.

Darwin portrayed Indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia as less than Europeans in capacity and behavior. Peoples of the African continent were consistently referred to as cognitively depauperate, less capable, and of a lower rank than other races. These assertions are confounding because in “Descent” Darwin offered refutation of natural selection as the process differentiating races, noting that traits used to characterize them appeared nonfunctional relative to capacity for success. As a scientist this should have given him pause, yet he still, baselessly, asserted evolutionary differences between races. He went beyond simple racial rankings, offering justification of empire and colonialism, and genocide, through “survival of the fittest.” This too is confounding given Darwin’s robust stance against slavery.

Not to mention his ideas about women.

In “Descent,” Darwin identified women as less capable than (White) men, often akin to the “lower races.” He described man as more courageous, energetic, inventive, and intelligent, invoking natural and sexual selection as justification, despite the lack of concrete data and biological assessment. His adamant assertions about the centrality of male agency and the passivity of the female in evolutionary processes, for humans and across the animal world, resonate with both Victorian and contemporary misogyny.

“GASP!” went some scientists. How dare he be so rude? Think of the harm it will do to science education if we reveal the flaws in our heroes! So they fired off a letter to the editor.

We fear that Fuentes’ vituperative exposition will encourage a spectrum of anti-evolution voices and damage prospects for an expanded, more gender and ethnically diverse new generation of evolutionary scientists.

Oh, dear. So rather than be interested in the truth, we should conceal those past embarrassments, lest a creationist discover them. This is a terrible idea, because eventually someone will discover them (they’re in books in the public domain, you know), and then it’ll be the cover-up that is the scandal. Have they learned nothing from political history?

In The Descent he demolished the slavery-justifying view of different races as separate species, so inspiring the anti-racist perspectives of later anthropologists like Boaz. On sexism, Darwin suggested that education of “reason and imagination” would erase mental sex differences. His theory of sexual selection gave female animals a central role in mate choice and evolution.

On races, sure, he was better than many, and he also criticizes the race “science” of his day, noting that none of the proponents of that dangerous nonsense could even agree on the number and boundaries of the various races. He was an abolitionist, but as we Americans should know from our history, you can oppose slavery while still having demeaning views of black people. While it is correct that he demolished the idea of different races as different species, he still thought the races had different characters, which is a belief that still feeds racist views. Like this, from the Descent of Man.

There is, however, no doubt that the various races, when carefully compared and measured, differ much from each other,—as in the texture of the hair, the relative proportions of all parts of the body, the capacity of the lungs, the form and capacity of the skull, and even in the convolutions of the brain. But it would be an endless task to specify the numerous points of structural difference. The races differ also in constitution, in acclimatisation, and in liability to certain diseases. Their mental characteristics are likewise very distinct; chiefly as it would appear in their emotional, but partly in their intellectual, faculties. Every one who has had the opportunity of comparison, must have been struck with the contrast between the taciturn, even morose, aborigines of S. America and the light-hearted, talkative negroes.

Oh, those light-hearted negroes, chattering away happily out on the plantation, with their distinct mental characteristics! How dare you accuse Darwin of still clinging to the stereotypes of his day, and being less enlightened than he should have been?

What about his views on women? Did Darwin really think the differences in intellect between men and women would be erased by education?

Here my comparison to conflicts in the letters section of my local newspaper falls down, because Science hasn’t published what should be the next reply in the chain. Holly Dunsworth called the Darwin apologists on their claims by actually reading their citation that purportedly shows how egalitarian Darwin was. Ooops. Here’s Dunsworth’s letter in full:

Whiten et al. described Fuentes’ editorial as a “distorting treatment” of Darwin’s writing in Descent of Man.

As counterpoint to Fuentes’ points about Darwin’s racism and sexism, Whiten et al. wrote that,

On sexism, Darwin suggested that education of “reason and imagination” would erase mental sex differences (1, p. 329).

From that sentence, a reader might reason that Darwin wrote about how educating women could make them equal to men in mental powers. And, a reader might imagine that Darwin advocated for such a thing.

Darwin did neither in the cited passage which says,

In order that woman should reach the same standard as man, she ought, when nearly adult, to be trained to energy and perseverance, and to have her reason and imagination exercised to the highest point; and then she would probably transmit these qualities chiefly to her adult daughters. The whole body of women, however, could not be thus raised, unless during many generations the women who excelled in the above robust virtues were married, and produced offspring in larger numbers than other women. As before remarked with respect to bodily strength, although men do not now fight for the sake of obtaining wives, and this form of selection has passed away, yet they generally have to undergo, during manhood, a severe struggle in order to maintain themselves and their families; and this will tend to keep up or even increase their mental powers, and, as a consequence, the present inequality between the sexes. (1, p. 329)

There is no hope for women and, by the end, Darwin is back on about how men are superior and suggests that they may evolve to be even more so.

It took extraordinary imagination to read that passage from Descent of Man and present it casually in Darwin’s defense as Whiten et al. did.

Now that’s a distorting treatment.

Wow. That passage could be happily quoted by MRAs, anti-feminists, and the general mob of misogynists as perfectly compatible with their views. Do not get into a sparring match with Dr Dunsworth, she’ll cut you.

One other curious thing about that passage…Darwin at the time he wrote Descent of Man was, unfortunately, lacking in a good theory of inheritance and had stumbled into pangenesis — he was basically a Lamarckian. That’s what that bit about how an adult woman had to be trained to “energy and perseverance” so that she would similarly train her daughters, who over many generations might rise to be as smart as a man, if such clever daughters might succeed in producing as many children as those other silly, flighty women. It’s not only profoundly sexist, it’s bad evolutionary logic! He’s not touting the equality of women at all — he’s simply promoting his wrong ideas about the inheritance of acquired characters.

(I’ve written about this before, so this is old ground. Darwin had some even more blatantly sexist passages in the Descent of Man. What’s really going to “encourage a spectrum of anti-evolution voices” is this embarrassing idolatry.)


  1. chrislawson says

    We find ourselves caught between the creationists/IDists who want to vilify Darwin by exaggerating his racist views (I’ve seen one in a TV interview imply that Darwin was not an abolitionist like his grandfather Josiah Wedgwood — just a flat-out lie) and modern defenders who want to pretend he was a glowing beacon of progressive sensibilities.

    Darwin was an incredibly complex and subtle thinker who nevertheless allowed his Victorian gentleman’s prejudices to undermine the clear and natural inferences of his own observations in instances relating to sex and race. It’s extraordinary to read some of his passages where he eviscerates Victorian racism and sexism, pulling apart its assumptions at the seams, piling on one observation after another until the whole structure collapses, unable to bear the weight of evidence…only to pull away from taking the final step of abandoning it altogether. It is clear that he was intellectually capable of seeing through the racism and sexism of his time. He did it all the time, in numerous books and letters. But he was not emotionally capable of accepting the import of his own reasoning.

    At root, he was a socially conservative man of privilege who could not see past his conditioning. To me the most clear example is how he labelled Africans as being essentially incapable of intellectual heights, despite himself as a young man spending forty sessions learning advanced taxidermy and tissue preservation from black freedman John Edmonstone, even saying of him “he gave me lessons for payment, and I used often to sit with him, for he was a very pleasant and intelligent man.”

    It stuns me that such a sophisticated thinker as Darwin could actively seek out and pay for training from an uneducated black freeman who nevertheless managed to get so good at his work that he was employed by the Glasgow Museum and later the Edinburgh Museum to prepare specimens, and yet still believe all “blackamoors” to be intellectually substandard. And it saddens me that Darwin wrote about the amazing taxidermist with inspirational stories of grand South American rainforests yet never once used Edmonstone’s name. We only think it was Edmonstone from independent historical research.

  2. John Morales says


    It stuns me that such a sophisticated thinker as Darwin could actively seek out and pay for training from an uneducated black freeman who nevertheless managed to get so good at his work that he was employed by the Glasgow Museum and later the Edinburgh Museum to prepare specimens, and yet still believe all “blackamoors” to be intellectually substandard.

    Not so surprising if he considered that to be mere craftsmanship, rather than intellectual achievement.

  3. lotharloo says

    To be honest, I don’t get fighting over stuff like this. Of course he is going to have bullshit and outdated scientific ideas as well as bullshit and outdated social ideas.

    But I think it matters that he was more progressive than a lot of the people his time because it means he has pushed in the correct direction regarding social changes and that matters a lot. We don’t have to perfect angels, we just have to push for social changes in the correct direction.

  4. J R says

    I agree with @lotharloo. Why be so surprised Darwin was a man of his time (near the American Civil War)? Darwin was less sexist and racist than his peers at the time, and heading in a more respectful direction.

    What surprised me when I read “Descent of Man” was “piebald mulattos”. Since whites and blacks weren’t the same race/species, they weren’t expected to not breed together successfully. Cross breeds were expected to have white or black spots, like some species of cat, dog, or livestock. One of Darwin’s peers reported that piebald mulattos were rare but could be found deep in the African continent. As counter evidence, Darwin pointed out that in America, the races interbred quite successfully, with children resembling both parents. I expected “Descent of Man” to be something like “Ascent of Man”, but instead it spent much time discussing race.

    Later, I got a lot of answers reading a book called “Darwin’s Sacred Cause”. For instance, I never knew that Darwin’s sexual selection theory was meant to reduce stigma on race. Sexual selection (a theory which fascinated Victorians) emphasized that difference between human races was aesthetic. The differences between the races was due to something as frivolous as fashion. The differences weren’t due to something morally reprehensible like being descended from a cursed character from the Bible, or degeneration of more valuable races. It’s good we can’t even remember the Monogenists and Polygenists.

  5. cvoinescu says

    Darwin pushed at the Overton window in the right direction, which earns him a cookie in my book. The same can not be said about all scientists of equal genius (Ronald Fisher was a particularly disappointment, especially given that he invented some of the methods that prove him wrong; he was racist and intellectually dishonest in being so).

    Unrelated: nominative determinism strikes again. The guy attempting the whitewashing of Darwin’s oeuvre is named Whiten.