Bad Faith (in Science): Darwin as All-Purpose Boogey Man?

09/20/2010 01:14 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The philosopher Herbert Spencer first coined the term, and Darwin had reservations about employing it in his book The Origin of Species. But this is of small consequence to West and conservatives of a certain bent who loathe evolution. As far as they're concerned, evolution simply means survival of the fittest, and the application of natural selection to society in their view has inspired dangerous social movements, from Social Darwinism to Nazism.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. West writes:

Darwin opposed slavery (to his credit), but he also was a thoroughgoing racist who thought natural selection provided a scientific rationale for why we should expect to see races with different intellectual capacities. In his book The Descent of Man, Darwin disparaged blacks and observed that the break in evolutionary history between apes and humans fell "between the negro or Australian and the gorilla," indicating that he considered blacks the humans that were the most ape-like. [Darwin, Descent of Man (1871), vol. I, p. 201] Darwin also predicted that "[a]t 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." [Darwin, Descent of Man (1871), vol. I, p. 201] Darwin's contribution to scientific racism is hard to deny, no matter how much contemporary Darwinists try to rewrite history.

Now, what's interesting about this broadside is the selective quoting to make the point that Darwin was not just your average Victorian with a condescending bias against the intellectual capacity of non-whites. After all, this is an attitude even Abraham Lincoln shared, and he waged a destructive civil war to end slavery and keep the Southern States from seceding from the U.S.

West wants his readers to realize that Darwin's racism had murderous overtones and that therefore the science of evolution must be suspect.

It goes without saying that neither West nor anyone else at the Discovery Institute has any peer-reviewed research papers to counter the massive scientific evidence for evolution (a healthy sample of which can be found in this new book, already headed for its second printing: Evolution: The Extended Synthesis).

West merely has to make insinuations about the theory's founder in order to satisfy the confirmation bias of a certain minority of conservatives who are fearful of science.

West admits that Darwin was opposed to slavery, but without bothering to inquire as to why. As a young man, long before he formulated his theory of evolution by natural selection, Darwin adopted his father's hostility to slavery, and he had heated arguments with the captain of the HMS Beagle regarding the issue when Darwin was on the five-year voyage that inspired his lifelong work. (Captain Fitzroy, a classic six-day creationist, relied on the Bible to justify his belief in the superiority of Europeans and the enslavement of non-whites, a fact that is not noted by West.)

West makes a quick nod to Darwin's abolitionist sympathies and moves on to Darwin's later controversial book on the evolution of humans.

The passage from which West lifted his brief quotes about "negroes and Australians" is from Chapter 6 of Darwin's Descent of Man. Titled "On the Affinities and Genealogy of Man," it says something quite different from what West claims:

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--between the elephant and in a more striking manner between the Ornithorhynchus 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.

As seen in full, this passage does not support the reading West gives it. Darwin is talking about "missing links" and arguing that as civilization progresses there will be an ever greater gap between humans and our closest living animal relatives. The "negroes and australians" he mentions are cited not because of their race, but because they represent populations considered less civilized in Victorian terms. Darwin's point is that eventually these populations, too, will become more civilized than even his own Caucasian race, and the resulting larger gap between humans and their relatives will be due to the greater degree of civilization present in human populations.

The claims of an animus against blacks and the aborigines of Australia and that their extermination is justified are unfounded.

Indeed, West's selective citations do not support claims that Darwin's prejudice against non-whites was any more harmful than, say, the claim that G.K. Chesterton's prejudice against Jews amounted to the kind of murderous anti-Semitism that led Hitler to gas six million of them.

The claim that Darwin was an enthusiastic supporter of the term "survival of the fittest" fares no better. Denis Alexander's point in the video West cites is entirely correct. In fact, Darwin's younger colleague Alfred Russel Wallace, who for religious reasons was a more vociferous proponent of man's special status in the order of nature, was also a more enthusiastic proponent of "survival of the fittest" in the scientific literature. But Darwin did not want the distinction between artificial and natural selection to be blurred, so he was very careful about how often the term "fittest" should be employed.

No doubt this is an historical detail that West does not want to get in the way of a good talking point. A more scholarly treatment of how ideology abuses science can be found in Biology and Ideology: From Descartes to Dawkins, a collection of historical essays edited by Alexander and Ronald Numbers.

So, what is one to make of these ceaseless ideological attacks on Charles Darwin? Apparently, having failed at the Dover Trial to get their revised "intelligent design" philosophy into public school science classes, the Discovery Institute now resorts to the only strategy they have left to undermine science and science education: smear the character and the motives of the founders of evolutionary biology.