What Did Charles Darwin Really Believe?

03/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Charles Darwin expounded the theory of evolution in his 1859 book The Origin of Species. It was in that book that Darwin theorized that plants and animals evolve and develop without the aid of an intelligent Creator through a process of natural selection, which ensures the "survival of the fittest." His work eventually dislodged people from the traditional notion that they possessed an exalted position as a special creation of God.

Although Darwin confined his ideas to biology, others quickly adapted them to nearly all aspects of intellectual life. Darwin eventually became a hero to the international academic community and received many honors. However, while the world celebrates Charles Darwin's 200th birthday (Feb. 12, 1809) and evolution is taught to schoolchildren as a unchallengeable fact, little attention is paid to his more disturbing (and certainly politically incorrect) beliefs, let alone the impact his ideas had on 19th and 20th century leaders and movements.

For example, during his lifetime, Darwin propounded both racist and sexist sentiments. Although the title of Darwin's infamous book is often cited as The Origin of Species, the complete title is The Origin of Species of Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life -- the favored race being the white race. He also taught that women were biologically inferior to men and that human sexual differences were due in part to natural selection. He theorized that men must prove themselves physically and intellectually superior to other men in order to compete for women. As Darwin concluded in his autobiography, "the average mental power in man must be above that of women."

Yet it was Darwin's theory of evolution that had the most far-reaching impact. By the late 1800s, science had become the new religion, with Darwinism being its central tenet. It was recognized as such by notable individuals including British playwright George Bernard Shaw, who observed that "the world jumped at Darwin."

Leading businessmen publicized Darwin to justify their ruthless tactics. J. D. Rockefeller, who used Darwinian thought to justify industrial monopoly without restraint, said, "The growth of large business is merely a survival of the fittest." And Andrew Carnegie expressed his conversion to Darwinism by saying, "Light came in as a flood and all was clear. Not only had I got rid of theology and the supernatural, but I found the truth of evolution."

Soon-to-be tyrants also grabbed hold of evolution. Karl Marx, the father of atheistic communism, wrote that Darwin's The Origin of Species served as "a basis in natural science for the class struggle in history." What followed were the revolutions of the 20th century and the carnage and oppression of countless human beings.

As Darwinism became even more entrenched in western culture and its major institutions (such as government and education), the evolutionary view of people began to rear its ugly head in the form of racism, fascism and totalitarianism. In fact, as American schoolchildren were being taught the "fact" of evolution in schools, Italian fascist Benito Mussolini watched the killing of nearly half a million people at the Caporetto battlefront, while justifying war as a means of evolutionary progress. In public, Mussolini repeatedly used Darwinian catch words while mocking perpetual peace, lest it hinder evolution.

More ominous was the use of Darwin by Adolf Hitler. As early as 1923 in his book Mein Kampf, Hitler expressed his adherence to evolution in justifying genocide. "The German Fuhrer," anthropologist Arthur Keith has said, "consciously sought to make the practice of Germany conform to the theory of evolution." Evolutionary ideas can also be seen in Hitler's wish to develop a master race and in his human breeding experiments, which eventually led to the Holocaust.

Even Darwin was negatively affected by his own philosophy. Although he had a great appreciation of the arts and nature as a younger man, by the end of his life, he confessed to being somewhat disillusioned. "I retain some taste for fine scenery," he wrote in his autobiography, "but it does not cause me the exquisite delight it formerly did."

Thus, whether or not Darwin's theory of evolution is true (there's enough legitimate debate within the scientific community for it to remain a theory and not an incontrovertible fact), Darwin the man is not exactly whom I would choose as a role model for children to revere.

The lesson to be learned is this: the world is not black and white, and neither are our so-called historical heroes. Children should be taught what these historical figures really believed and the ramifications of their beliefs. After all, isn't teaching the truth what our schools should be about?