Wilkins on Darwin and race

John Wilkins, philosopher from down under, has written a nice blog post on Darwin and race, “Myth 7: Darwin thought that Australian aborigines were closer to apes than to Europeans“:

Actually, this one is better called “Darwin was a racist”, but as the text concerned is from the same source as those claims, I thought it might be easier to evaluate a single claim and generalise from that.

Our gospel for today is chapters V and VI of The Descent of Man, published in 1871.

If you read Darwin sloppily, or to find evidence that he really was a Very Bad Man for rhetorical – usually religious – purposes, you soon come across this statement. In fact, you can find paraphrases of it in literally hundreds of creationist documents and sites. Here is the offending passage, from towards the end of chapter VI of the Descent:

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. [p201]

Many folk read this to be making the following claims:

1. It is right that civilised races should exterminate the savage races

2. It is right that the great apes (which Darwin calls “anthropomorphous” or “humanlike”) will be made extinct.

3. When this happens the gap between humans and apes will be wider because the intermediates, apes and negroes or Australian aborigines, will be gone.

Hence: Aborigines and negroes are more apelike than Caucasians.

Let’s look at a bit of context here. I do not propose to defend Darwin from his biases, but let’s be quite clear on what they are first (and note, if Darwin turned out to be a baby eating white supremacist, it no more makes evolution false than the fact that most baby eating white supremacists are Christians discredits Christianity).

Check out the rest over on Evolving Thoughts.

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