Intelligent design creationism playing the racism card… again

Andrew Sibley, who I recently used as an example of the two faces of intelligent design creationism, has gone on another ‘Darwin was a racist/evolution leads to racism’, tear over on Uncommon Descent, basing his comments this time largely on an article (“What’s wrong with Darwinism?“) by another character by the name of Tony Campolo on a site called Christian Today. I was going to rip into Campolo’s piece given it contains outright falsehoods about Darwin, but my colleague Jason Rosenhouse has done an excellent job of doing so already over on Evolutionblog, so time saved.

However since Mr. Sibley has my attention once again I want to address his contribution to this steaming pile:

Campolo acknowledges that Darwin was a product of his time, and clearly Darwin did not invent racism with some of his relations for instance taking an interest in abolishing the slave trade. Darwin too in his early life questioned slavery, but what happened to lead him to embrace ideas where Africans and Aborigines were considered closer to apes than Caucasians? Instead, a plain reading of the Bible teaches that all mankind are related and are of common ancestry.

Darwin “questioned slavery”, “in his early life”, really? Well, now that we’ve had the ‘good facts‘ version let’s look at the actual facts.

Darwin didn’t just question slavery he was an adamant abolitionist. Here is a quote from an 1861 letter from Darwin to Asa Gray (an American Botanist and early supporter of evolution) discussing the then ongoing American Civil War:

But I suppose you are all too overwhelmed with the public affairs to care for science. I never knew the newspapers so profoundly interesting. N. America does not do England Justice: I have not seen or heard of a soul who is not with the North. Some few, & I am one, even wish to God, though at the loss of millions of lives, that the North would proclaim a crusade against Slavery. In the long run, a million horrid deaths would be amply repaid in the cause of humanity. What wonderful times we live in. Massachusetts seems to show noble enthusiasm. Great God how I should like to see the greatest curse on Earth Slavery abolished. (Darwin 1861, emphasis mine)

Please note that this was written in 1861 three years after the publication of the Origin of Species (1859) when Darwin was 52 years old.

I leave it to the reader to decide whether it is a fair characterization to say that Darwin merely “questioned slavery” in his “early life”. You can click here for more quotes from Darwin on the subject of race and slavery and my analysis of the subject.

In brief, yes, by our standards Darwin probably was  a racist, but then by our standards so were the Founding Fathers and even Abraham Lincoln. But strangely creationists don’t spend any time denouncing things like the Declaration of Independence even though it was written by someone who actually owned slaves (Jefferson).

What creationists also rarely ever mention is that many creationist contemporaries of Darwin were openly racist.

For example Harvard taxonomist and paleontologist Louis Agassiz was an (old earth) creationist and one of Darwin’s greatest critics (if he were alive today he would fit right in at the Discovery Institute). The following is from a letter to his mother about his experience of being in the presence of black people (he was originally from Switzerland):

It was in Philadelphia that I first found myself in prolonged contact with Negroes; all the domestics in my hotel were men of color. I can scarcely express to you the painful impression that I received, especially since the feeling that they inspired in me is contrary to all our ideas about the confraternity of the human type [genre] and the unique origin of our species. But truth before all. Nevertheless, I experienced pity at the sight of this degraded and degenerate race, and their lot inspired compassion in me in thinking that they were really men. Nonetheless, it is impossible for me to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us. In seeing their black faces with their thick lips and grimacing teeth, the wool on their head, their bent knees, their elongated hands, I could not take my eyes off their face in order to tell them to stay far away. And when they advanced that hideous hand towards my plate in order to serve me, I wished I were able to depart in order to eat a piece of bread elsewhere, rather than dine with such service. What unhappiness for the white race ―to have tied their existence so closely with that of Negroes in certain countries! God preserve us from such a contact. (Agassiz 1846)

Agassiz was a polygenist, that is he believed that the different human races had been independently created by God, that the races were not equal in character and that they should not intermarry.

To be as fair as possible to Agassiz, while he thought blacks inferior he was not in favor of slavery and indeed thought that despite their (supposed) inferiority they should be granted (at least some) civil rights.

Ironically one of the reasons for his staunch advocacy for polygenism was his belief that if one were to admit that blacks and whites might share a common ancestor it would be tantamount to admitting that evolution (the transmutation of species) was possible. So it was at least in part his adherence to creationism that forced him to deny the unity of the human species.

Then we have modern young earth creationists like the late Henry Morris who wrote the following in the context of discussing the idea of the Hamitic curse (he refers to it as a “prophecy”) which has historically been used as a Biblical justification for the enslavement of blacks:

Yet the prophecy had an obverse side as well. The Hamites [Black Africans, Asians, Polynesians, Native Americans and Australians according to Morris -T.B.] have usually been able to go only so far with their explorations and inventions, and no further. The Japhethites [Europeans -T.B.] and Semites [Jews & Arabs -T.B.] have, sooner of later, taken over their territories and their inventions, then developed and utilized them to their own advantage in accomplishing their own “service” to mankind. Sometimes the Hamites, especially the Negroes, have even become actual slaves to the others. Possessed of a genetic character concerned mainly with mundane, practical matters, they have often eventually been displaced by the intellectual and philosophical acumen of the Japhethites and the religious zeal of the Semites. (Morris 1976, p.241, emphasis mine)

Morris denied any racism (claiming that such was evolutionary thinking), but how else can one interpret the idea that blacks are “possessed of a genetic character concerned mainly with mundane, practical matters” while whites are blessed with “intellectual and philosophical acumen” other than as racism?

And of course the Ku Klux Klan is not exactly a social club for atheist evolutionary biologists.

But you won’t hear Mr. Sibley, or almost any other creationist talking about these skeletons in their own closet. These inconvenient truths do not fit in with their strategy of demonizing Darwin and evolutionary theory.

Of course being a creationist doesn’t make one a racist, nor is creationism inherently racist. What is true is that creationism (or religion in general) can be used to justify racism just as easily as evolutionary theory. Racists try to justify their beliefs with both science and religion and it is not the fault of either that they do so.

As an aside I note that Sibley has also produced for us another two faced article.

The last sentence in the Uncommon Descent version reads: “Instead, a plain reading of the Bible teaches that all mankind are related and are of common ancestry”, whereas the last sentence on a more candid blog goes thus:

Instead, the Bible teaches that all mankind are related through Noah and his family.

I was somewhat surprised that the UD thought police even allowed an open reference to the Bible to slip through (you guys better check your theo-filters) but they made sure to scrub Noah and his family from their version.


Agassiz, Louis  (1846) “From a letter to his mother”, quoted in Gould, Stephen (1981) The Mismeasure of Man,  p. 44-45

Darwin, Charles (1861) “Charles Darwin to Asa Gray (June 5, 1861)” quoted in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin Vol. 9 1861 (1994), p.163

Morris, Henry M. (1976) The Genesis Record


4 thoughts on “Intelligent design creationism playing the racism card… again

  1. Agassiz would not fit right in at the Discovery Institute. He may have been a racist and an opponent of Darwin, but Agassiz did actual science.


  2. Pingback: News Round - Catch up › British Centre for Science Education

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