Getting Darwin away from racism is a mad rush

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Photo: Visitors admire the iconic Darwin statue at the Natural History Museum in London, by Thomas Fabian, via Flickr.

Editor’s Note: Last week, American scientist viciously smeared all critiques of Darwinian theory with an article titled: “Denial of evolution is a form of white supremacyBy Allison Hopper. As promised, we feature some of our extensive past coverage of the close links between racism and evolutionnm This article was originally published on November 23, 2020.

A recent article by Livia Gershon examines what is called “The bizarre theories of the American School of Evolution. “She tries to implicitly distance Darwin from racism by suggesting that her outspoken critic, the famous paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897), opposed women’s suffrage and the equality of African Americans as” two perils of Indo-European. ”These racist and misogynistic views, Gershon insists, were shared by the“ American school ”of evolutionary anthropology, a group that had transformed from the polygenism of a previous generation led by men like Samuel George Morton (1799-1851), Louis Agassiz (1807 -1873), and Josiah Clark Nott (1804-1873) in a new form of Neo-Lamarckian theory. According to the article, “They [Cope and his colleagues] rejected Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Instead, they relied on the work of French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). Unlike Darwin, Lamarck believed that acquired characteristics like strong muscles could be passed on to descendants. Gershon continues, “In humans,” Lamarck explained, feeling – emotional responses to physical sensations – has gradually brought about physical changes in the body. ”

It is this “sentimental” point of view that would have allowed the kind of racial and sexist calculation to permeate the thought of the “American school” unlike Darwin, whose “random and amoral process” of blind evolution has simply allowed fleas to fall where they could without such judgmental bias. In fact, Gershon is only pointing out an article by Kyla Schuller, professor of women and gender studies at Rutgers University, “Taxonomies of Sentiment: The Epistemology of Sentimentalism in the Racial and Sexual Sciences of the Late 19th Century”, Written in a dense and intractable academicism. It is best not to venture too deep into Schuller’s intellectual weeds except to say that he only adds tortuous detail to the sketchy errors of Gershon’s shorter article. So, in the interest of keeping it simple, let’s just say that the most “bizarre” aspect of this is not neo-Lamarckism, but rather the weird forked equation that neo-Lamarckism = racial and sexist prejudice while that Darwinism = objective “science” shorn of all harmful baggage. This is clearly wrong historically and scientifically.

Darwin’s Bulldog Wasn’t Better

Historically, Darwin and his cohorts were just as racist and sexist as Cope or anyone else of their time. As I have pointed out, Darwin was certainly as racist as the notorious fixist of the species Louis Agassiz. And Darwin’s Bulldog Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) was no better, arguing shortly after the Civil War that black people were doomed now that they were free from the supposed protective influences of their owners. Huxley boldly declared that “no rational man, aware of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, let alone the superior, of the average white man.” In fact, one man did, the archenemy of Darwinists Richard Owen (1804-1892). A fascinating examination of this important point is presented in Christopher E. Cosans Owen’s monkey and Darwin’s bulldog.

As for women, Darwin was not the champion of gender equality. As he stated in the Descent of man, “The man is more courageous, combative and energetic than the woman, and has a more inventive genius.” With their male counterparts having “absolutely bigger” brains, Darwin doubted that women could ever overcome their biological limitations. Nonetheless, social class could create, for Darwin, a state of general improvement for women. But according to Darwin, it was male selection mediated by the social class that made the difference. Again in the Descent he writes,

It seems to me with justice, that the members of our aristocracy, including under this term all the rich families in which the elder has long prevailed, to have chosen during several generations in all the classes the most beautiful women for wives, are become more beautiful, according to the European standard of beauty, than the middle classes; yet the middle classes are placed in living conditions equally favorable to the perfect development of the body.

There is, of course, no mention of this by gender studies expert Schuller.

“A thousand-year-old ascent to perfection”

Gershon and Schuller seem to imply that part of Cope’s problem was that “many Anglo-Saxons eagerly awaited not only the ongoing biosocial evolution but also a millennial ascent to perfection.” Maybe, but Darwin too! Writing to the Reverend Charles Kingsley (1819-1879) on February 6, 1862, he said: “It is very true what you say about the superior races of men, when they are sufficiently high, replacing and eliminating the inferior races. . In 500 years how the Anglo-Saxon race will have spread & exterminate entire nations; & consequently how much the human race, considered as a unit, will have climbed the ranks. He expressed the same sentiment years later in a letter to Irish philosopher and economist William Graham (1839-1911) on July 3, 1881: not so long ago, to be overwhelmed by the Turks. , and how ridiculous such an idea is now. The most civilized so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking at the world not too long ago, what an endless number of inferior races will have been wiped out by more civilized races across the world. ”

For Darwin, racial superiority was the “survival of the fittest” expressed in terms of national expansion and even human progress. Moreover, this progress was defined in explicitly racial terms. Darwin believed this to be confirmed in the “science” of craniotomy, the idea that races could be classified by measuring the cranial capacities of their respective skulls. If Cope could be racist out of “sentiment,” Darwin could confirm his racism in the cold, hard “facts” of his racialized science.

Darwin the Neo-Lamarckian

It is incorrect to divide 19th century evolutionary racial theory on the basis of a Lamarckian litmus test anyway. The reason is that if Cope was a Neo-Lamarckian, so was Darwin. Neither Gershon nor Schuller mentions Darwin’s pangenesis theory of inheritance, which was Lamarckian. As evolutionary historian Peter Bowler pointed out in Evolution: the story of an idea, “Darwin’s lifelong commitment to a limited amount of Lamarckism and what was later called the inheritance of admixture (the admixture of parental traits) was integral to his worldview. »Biologist Rupert Sheldrake in Free Science Packsuitable:

In Darwin’s day, most people assumed that acquired characteristics could indeed be inherited. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck had taken this for granted in his theory of evolution published more than fifty years before Darwin’s, and the inheritance of acquired characteristics was often called “Lamarckian inheritance”. Darwin shared this belief and cited numerous examples to support it. In this regard, Darwin was a Lamarckian, not so much because of Lamarck’s influence, but because he and Lamarck both accepted the inheritance of acquired characteristics as a matter of common sense.

Such a historical context renders Lamarckian distinctions – racial or otherwise – meaningless.

Simply scientifically false

Of course, Lamarckism does not need to be expressed as an obscure racial and sexual prejudice. Gershon’s characterization of Lamarckian evolution as “bizarre” is simply scientifically wrong. For example, the geneticist Eva jablonka is currently arguing for a more Lamarckian approach, just like the bioengineer Raju pookotil, cell biologist Mariusz Nowacki, and biophysicist Yoav Soen. Once again, Rupert Sheldrake sheds light:

The taboo against the inheritance of acquired characteristics began to dissolve around the turn of the millennium. It is increasingly recognized that some acquired characteristics can indeed be inherited. This type of inheritance is now called “epigenetic inheritance”. In this context, the word “epigenetics” means “beyond genetics”. Some types of epigenetic inheritance depend on chemical attachments to genes, especially methyl groups. Genes can be “turned off” by methylation of the DNA itself or proteins that bind to it.

Schuller’s blind views are only amplified by Gershon repeating them. It is amazing that such a staggering ignorance of history and science can be displayed in an academic publication, only to be repeated as a summary. But that’s what happens when an article – peer reviewed or not – says the “right” things. Obviously, historical and scientific accuracy takes a back seat to cover Darwin’s own views on race and gender. Details and facts are easily swept under the rug during Darwin’s disinfection. But pointing the finger at “bizarre theories” and one-sided racist bait are thin disguises for a vision of the world that lives in a greenhouse.

What Schuller and Gershon try to protect Darwinism from are the social applications to which it has been so inclined. Indeed, Darwin was as committed to a racialized and misogynistic ethic as any member of his generation. What Adrian Desmond and James Moore wrote almost thirty years ago in Darwin still remains true:

Is he [Darwin] see society, like nature, progress by eliminating its unfit members? “Social Darwinism” is often seen as something alien, an ugly concretion added to the pure Darwinian corpus after the fact, tarnishing Darwin’s image. But his notebooks make it clear that competition, free trade, imperialism, racial extermination and gender inequality were part of the equation from the start – “Darwinism” has always been meant to explain human society.

Science historian and social anthropologist Henrika Kuklik (1942-2013) was even more adamant, stating that “academics wasted their time trying to exonerate Darwin from responsibility for Social Darwinism because he was a Social Darwinist.”

What a pity that Schuller sent Gershon on such a crazy race. Both came back empty-handed and ended up looking either deceptive or ignorant. I will assume the latter; it seems the most charitable conclusion.

Editor’s Note: For more on Darwinism’s enduring legacy of racism, watch the award-winning documentary Human zoos:


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