Happy Darwin Day!

To celebrate Darwin Day, I’ve decided to start reading The Descent of Man. I’ve already got The Origin of Species and The Voyage of the Beagle under my belt, and I’ve been meaning to read Descent for a long time.

Which reminds me. At that creation/evolution debate I went to a while ago a creationist audience member brought up Darwin’s alleged racism, quoting from Descent of Man:

To celebrate Darwin Day, I’ve decided to start reading The Descent of Man. I’ve already got The Origin of Species and The Voyage of the Beagle under my belt, and I’ve been meaning to read Descent for a long time.

Which reminds me. At that creation/evolution debate I went to a while ago a creationist audience member brought up Darwin’s alleged racism, quoting from Descent of Man:

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.

Seen in context, it’s clear Darwin is really making a point about the lack of intermediate forms between humans and apes. As for the exterminating savage races bit? Most white people thought in terms of a hierarchy of races, with Western Europeans at the top, and either Blacks or Australian Aborigines at the bottom. And a lot of people believed then that Blacks and Native Americans were headed for extinction. Their cultures were being ravaged, their lands were taken, the people themselves were sold into slavery or rounded up into reservations… many Whites believed it was only a matter of time. They weren’t necessarily happy about it, mind you, but they honestly thought it was inevitable.

From his writings in Voyage of the Beagle I found Darwin very open-minded and respectful for a Victorian gentleman who’d never left England before. I have a hard time imagining a racist writing something like this:

(November 15, 1835)

The common people, when working, keep the upper part of their bodies quite naked; and it is then that the Tahitians are seen to advantage. They are very tall, broad-shouldered, athletic, and well-proportioned. It has been remarked, that it requires little habit to make a dark skin more pleasing and natural to the eye of an European than his own colour. A white man bathing by the side of a Tahitian, was like a plant bleached by the gardener’s art compared with a fine dark green one growing vigorously in the open fields.

Creationists (and others) may be interested to know that Darwin was passionately anti-slavery—still a hot issue at the time. Great Britain had only abolished slavery in 1832, the first Western nation to do so (okay, France abolished it in 1794, but reinstated it again in 1802. It was abolished for the last time in 1848).

April 14, 1832. Near Rio de Janeiro.

While staying at this estate, I was very nearly being an eye-witness to one of those atrocious acts which can only take place in a slave country. Owing to a quarrel and a lawsuit, the owner was on the point of taking all the women and children from the male slaves, and selling them separately at the public auction at Rio. Interest, and not any feeling of compassion, prevented this act. Indeed, I do not believe the inhumanity of separating thirty families, who had lived together for many years, even occurred to the owner. Yet I will pledge myself, that in humanity and good feeling he was superior to the common run of men. It may be said there exists no limit to the blindness of interest and selfish habit. I may mention one very trifling anecdote, which at the time struck me more forcibly than any story of cruelty. I was crossing a ferry with a negro who was uncommonly stupid. In endeavouring to make him understand, I talked loud, and made signs, in doing which I passed my hand near his face. He, I suppose, thought I was in a passion, and was going to strike him; for instantly, with a frightened look and half-shut eyes, he dropped his hands. I shall never forget my feelings of surprise, disgust, and shame, at seeing a great powerful man afraid even to ward off a blow, directed, as he thought, at his face. This man had been trained to a degradation lower than the slavery of the most helpless animal.

So, yes. Somewhat prejudiced and chauvinistic, but also empathetic. And honest with himself and able to learn from his mistakes—as a good scientist should.

After Mauritius and South Africa, the Beagle swung by Brazil one last time before finally sailing home. Darwin shares his thoughts on the country:

On the 19th of August [1836] we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernambuco, I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate. I suspected that these moans were from a tortured slave, for I was told that this was the case in another instance. Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto, daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. I have seen a little boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip (before I could interfere) on his naked head, for having handed me a glass of water not quite clean; I saw his father tremble at a mere glance from his master’s eye. These latter cruelties were witnessed by me in a Spanish colony, in which it has always been said that slaves are better treated than by the Portuguese, English, or other European nations. I have seen at Rio de Janeiro a powerful negro afraid to ward off a blow directed, as he thought, at his face. I was present when a kind-hearted man was on the point of separating forever the men, women, and little children of a large number of families who had long lived together. I will not even allude to the many heart-sickening atrocities which I authentically heard of;—nor would I have mentioned the above revolting details, had I not met with several people, so blinded by the constitutional gaiety of the negro as to speak of slavery as a tolerable evil. Such people have generally visited at the houses of the upper classes, where the domestic slaves are usually well treated, and they have not, like myself, lived amongst the lower classes. Such inquirers will ask slaves about their condition; they forget that the slave must indeed be dull who does not calculate on the chance of his answer reaching his master’s ears.

It is argued that self-interest will prevent excessive cruelty; as if self-interest protected our domestic animals, which are far less likely than degraded slaves to stir up the rage of their savage masters. It is an argument long since protested against with noble feeling, and strikingly exemplified, by the ever-illustrious Humboldt. It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing the state of slaves with our poorer countrymen: if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin; but how this bears on slavery, I cannot see; as well might the use of the thumb-screw be defended in one land, by showing that men in another land suffered from some dreadful disease. Those who look tenderly at the slave owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter;—what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children—those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own—being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that His Will be done on earth! It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty; but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice than ever made by any nation, to expiate our sin.

Happy 199th birthday, Charles.