The Truth about Darwin

A Princeton anthropologist takes aim at an icon.

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Last week the prestigious and normally staid journal Science kicked up a fuss by running a short essay on Charles Darwin that provoked the anti-woke.

“You knew the woke would come for Darwin sooner or later,” tweeted Andrew Sullivan about the essay. Claire Lehmann, founder of Quillette (the unofficial journal of the “intellectual dark web”), chimed in sarcastically, “He may have been the father of evolutionary theory but did he put his pronouns in his bio?”

The author of the Science piece (which ran under the heading “editorial”) was Agustin Fuentes, an anthropologist at Princeton. He contended that Darwin’s 1871 book The Descent of Man “offers a racist and sexist view of humanity” and is “often problematic, prejudiced, and injurious.” So students who are taught that Darwin was a great scientist “should also be taught Darwin as an English man with injurious and unfounded prejudices that warped his view of data and experience.”

There are things about this essay I like. For example: I understood it, which distinguishes it from many things written by contemporary anthropologists. Also, it’s hard to argue with its claim that Darwin said things about race and gender that would get a guy canceled today. (As one person put it on Twitter, Darwin, “was 19th century euro upper class. It'd be stranger if he WASN'T ‘problematic’ by today's standards.")

Still, Fuentes does seem to have gotten one important thing about Darwin wrong. And in the process he demonstrated a kind of confusion I consider so pernicious that I’ve decided to add it to my list of “existential psychological threats,” along with such cognitive biases as attribution error and confirmation bias (“existential” in the sense of grave threats to Planet Earth, a subject pondered often in this newsletter).

Here’s the confusion: In reading Darwin, Fuentes fails to distinguish between an explanation of something and a justification of something.

I want to emphasize that, though Fuentes seems to be on the left, this conflation of explanation and justification is common on both sides of the political spectrum. If you suggest that some terrorist act committed in America was a response to America’s bombing of majority-Muslim countries, someone on the right may respond to this attempt to explain why the terrorism happened by saying, “Oh, so you’re justifying the slaughter of Americans? You’re excusing the terrorists?”

The fact that I’m often on the receiving end of this kind of question may be one reason I’ve come to see this conflation—let’s call it the “explain/excuse conflation”—as something whose extinction would be a wonderful thing. But there’s another reason: I believe this conflation is a genuine impediment to solving some of the world’s biggest problems. If people get shouted down every time they start a sentence with, “I think the reason bad thing X happened is…” then we’ll have trouble understanding enough about bad things to reduce their frequency.

Here’s the assertion by Fuentes that, so far as I can tell, is flat-out wrong. After (accurately) writing that Darwin “asserted evolutionary differences between races,” he adds: “He went beyond simple racial rankings, offering justification of empire and colonialism, and genocide, through ‘survival of the fittest.’ ”

I’ve read a fair amount of Darwin, and I don’t remember him defending imperialism or genocide. So I asked Fuentes on Twitter if he could back up that claim by providing actual quotes from The Descent of Man. He didn’t oblige me, but he did direct me to chapter 7. So I pulled my copy of Descent off my bookshelf and took a look.

I had read this chapter many years ago, and now I remembered what had initially struck me about it: It jarringly demonstrates how much attitudes toward race have changed since the nineteenth century. Someone could be at the progressive end of the discourse of that day and still seem reactionary by modern lights. That’s Darwin.

Hard as it is to believe now, many scientists in Darwin’s day considered the different human races different species. A central thrust of Darwin’s argument in chapter 7 is that these scientists were wrong: humankind is a single species. 

Citing two of the most famous anthropologists of his day, Darwin wrote, “He who will carefully read Mr. Tylor’s and Sir J. Lubbock’s interesting works can hardly fail to be deeply impressed with the close similarity between the men of all races in tastes, disposition and habits… and, as I shall be able to show in a future essay, by the same expression in their features, and by the same inarticulate cries, when they are excited by various emotions. This similarity, or rather identity, is striking, when contrasted with the different expressions which may be observed in distinct species of monkeys.”

Darwin’s views on this matter were also informed by personal experience, in particular his travels around the world as a young man on board the H.M.S. Beagle. He wrote in chapter 7: “The American aborigines, Negroes and Europeans are as different from each other in mind as any three races that can be named; yet I was incessantly struck, whilst living with the Fuegians [indigenous South Americans] on board the "Beagle," with the many little traits of character, showing how similar their minds were to ours; and so it was with a full-blooded Negro with whom I happened once to be intimate.”

Arguing that all humans are human dovetailed with the political tradition Darwin had inherited. Opposition to slavery had been in the Darwin family ever since the anti-slavery activism of his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. And his other grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood (as in Wedgwood china), had created a ceramic medallion showing a Black man in chains along with the inscription, “Am I not a man and a brother?” This medallion—which wouldn’t have made so much sense if the scientists Darwin was arguing against in chapter 7 were right—had become the seal of Britain’s Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade upon its founding in 1787.

All that said, Darwin also wrote in chapter 7 about “the wilder races of man” and “the low and degraded inhabitants of the Andaman islands” and so on. That’s why I say the chapter is such testament to how far we’ve come: these and other things that today are painful to read were written by a progressive of that day.

My own view is that we should judge people in the context of their times, but that’s an argument for another day. My main agenda item today is to explore the confusion that seems to underlie Fuentes’s claim that, in The Descent of Man, Darwin offers “justification” of imperialism and genocide.

In steering me to chapter 7, Fuentes had mentioned a section where Darwin writes about “the extinction of indigenous peoples on contact with Europeans.” That section is part of a broader discussion of why groups of humans—tribes, races—sometimes die out as a result of competition and conflict with one another. The following extended excerpt will give you the flavor of Darwin’s observations on the matter. (An important note on three words Darwin uses that were in those days technical terms within anthropology: “savages” were what we would call hunter-gatherers; “barbarians” were people who had agriculture but not a system of writing; “civilized” people had writing.) Darwin wrote:

Extinction follows chiefly from the competition of tribe with tribe, and race with race. Various checks are always in action, serving to keep down the numbers of each savage tribe—such as periodical famines, nomadic habits and the consequent deaths of infants, prolonged suckling, wars, accidents, sickness, licentiousness, the stealing of women, infanticide, and especially lessened fertility. If any one of these checks increases in power, even slightly, the tribe thus affected tends to decrease; and when of two adjoining tribes one becomes less numerous and less powerful than the other, the contest is soon settled by war, slaughter, cannibalism, slavery, and absorption. Even when a weaker tribe is not thus abruptly swept away, if it once begins to decrease, it generally goes on decreasing until it becomes extinct. When civilized nations come into contact with barbarians the struggle is short, except where a deadly climate gives its aid to the native race. Of the causes which lead to the victory of civilized nations, some are plain and simple, others complex and obscure. We can see that the cultivation of the land will be fatal in many ways to savages, for they cannot, or will not, change their habits. New diseases and vices have in some cases proved highly destructive; and it appears that a new disease often causes much death, until those who are most susceptible to its destructive influence are gradually weeded out; and so it may be with the evil effects from spirituous liquors, as well as with the unconquerably strong taste for them shown by so many savages…

The grade of their civilization seems to be a most important element in the success of competing nations. A few centuries ago Europe feared the inroads of Eastern barbarians; now any such fear would be ridiculous. It is a more curious fact, as Mr. Bagehot has remarked, that savages did not formerly waste away before the classical nations, as they now do before modern civilized nations…

And so on. Darwin continues in this vein, but I couldn’t find a passage that comes closer than this one to supporting Fuentes’s claim. And this one doesn’t strike me as coming very close. Obviously, there are phrases here that offend modern sensibilities. Some of Darwin’s explanations of why some groups suffer at the hands of other groups may be racist or otherwise bigoted. These explanations may also be wrong. But there’s no reason to believe that Darwin, in offering these explanations—including explanations of why “civilized nations” sometimes have a genocidal effect on indigenous peoples—is approving of or justifying such outcomes.

Anyone who wants to join Fuentes in arguing that Darwin is trying to justify genocide runs into a couple of problems.

First: Wouldn’t it be odd if, in the very chapter of Descent which argues that all groups of humans have an equal claim to being human, Darwin’s intended message was that wiping some of them out is a good thing? 

Second, and more important: Fuentes’s interpretation of chapter 7 is at odds with other evidence about Darwin’s sensibilities. In The Origin of Species, Darwin goes on and on about why some kinds of animals flourish and others don’t and why some animals succeed in killing other animals and how such lethal skills are favored by natural selection. He maintains an air of clinical detachment throughout, as he does in chapter 7 of Descent. Yet we know from his personal correspondence that he was so horrified by the cruelty of nature—the cruelty that is both a product of and an engine of natural selection—that he found it hard to reconcile with religious faith.

He wrote to the American botanist Asa Gray: “I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I should wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.”

Does that sound like a man who would want to justify the mass suffering of human beings?

On Twitter, I pressed Fuentes on what exactly he meant when he said Darwin had offered a “justification” for imperialism and genocide. He said, “by justification i mean ‘the action of showing something to be right or reasonable.’ ”

I suppose Fuentes could try to wiggle out of my indictment by underscoring the “or” in “right or reasonable” and then insisting he meant “reasonable” in some value-free way. Such as: Darwin was trying to give explanations for group extinction that are “reasonable” just in the sense of being “plausible.” But if that’s what Fuentes meant, then he’s basically saying that by “justify” he didn’t mean “justify.”

In trying to figure out how Fuentes reached his conclusion about Darwin, it’s useful to distinguish between two variants of the “explain/excuse conflation.”

One variant equates explanations involving human motivation with justification (as when you try to explain why someone’s life experiences inclined them to commit terrorism and then you get accused of defending terrorism).  

The other variant of the “explain/excuse conflation” equates describing things as part of “nature” with justifying them. Now, there certainly are people who try to justify things on grounds that they’re “natural.” Maybe Fuentes thought Darwin was one of them. In the tweet where he defined justification in terms of “right or reasonable” he added, “he [Darwin] explained the reasonableness/rightfulness of the outcomes as reflective of ‘survival of the fittest’ via the action of natural selection.”

But, as that letter to Asa Gray shows, Darwin was not the kind to equate the natural and the good; he saw a wasp’s painfully slow execution of a caterpillar as a product of natural selection yet still thought it was a bad thing. (Letting nature prescribe your values—inferring “ought” from “is”—is so famously fallacious that it has a name: the naturalistic fallacy. Darwin’s friend and loudest defender, Thomas Huxley, argued forcefully, in a lecture that was later published as the book Evolution and Ethics, that nature is too cruel to serve as our moral guide.)

What the two variants of the “explain/excuse conflation” have in common is that they’re anti-scientific and even anti-intellectual. If exploring the causes of bad things—terrorism, war, imperialism, genocide—will get you excoriated, that dulls your incentive to do the exploring.  

And if we don’t understand why bad things happen, it will be harder to prevent their recurrence. So if you’re against imperialism and genocide, maybe you should be careful about casually accusing people of being in favor of them when your only evidence is that they want to understand them.

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Note: I’ve tried to represent Fuentes’s views and logic accurately based on his Science piece and our limited interaction on Twitter. If he thinks I’ve misunderstood him or that my argument against his view doesn’t hold water, he’s welcome to reply in this newsletter.