I predicted a while back that the fall of Darwin due to his Unwokeness was imminent, and for that I was criticized by some who said such a notion was ludicrous. But it was inevitable, for Darwin was a wealthy white male who lived in mid-19th-century Britain, when the normal attitude of men of his class—or of any class—was sexism and racism.
If you know anything about Darwin, though, you’ll know that he was also an ardent abolitionist, along with members of his family and his wife’s family—the Wedgewoods. Nevertheless, he was also a racist, believing that black people were inferior to whites. You can see this in his Voyage of the Beagle and in the Descent of Man. What this demonstrates is that in that era you could be both an abolitionist and a racist. In fact, Abraham Lincoln, also an abolitionist, just had his name removed from a San Francisco public school for supposed racism, though it was racism against Native Americans.
Nevertheless, you could take nearly any male Briton from the mid-19th century and, if you could suss out his views, discover that he was a sexist and a racist. That makes Darwin simply one of many. But it’s good clickbait to indict Darwin because he’s the most famous scientist of his time—perhaps of any time. And it’s no surprise that the New York Times, mired as it is in identity politics and ideological purity, decided that it needed the clicks of calling out Darwin for sexism.
The essay below (click on screenshot) was written by Michael Sims, a nonfiction writer specializing in science. Click on the screenshot to read it.
The tedious part of this essay is that most of it isn’t about Darwin’s sexism at all: it’s about Darwin’s having met the well known “social theorist” Harriet Martineau at a party held at his brother’s house. Martineau (1802-1876) was indeed a remarkable woman, fiercely smart and independent, and a polymath often considered to be the first sociologist. She was also a tireless advocate of women’s rights. And, as Sims recounts, Darwin was much taken with her, finding her “invincible” and “a wonderful woman”.
In fact, three-quarters of Sims’s article is about Martineau, with a bit about her meeting with Darwin and more about how many people admired her while others took issue with her views and her feminism. So why Sims’s title? Because the last quarter of the piece is about Darwin’s views—expressed mainly in the 1871 book The Descent of Man—that women were intellectually inferior (but morally superior) to men. And that claim is pure clickbait.
An excerpt from Sims’s piece:
Decades [after having met Martineau in 1837], despite many respectful and admiring interactions with Martineau and other female writers and thinkers, as well as with his intelligent and well-read sisters, wife, cousins and colleagues’ wives, Darwin comprehensively dismissed women’s intellectual potential. “The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes,” he stated in “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex” (1871), “is shewn by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman — whether requiring deep thought, reason or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands.”
In 1881 the American educator and social reformer Caroline Augusta Kennard wrote to ask Darwin if she correctly understood him on the inferiority of women. Missing the irony, he responded by saying, “I certainly think that women though generally superior to men [in] moral qualities are inferior intellectually.”
He conceded that there was “some reason to believe that aboriginally (& to the present day in the case of Savages)” men and women demonstrated comparable intelligence, thus implying the possibility of regaining such equality in the modern world. “But to do this, as I believe,” he added, “women must become as regular ‘bread-winners’ as are men; & we may suspect that the early education of our children, not to mention the happiness of our homes, would in this case greatly suffer.”
Now here his view of women’s inferiority is clear. As I said, he was a sexist. But it’s not clear—and isn’t clear from what I remember of The Descent of Man—whether Darwin thought this intellectual inferiority was an evolved trait or a cultural one. Parsing what’s above, you could say that Darwin either thought that women had lost their intellectual ability through evolutionary disuse after “savages” evolved into modern humans in which women became maids and breeders, or, alternatively, that women were forced into those roles, but, given equal opportunities and rights, would become the intellectual equals of men. In other words, if one were one charitable, one could say that Darwin attributed women’s so-called intellectual interiority to the actions of The Patriarchy: culture rather than nature.
Still, it doesn’t really matter. Darwin was a sexist, and that’s true regardless of the origin of the inferiority he ascribed to women.
But Sims isn’t the first to detect this. Just Google “Darwin sexist” and you’ll find that this indictment has been leveled by many, and for years. And it would be true of Huxley, Lyell, and nearly every other famous or non-famous British male of that era —if they expressed their opinion.
Darwin was a man of his time. Were he raised in a milieu that was more like our time, he would certainly not have been a sexist or a racist, for his views, and that of his family, were generally liberal. Why, then, does Sims take the trouble to write a longish essay about something that everybody already knew? I can’t get inside Sims’s head, but certainly the New York Times would welcome any piece calling out the racism and sexism of a hugely famous white man.
But there’s no racism mentioned in Sim’s article. Stay tuned for that, because I can guarantee you it will come before long.
And yes, Darwin was a racist. But neither his racism nor his sexism do anything to devalue his enormous scientific contribution to humanity: the theory of evolution—not to mention the other work he did on plants, animal behavior, earthworms, domestication of animals and plants, and so on. If they start tearing down statues of Darwin, or renaming buildings that bear his name, I’ll be plenty mad. But I’m not sanguine. If they can cancel Lincoln, they can cancel Darwin. After all, they were born on the very same day, and were both men of their time.