Horrors! Darwin discovered to be a sexist!

February 7, 2021 • 1:45 pm

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.

That troubles our monkey again’ caricature of Charles Darwin from Fun, 16 November 1872. Source: The Darwin Correspondence Project.


50 thoughts on “Horrors! Darwin discovered to be a sexist!

  1. Another reason to get rid of the Bible and all the sexists in it. My god, King Solomon had 300 concubines.

  2. How about we save everyone a lot of lost time and effort reading turgid woke pieties in the New Yorker, NYT and seemingly just about every other player in popular media (and a denumerable number of third rate, purportedly academic papers in purportedly academic journals) and just cancel pre-late-20th century history, period. This piecemeal elimination of the European intellectual heritage is so inefficient…

    1. Buckaroo Bonzai “Give her your coat.”

      Perfect Tommy “Why me?”

      Buckaroo Bonzai “Because your Perfect.”

  3. I read the essay and thought that the section about Darwin and Martineau was an interesting historical footnote. However, jumping ahead a few decades to tack on some selective quotes struck me as just including a section to get it published in a major paper. It used to be the case that you’d see articles entitled “Darwin Was Wrong…”, but now the big headline is that he had a 19th century view of race and/or gender. How “newsworthy”.

  4. Just thought I’d offer a nice little story about Harriet Martineau. Apparently somebody once said to Thomas Carlyle that the great thing about Harriet Martineau was that she had ‘accepted the universe’. To which Carlyle replied ‘By God, she’d better!’

  5. Imagine discovering a male in the 18th or 19th century that was sexist or racist, based on your 21st century culture and knowledge. Shocking. Find a male from the period that was not and that would be a find. Idiotic thinking is the only thing discovered in this.

    1. I expect women of that time would also commonly claim the “lesser” role for themselves. Martineau being a rare exception. Arguments for women’s equality were met with resistance from both women and men.

      It is so much more accurate to just condemn the period, rather than the person living in it. But that does not trigger the social outrage behavior that is common in our species.

      1. I first must say I don’t much care about the business of condemning the period – that makes no sense. Let’s condemn the bad air and lack of clean water while we are at it. Women also would claim a lesser role for themselves – right, everything belonged to the man and when he died it all went to the oldest son, stuff like that? Comments like these just proves another thing – Probably 80 to 85 percent of males today are sexist in one way or another. In 1920 when women finally got to vote nearly 50 years after African American males they probably were reluctant to register.

        1. ?? That seems unfair. I have read, here and there, that historically, opponents to women’s suffrage included other women. Only a quick check here, but it seems to bear that out: http://www.crusadeforthevote.org/naows-opposition I will be sorry if I am wrong, but have not seen facts to the contrary.
          By condemning the period, what is meant is to condemn the social order that programs most people to hold views that deny others of their basic rights and opportunities. If you were born 200 years ago, you would probably (probably) be a misogynyst and a bigot. As would I.

  6. Lincoln was not an abolitionist (at least until he issued the Emancipation Proclamation) as understood by both his contemporaries and historians. There was a line drawn between being an abolitionist and anti-slavery. Lincoln was in the latter category. Abolitionists were a distinct minority – virtually non-existent in the slave South and a small group in the North, largely condemned. They believed in the immediate abolition of slavery in the South. Anti-slavery people, which made up the core of the Republican Party as it emerged in the 1850s, did not like slavery for various reasons (not always moral ones) and hoped to see slavery disappear at some point in the future, but agreed that the federal government had no authority to interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed. Their main anti-slavery effort was to prevent slavery from expanding into the federal territories. Indeed, in his first inaugural address, Lincoln stated: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” With this position, in conjunction with his support of the colonization of freed African-Americans to foreign lands, Lincoln was no favorite of real abolitionists.

    1. Indeed, one of the anti-slavery issues was the fact that slavery devalued white men’s work – why pay someone to work when you can get a slave? Although my understanding of Lincoln is that his views evolved over time, so he became much more abolitionist by the time he made the Emancipation Proclamation, especially after having become friends with Frederick Douglass.

      1. I would not say that historians put the label abolitionist on Lincoln even with the Proclamation. He did this daring thing in the middle of war and did it primarily for the advantage it provided. It freed temporarily the slaves only in the warring states of the south. It caused great problems for the south as slaves fled north. It also gave the north another cause which some liked and some did not.

        1. It’s my understanding that the Proclamation also made it much harder for the Confederacy to bring in England and continental powers as ‘mediators’ demanding an end to fighting — on the CSAs terms.. And this was because much of the English upper middle class like the Darwins and Wedgewoods were anti-slavery even when England would benefit from the cotton trade.

      1. That’s right. As I pointed out, for most of his life, Lincoln was far from being an abolitionist and historians do not refer to him as such. If the Union had won the war quickly, slavery would have continue to exist for the indefinite future. But the war did change things.

        By the way, it took the 13th amendment, which Lincoln supported, that ended slavery throughout the country. The Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued under the guise of being a war measure, freed slaves only in areas then under the control of the Union Army. Many areas of the slave South (including slave states that did not secede) were not covered by it.

  7. While contemplating marriage, Darwin famously made a pros and cons list. One of the pros of marriage listed was companionship, which Darwin described as “better than a dog, anyway.” 😂 Those Victorian men.

  8. The intellectual sins of our age:

    * The desire to impose presentist purity tests on people long dead, from cultures whose profound differences from our own are downplayed (Victorian England was indeed a very different place and time!).

    * The inability to accept the work and ideas of those who inevitably fail those tests, or separate their ideas from them. Their legacy is thought to be a source of moral decay and infection, cancerously riddled with racism, imperialism, and sexism (or, to use the word that has replaced it through concept creep, “misogyny”). Doesn’t matter if those ideas and thinkers are the building blocks of our world (if they are, they’re held responsible for all its problems), they must be torn down and erased.

    * The inability to understand that celebrating someone for their resounding accomplishments does not mean approving of whatever their sins against modern ideologies are. Related to this is the inability to weigh a person’s good and bad deeds in terms of their effect on our world and theirs. Hence Lincoln, savior of the union and saver of more Native American lives than he took, being found wanting by the purity police.

    Eventually the only acceptable pre-20th century figures to celebrate will be victims—members of marginalized/overlooked groups. Even if the achievements of some individuals from those groups might not be that important, they will be celebrated more than those of someone from an unacceptable race & sex (the dreaded “dead white male”).

    1. Members of marginalized/overlooked groups would likely be just as guilty of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia etc. Maybe the solution is just to purge all of human history and start from scratch? 😉

  9. If I were inclined toward vulgar Marxism (like some in my family’s previous generation), I would suspect that the billionaire class had deliberately created wokeism as a distraction. What better way to distract from present-day class relationships than to focus attention on the burning problem of improper attitudes amongst the long dead? Better that the suckers concentrate on renaming buildings than that they should worry their little heads over arcane matters like tax rates, corporate law, or labor law.

    1. I do not know to what extent the ruling class helped create or encourages the Woke, but its existence certainly helps those in power. Because the nation’s composition consists of many different races, religions, and ethnicities, throughout American history it has always worked for the ruling class to divide the masses on cultural issues, whereby economic and class issues have been almost forgotten. It has been child’s play for the ruling elite to do this.

    2. Yes, that has been pointed out a few times, and there is something to it. A slightly (but only slightly) less cynical interpretation is that wokeism has been created by young people who are by most criteria extremely privileged (namely, students and graduates of reputable universities in a wealthy country, decades after most overt discrimination had been abolished), to allow them to take on the mantle of oppressed victim and heroic fighter against injustice. Bringing economics into the picture would make their narrative even less plausible.

    3. Indeed, I’ve long argued that wokeism is a cross between american cultural imperialism and de facto ruling class propaganda.

  10. If you are looking for a culture to roast, Switzerland only granted suffrage to women, at the federal level, in 1971.

      1. Cuckoo clocks are from Germany, you would sanction the wrong country. :-). I never understood why they are associated with Switzerland,

        Yes, yestarday we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Switzerland becoming a real democracy. A newspaper was interviewing two women who in the 1950s and 1960s were acively fighting against women civil rights: they both said their are still against.

        1. > I never understood why they are associated with Switzerland

          Best theory I heard is that it goes back to this scene from the movie The Third Man: [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cydkTy6GmFA]

          1. Thank you. I see the movie was from a novel by Graham Green. He forgot to mention the milk chocolate!

  11. Niestety ludzie mają naturalną tendencje do pasożytowania na innych ludziach .
    Świadomość tego dość przykra dla człowieka który pasożytuje na bliźnich ,domaga się złagodzenia najlepiej przez intelektualne teorie i dysputy.Na przykład teoriami rasowymi,o wyższości rasy białej,wyższości mężczyzn nad kobietami itp bzdury .(ciekawe kto w dzisiejszych czasach gra rolę pasożyta i jak to uzasadnia? )

    Generalnie nikt nie lubi tasiemców gdyż to drapieżniki i zazwyczaj ludzie się ich pozbywają (jeśli o nich wiedzą)

    Nie czynię oczywiście zarzutów Darwinowi z perspektywy XXI wieku gdyż to mało mądre .Jak na swoją epokę,większość ludzi posiadała gorsze poglądy od niego .

    1. “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.Even if all of them would die soon after you”

      George Bernard Shaw

      Much of what was said did not matter, and that much of what mattered could not be said.”

  12. “… 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.”
    It is clear Darwin does not ascribe the ‘inferiority’ of women’s intellect to something innate, but clearly ascribed it -or at least most of it- to the female burden of having to look after a family. And has ‘modern society’ not made the happiness of the home suffer? (I’m not sure, I ask this as an open question, not a rhetorical one. Maybe Darwin was wrong there, and modern emancipated families are more harmonious and happy). One of the ‘Great Russians” (Tolstoy? yes, must have been him) stated that every happy family was happy the same way, while every unhappy family had it’s own way to be unhappy.
    At any rate, for a 19th Century British male, Darwin was pretty ‘woke’.

    Has there ever been a society that was not sexist or racist to some degree?

  13. If we had to erase/cancel ANYONE who has been racist/sexist/bigoted over time, there wouldn’t be anyone left. It seems that any of these qualities from people on the left have been conveniently “erased” from history. Margaret Sanger, founder of “Planned Parenthood” was known to be a eugenicist who worked to prevent “human waste.” Andrew Jackson, founder of the modern Democratic Party, was known to be a horrible racist, sexist, all around A-hole, and was responsible for the “trail of tears.” It seems that it’s just easy for the media to dig stuff up that could be found on pretty much ANYONE in order to smear and cut them down.

  14. There’s a wonderful line from Ang Lee’s film (Total Eclipse) on the poets/lovers Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlane, in which Rimbaud sneers about poets who “are more bourgeois than the bourgeoisie.”
    That perfectly sums up my contempt for these pearl-clutching grave diggers. The downright desperate anti-establishment wankitty-wank-wanking is as puritanical as any Puritan witch hunter. This noxious movement appears to render its denizens incapable of creativity or greatness.

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