The article below appeared in the Torygraph two days ago, and, although there is some truth in what it says about Darwin’s views, the gap between the Torygraph’s rhetoric and the reality is substantial. Click on the screenshot to read it; and if it’s paywalled just make a judicious inquiry. I’m not sure, not being a reader of this paper, whether they are impugning Sheffield University, Darwin’s theories, or both.
You can read for yourself the claim that Darwin’s theory justified white male superiority (yes, he believed in male superiority and in the hegemony of whites, but it was the paternalistic racism of Victorian times, and note that Darwin was also an ardent (and rare) abolitionist). At any rate, here’s a brief excerpt of the Torygraph article, which summarizes a University of Sheffield handbook on “decolonizing biology”:
Charles Darwin is among “highly celebrated scientific figures” who “held racist views” because he used his theory of natural selection to justify white male superiority, according to a new university’s handbook for teaching and research.
The renowned naturalist is on a list of 11 feted scientists whose views “influenced the type of research they carried out and how they interpreted their data”, according to Sheffield University’s guide drawn up to decolonise the biology curriculum.
This is despite Darwin’s fervent support for the abolition of slavery, which he called a “sacred cause”, unlike many of his contemporaries. He said of slavery that “it makes one’s blood boil”.
The handbook, seen by The Telegraph, tells students and lecturers that he must be historically caveated when lecturers teach his seminal theory of evolution.
Historians told The Telegraph that Sheffield’s guidelines were “unhistorical and misleading” and “authoritarian”.
The Russell Group university has also told science students and lecturers in the guidance to drop the terms “founding father”, “idols” and “geniuses” to avoid “hero worshipping” scientific figures.
This practice treats them as “white saviours” and erases less privileged scholars, it explains. Drawn up by lecturers in the Animal and Plant Sciences faculty, the guide says “whiteness and Eurocentrism of our science” must be dismantled.
“It is clear that science cannot be objective and apolitical,” it adds, and “the curriculum we teach must acknowledge how colonialism has shaped the field of evolutionary biology and how evolutionary biologists think today”.
. . . . According to Sheffield’s decolonised curriculum, Mr Darwin “believed that his renowned theory of natural selection justified the view that the white race was superior to others, and used his theory of sexual selection to justify why women were clearly inferior to men.”
It says his voyage on HMS Beagle, when he collected plant and animal samples, was to map colonies.
Some of the “colonialism” refers to the two voyages of the Beagle, but those voyages were not meant “colonize” or map nonexistent British colonies, but to map the coast of South America for trading purposes and for ship re-stocking, including making diagrams of the ports.
If you’ve read The Voyage of the Beagle and the Descent of Man, you will realize that yes, Darwin had racist tendencies that would be seen as insupportable today, but then it’s doubtful, to me at least, that Darwin would be a racist if he lived in modern times. And his fight for abolitionism must surely be taken into account. You can have racist ideas and be an abolitionist at the same time: humans are multidimensional. To impugn Darwin’s theory because of his views, as the Torygraph seems to be doing, is surely to engage in an ad hominem argument, placing Darwin in company with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and others shown on the cover of this creationist book by the Turkish liar (and now criminal) Adnan Oktar (pseudonym Harun Yahya). (h/t: Andrew Berry)
To be sure, the article does quote real Darwin scholars who think that this “decolonization” was ridiculous:
But Prof James Moore, a biographer of Darwin and historian of science, told The Telegraph: “Almost everyone in Darwin’s day was ‘racist’ in 21st century terms, not only scientists and naturalists but even anti-slavery campaigners and abolitionists.
“What set his ‘racism’ apart – and makes him more like us today – was his profound conviction that all the human races are ‘family’, sisters and brothers.
“Darwin’s wokeness was most obvious in his maintaining the full common humanity and unity of the races in the face of a rising anthropology that insisted the races were in fact separately originated and unrelated species, thus offering justification of atrocities that Darwin is now blamed for.”
Prof Nigel Biggar, an Oxford historian, added: “During Darwin’s lifetime the British Empire was busy emancipating slaves across the world.
“The ‘decolonising’ assumption that ‘colonial mapping’ was all about oppression is false, and the judgement that Darwin should be damned by association is morally stupid.
“Before propagating this ideology, did Sheffield University secure the consent of academic staff, and does it now allow for conscientious objection? If not, its conduct is authoritarian and arguably a violation of academic freedom.”
After some effort, I managed to locate the handbook that Sheffield University uses as its “decolonization guide”. You can download it here, and yes, it does make some statements similar to what the Torygraph says. Here are two excerpts; I won’t bother to analyze them here:
This sentence is palpably ridiculous:
Many prominent evolutionary biologists and geneticists who helped establish the field were racists and eugenists, including JBS Haldane, Francis Galton, James Watson and many more. Their theories served as justification for slavery and mass slaughter.
Haldane was not a racist, Galton, who advocated class-based eugenics (based on encouragement of breeding), had no influence in affecting eugenics or “slavery and mass slaughter”, and Watson, who is a racist, has had no influence on slavery, white supremacy, or “mass slaughter.” How cold he have? He’s still alive. He is in fact disgraced and was removed from his position at Cold Spring Harbor.
And there’s an analysis of the malefactors of evolutionary biology, like this one:
So the Torygraph doesn’t have it all wrong, but it clearly implies that Darwin’s theories, which indeed were used by others to justify oppression and white superiority, are in themselves deficient because of how they were employed. But the misuse of a theory doesn’t mean it’s wrong—only that others bent it to suit their ideology, as Adnan Oktar did. Few biologists (and those would be creationists) doubt the immense power of the theory Darwin suggested in 1858 and published in 1859.
I myself would not teach evolution along the lines of the University of Sheffield, which gives the whole thing a political slant, ignoring the tremendous advances that Darwin forged in our thinking. How relevant are Darwin’s views to teaching evolution, anyway? Was any Victorian Englishman perfect by modern lights? And must we always bring in people’s moral views which, perhaps conventional in their times, are now odious in ours? These are questions we’ve discussed before, and will discuss again—perhaps today—but rather than sling mud at Darwin, I want to give a measured take on Darwin and the Torygraph piece by my friend and colleague Andrew Berry, a lecturer and adviser in evolutionary biology at Harvard. So voilà, and many thanks to Dr. Berry for allow me to twist his arm:
Guest comments by Andrew Berry
Rather than pushing back reflexively on Sheffield University’s statements on Darwin (as reported by The Daily Telegraph), I think it’s worth taking a serious look at the suggestions being made.
Darwin comes up short, no question, in any retroactive 21st century assessment of his views on human race and gender. He was, by today’s standards, a racist and a misogynist. But of course his views were a product of where and when he lived; his opinions on race and gender were derived from the upper-class white world he inhabited. That he was actually downright progressive — he was a fervent abolitionist, for example — by the standards of this world is irrelevant. We have to ask whether his scientific ideas — his legacy — are in some way tainted by his thinking in these areas. Is the theory of evolution by natural selection inherently racist or sexist? In some of their attempts to characterize their objections as being based on more than religion, some creationists insist that it is. And it’s certainly true that plenty of dubious figures have hijacked Darwin to provide a veneer of scientific respectability to their prejudices. But the theory itself? It’s essentially based on two observations: the capacity of populations to undergo exponential growth, and the occurrence of mutation — error — in the transmission of genetic information from generation to generation. Exponential growth in a world of finite resources results in competition, with that competition being won by, on average, the genetically best endowed members of the population. I for one don’t see racism or sexism embedded in these assertions.
There is no question that Darwin’s thinking was inspired by the milieu in which he lived — Malthus’s ideas were au courant, and Victorian Britain was an early experiment in laissez-faire capitalism — but Darwin’s identification of a mechanism of evolutionary change should absolutely not be taken as an endorsement on his part of the kind of social darwinism that some of his supposed heirs came to embrace. To assume that the processes we observe in the natural world somehow offer a prescription for how we should live our lives is to commit the naturalistic fallacy.
- History of Science
Historians of science have long objected to popular simplifications of the scientific process. Newton encounters a falling apple, and — bingo! — the theory of gravitation is born. This tendency to embrace simplifications has two consequences: a focus on the individual (the scientific “genius” responsible for the breakthrough), and, correspondingly, a failure to take into account the underlying factors — social, or otherwise — involved in the development of innovations. This simplified discourse is promoted by institutions like the Nobel Prize. The lab head gets the prize. What about all those post-docs, colleagues, grad students who contributed? Science, in reality, is a complex, messy business that does not lend itself to handy Eureka! moment narratives. In short, all Sheffield University’s guidelines are stating is that we should move on from the Nobel/Eureka! model of understanding the scientific process and become instead better informed historians of science. Let’s therefore think about the unsung heroes and about the non-scientific factors that together conspired to make a previously inaccessible idea accessible.
Curiously, Darwin and evolution offer a wonderful case study. Evolution by natural selection is a simple and powerful idea that explains features of the natural world — design in nature, biological diversity, us — that every society has sought to understand (typically through its own set of creation myths), and yet it was not until the middle of the 19th century that the idea was finally formalized. And it was formalized by two people, not one. A R Wallace does not get anywhere close to the air time that Darwin gets [had the Nobel Prize existed in their day, Darwin would have received the Prize, Wallace a gentlemanly shout-out in Darwin’s acceptance speech], but the original publication of the theory (1858) took the form of two separate statements of the same idea — one by Darwin and one by Wallace. Maybe Wallace isn’t the best example of the scientific also-rans that Sheffield University is asking us to note — he was white and male, after all — but his story illustrates the point well, and some part of his eclipse by Darwin in our histories of the theory is attributable to his relative poverty and lack of connections.
The Darwin-Wallace story is an instance of London bus syndrome: you wait and wait in the rain for one to come, and then, suddenly, two arrive. Darwin and Wallace discovered the same idea independently and (more or less) simultaneously.
How on earth did that happen? Darwin and Wallace were subject to the same set of socio-cultural influences. These gave them special opportunities and shaped their ideas in particular ways (relative to earlier thinkers in the same area). Some of those influences/opportunities: Malthusian thinking, which was often invoked as Victorian Britain pondered creating a societal safety net; laissez-faire economics, which enshrines the improvement-through-competition essence of natural selection; natural theology, which invited empirical scientific research (with a view to understanding the ways of the creator); the industrial revolution, which suggested that living things may be nothing more than very complex machines; British imperialism, which allowed both Darwin and Wallace to travel the world and to see biological diversity in situ. All these factors — and more — lie behind that 1858 joint paper. My point: to understand the development of these ideas, the focus should not be on Darwin and Wallace, but, rather, on these other factors.
I don’t think that Sheffield University’s guidelines warrant The Daily Telegraph‘s outrage.
A.) We should indeed review our scientific ideas to ensure that elements of past pernicious thinking have not been woven into the fabric of those ideas
B.) We should of course condemn corruptions of scientific ideas that are used to motivate injustice. Social darwinism is not an inevitable corollary of the theory of evolution by natural selection
C.) We should indeed try to reduce our reliance on the ‘Great Man’ narrative in history of science. Scientific discovery is a complex business, and, for sure, the history of science is littered with Rosalind Franklins who have received less credit than they deserve