Torygraph exaggerates Darwin’s evil in trying to smear Sheffield’s “decolonized” biology curriculum; and a bonus guest take by Andrew Berry

May 10, 2021 • 9:15 am

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.

  1.  Darwin 

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. 

  1.  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

And from PCC(E), here’s a photo of Andrew on top of Mount Darwin in California, about to place a copy of Why Evolution is True, autographed by yours truly, at the summit for future generations to find. . .

22 thoughts on “Torygraph exaggerates Darwin’s evil in trying to smear Sheffield’s “decolonized” biology curriculum; and a bonus guest take by Andrew Berry

  1. I understood the Telegraph‘s beef to be with what it sees as Sheffield’s wokeness rather than with Darwin.

    Re Andrew Berry’s

    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.

    I seem to recall that Alexander Graham Bell and a rival both filed patent claims for the telephone within a short period?

    1. Agreed, it doesn’t read to me as though the Telegraph are exaggerating Darwin’s faults, rather they are doing what good newspapers still do, namely reporting what the University of Sheffield are doing and then quoting others to balance Sheffield’s stance. The journalist doesn’t give an opinion himself; this distinction between reporting and op-eding should be maintained.

    2. Yes, science history is complicated. The telephone: Johann Philipp Reis had built a functioning one in 1861. When Bell filed his 1876 patent, he beat his closest competitor, Elisha Gray, by mere hours for the same device. Some insist the real inventor was Antonio Meucci, who shared a laboratory with Bell. The only known fact is that Bell was granted the first patent for a telephone in the US.

      But teaching history requires a clear and concise narrative as a starting point, if you want to keep your audience’s attention. It’s worthwhile to emphasize that the reality is much more complicated than the narrative, but if you try to include every detail, the story becomes too muddled.

      It’s like map making: The larger the area you chart, the less detail you can include. On a world scale, Long Island is represented by four or five lines instead of its true complex shoreline.

  2. According to the USGS/GNIS, the only feature named after Darwin in Colorado is the Darwin Reservoir. Did you mean California (Mt Darwin, 13825 ft, in Fresno County)? But the USGS does have a suggestion page for renaming features, so maybe we could change some other peak in CO….

  3. This alone is worth damning the guide: “Value diversity in epistemology (ways of knowing), by realising that science stems from a Western positivist perspective which is just one of many equally valid ways of understanding the world and addressing contemporary problems.”

  4. The Telegraph says that Darwin must be historically caveated. Is that how they look at all things in history. Search out any and all details that do not match your modern day’s judgement? Then tweet and write articles on it to warn others. I would add, just don’t make the trip if that is your reason for going. You are wasting our time.

  5. It seems to me like these social analyses of science recommendations bury the lede, in that they want to talk about science’s problems without talking about how science solves them.

    It’s valuable to teach budding scientists how racist and biased thoughts crept into science in the past – everything from skull-measuring to N-rays. Because it’s probably still going on, with and without us knowing about it (possible example: see Netflix’s “Coded Bias” documentary). That’s the problem with bias – when you have it, you often don’t see it. Awareness that you might have it, a willingness to examine your own work critically for it, is important.

    But self-criticality and awareness is only a minor part of the fix. Peer review and reproduction by independent labs is the other half. Nobody grades their own work very well, that’s just not the way humans work. Thus peer review is critical. And ultimately, “nature’s peer review” is found in independent reproduction of the results by people who don’t share your particular biases.

    So yeah, okay, talk about Darwin’s racism. But then talk about peer review and reproducibility as the answers. And ditch all that pomo ‘other ways of knowing’ crap. You want to reveal and fix bias in science? You won’t do that by having some minority person sit on their keister meditating to access some other way of knowing. You’ll do it by having some minority (or not) scientist read the paper, point out where there may be bulls**t, and run the experiment again to see if the results are reproducible.

  6. I have a few observations:

    1. Darwin was an abolitionist, but being one was hardly rare in Britain in his time. After all, Britain abolished slavery. As Wikipedia puts it: “On 28 August 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act received Royal Assent, paving the way for the abolition of slavery within the British Empire and its colonies. On 1 August 1834, all enslaved persons in the British Empire (except for India) were emancipated, but they were indentured to their former owners in an apprenticeship system that meant gradual abolition: the first set of apprenticeships came to an end on 1 August 1838, while the final apprenticeships were scheduled to cease on 1 August 1840, two years later.” The British route of gradual, compensated emancipation did not receive the same degree of support in the American South at that time. Slavery there was abolished by other means.

    2. It was, indeed, quite possible to be anti-slavery and racist at the same time. This was quite common in the United States among those who opposed slavery. That is, one could oppose the institution while simultaneously rejecting the concept of the equality of the races.

    3. Unfortunately, Darwin’s theories were perverted in the social arena to justify Social Darwinism. The latter was promulgated in the late 19th century by academics such as William Graham Sumner to argue for concepts such as survival of the fittest. It was the intellectual foundation of laissez-faire capitalism. Echoes of Social Darwinism still reverberate in right-wing ideology.

  7. I haven’t read the article, except the bits you’ve quoted, but I guarantee that this is a swipe against Sheffield University and its perceived wokeness, not Charles Darwin. The Daily Telegraph is a fairly right wing paper, even by the standards of the British press (hence the reason why people call it the “Torygraph”).

  8. An interesting discussion but in the Sheffield document the sentences
    “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”
    are so idiotic and hyperbolic that they just serve to discredit the arguments being made….

  9. As far as Berry’s last comment, about the “great man” narratives, sometimes it does take a leap of genius to make the connections that lead to great discoveries. I see nothing wrong with focusing on the single person who does make those necessary connections. But, the history of science is full of fantastic stories and fantastic people and to learn about the whole cast of characters makes for a much richer and more fulfilling study of the history of science. For example, Darwin plus Wallace, Bates, Huxley, Owen, Gray, Lyell, Compte de Buffon, Hutton, Cuvier, and so on. One could certainly use the Tangled Bank metaphor here, and same for Watson, Crick, Franklin, Gosling, Pauling… but the student of science only has so much time for the history of science and as for due credit…well, I’m not a scientist but who’s approval do you seek, that of the public, or that of your peers?

  10. How was a person living in an earlier era supposed to arrive at the knowledge of the equal intelligence and abilities of the races or the sexes? It is not obviously true. It is perfectly plausible that the sexes and races could have essential differences that suit them to different social roles. Certainly it was plausible to the overwhelming majority of people who believed the social order was created by God, but I think it was plausible regardless given what they did and didn’t know.

    If we expect that they should have known that all people are essentially the same, how exactly should they have arrived at this knowledge? Why should we judge it a deep moral failure on their part when they didn’t, rather than just ignorance?

  11. Sheffield University’s working group on “decolonizing the science curriculum” is no doubt busy drawing attention to the intimate relationships between Science and European colonialism and war. For example, the principles of Physics underlie the Maxim gun, the steamship, and the telegraph, which were essential to the success of European imperial conquests. Therefore, no mention of Galileo and of Isaac Newton should be made without emphasizing this undeniable imperialist side of Physics. Furthermore, we note that the ability of European airplanes to drop bombs on their targets depends on gravity, a consideration which alone disposes of Isaac Newton. And finally, we have John Dalton, the originator of the atomic theory of matter, and Ernest Rutherford, who initiated nuclear physics—leading to the atomic bomb, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the modern atomic arms race. QED.

    In another category, Sheffield University is paying students £9.34 per hour to ferret out instances of microaggressive speech ( ). An example of such speech is: “Why are you searching for things to be offended about?” Could it be that Sheffield aims to challenge Cambridge for the UK wokeness championship?

  12. I agree that the Telegraph is not having a go at Darwin et al, but at Sheffield University. It seems to me that they are attacking the handbook. It also seems to me that Sheffield are wanting to judge the past by the standards of the present. Well, the past is another country.

    Is eugenist a word? Surely eugenicist is the correct form??? One who practices eugenics or one who practices Eugene?!

  13. Agree 100%. A lot of the woke crowd don’t stop to contextualize things. Richard Dawkins gets flustered and frustrated by: Evolution is NOT “social Darwinism” which is why he spent decades explaining “the selfish gene” – b/c many (virtue signaling and maybe not that bright) activists see “Darwin” and just see one thing: Thatcher, etc, social Darwinism — which is a total misreading and misleading.

    Now in this generation people who seem to have NO understanding of the finer points of evolution, of Darwin personally, historical context etc. go off the deep end and splash right into the pool of stupidity. hehehe Like you rescuing your ducks: mud and water and ducklings all over the place! hahaha


  14. I think most of us who follow this blog are in accord. The problem is that there is a dearth of middle and high school instructors who hold these “alternative” views, and if they do and they have the courage to voice these views, they are quickly pushed out. We have to extend job discrimination policies to cover political views, I guess, and we need to expand diversity measures to make sure that political orientations are more balanced. With the exclusion of speech which is directly discriminatory/hate speech, all speech should be protected, including statements in which one person quotes another person’s offensive speech.

    Why aren’t there more books for younger people which cover the nuances and complexities in history?

    1. When I said “with the exception of hate speech” I meant that specifically for a work environment, not just general street speech.

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