A Pecksniffian anthropologist takes down Darwin for being a man of his time

May 22, 2021 • 11:30 am

It’s the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s The Descent of Man (people often forget that it’s paired with another book, Selection in Relation to Sex), and the journal Science has celebrated the year in two ways. The first is an article pointing out, tiresomely, erroneously, and not for the first time, that Darwin was a sexist, racist, colonialist, and oppressor whose theories supposedly harmed many people. That is the first note below (click on screenshot), written by Agustín Fuentes, a primatologist and biological anthropologist at Princeton University.

Click on the screenshot to read the piece:

The piece isn’t totally bad, but it’s bad enough that I want to register a few plaints. The main ones are that Fuentes is not saying anything that hasn’t been said before: Darwin indeed had some racist, sexist, colonialist, and white-supremacist views that were expressed in his works, especially in The Descent of Man (Fuentes repeatedly confuses the two books, as some of the views he criticizes appear in Selection in Relation to Sex).

To be fair, Fuentes does credit Darwin with his insight and his durable and correct theory of evolution. But as he gives with one hand, he takes with the other:

 But despite these ideal frames and some innovative inferences, “Descent” is often problematic, prejudiced, and injurious. Darwin thought he was relying on data, objectivity, and scientific thinking in describing human evolutionary outcomes. But for much of the book, he was not. “Descent,” like so many of the scientific tomes of Darwin’s day, offers a racist and sexist view of humanity.

Yes, the tired old Bucephalus of critical theory: “it’s problematic.”

And then we get the usual litany: Darwin believed that whites were superior to blacks and other non-Europeans; he thought women were inferior to men, opined that eventually the white “race” would supplant other groups, and so on. This much we’ve all known for a long time, and many of us, including me, have taught it to our students.

But, despite Fuentes’ admission of Darwin’s strong abolitionism, he seems to forget that Darwin was a man of his time, not of our time. Is it fair to judge Darwin against an enlightened modern liberal? I don’t think so: the proper judgment is to see whether Darwin was palpably morally worse than most other Victorian Englishmen.  And I don’t think he was. I’ll explain a bit more below, but I have a very hard time thinking of someone of Darwin’s stature in Europe who was much better than he on the issue of women, or, for that matter, slavery. (Read Marx and Engels on the Irish if you want real bigotry.) Yes, Darwin saw some South Americans as “savages”, but he also perceived their common humanity with us, and his theory affirmed our common ancestry. And yes, he saw women as the inferior sex; but how many Victorian men were far more enlightened than he?

Frankly, I’m tired of people who say things like “Darwin was bad because he should have known and done better.” Neither he nor his contemporaries did or could have: morality evolves, and in 150 years our own generation may be seen as just as morally deficient as was Darwin. After all, we eat meat, and in the future we may learn more about the suffering of animals in ways that would brand us moderns as horrible barbarians. The judgment of celebrating Darwin should rest on a). “is he being celebrated for the good things he did?” (answer: yes), and b). “did the good he did in his life outweigh the bad?” (answer: also yes).

Now, onto what I see as Fuentes’s missteps. Here’s one about selection and racial differentiation:

Darwin portrayed Indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia as less than Europeans in capacity and behavior. Peoples of the African continent were consistently referred to as cognitively depauperate, less capable, and of a lower rank than other races. These assertions are confounding because in “Descent” Darwin offered refutation of natural selection as the process differentiating races, noting that traits used to characterize them appeared nonfunctional relative to capacity for success. As a scientist this should have given him pause, yet he still, baselessly, asserted evolutionary differences between races.

. . . His adamant assertions about the centrality of male agency and the passivity of the female in evolutionary processes, for humans and across the animal world, resonate with both Victorian and contemporary misogyny.

The first part of this is fine, but the second, about how “races” and sexes come to differ from one another morphologically, is not. Darwin saw sexual selection (a subset of natural selection, by the way) as the process whereby different ethnic groups come to differ in appearance. He may well have been right about this. And clearly, there are evolutionary differences between the appearance of ethnic groups. These are certainly genetic, and the morphological homogeneity within groups compared to the palpable differences between groups suggest an evolutionary origin.

What kind of evolution was it? As I said, Darwin’s view was that groups of humans (as well as males versus females) are affected by sexual selection based on either male-male competition or “choice”. The choice, according to Darwin, was made by females preferring arbitrary but aesthetically appealing male traits: song, ornaments, plumage, and so on. (For humans, Darwin sometimes intimated that the “choice” was made by males, but by females in other animal species.) This “beauty matters” hypothesis has its biggest exponent in Richard Prum, and though I am not convinced by his arguments, it’s mainly because we lack data, not because Prum is known to be wrong. Here’s Prum in a paper discussing Darwin’s views:

Darwin was explicit, repeated and adamant in maintaining that the evolution of secondary sexual characters by mate choice was an aesthetic mechanism of evolution. For example, he wrote:

With the great majority of animals, however, the taste for the beautiful is confined to the attractions of the opposite sex.* The sweet strains poured forth by many male birds during the season of love, are certainly admired by the females … If female birds had been incapable of appreciating the beautiful colours, the ornaments, and voices of their male partners, all the labour and anxiety by the latter in displaying their charms before the females would have been thrown away; and this is impossible to admit. [, p. 61]; * sentence added in second edition)

On the whole, birds appear to be the most aesthetic of all animals, excepting of course man, and they have nearly the same taste for the beautiful as we have. [, p. 466]

[Male birds] charm the female by vocal and instrumental music of the most varied kinds. [, p. 466]

It is important to establish what Darwin’s language meant in modern terms. Darwin lacked our modern sensitivity to avoiding anthropomorphizing his subjects. Rather, he was actively engaged in reducing the distinctions between humans and animals. But Darwin was not trying to shock his readers. He used these aesthetic terms as ordinary language without any special semantic or cultural implications. Darwin was specifically proposing that animals (mostly females) were making sensory and cognitive evaluations of display traits, and making mate choices based on those evaluations. Darwin used ‘taste for the beautiful’ to refer to differential behavioural response to a secondary sexual sensory stimulus. While this aspect of Darwin’s opinion was highly controversial at the time [], it is mainstream now. If that were the only issue, there would be no need for us to revive Darwin’s use of aesthetic language. Our contemporary terms cover this meaning.

While I doubt Prum’s views as a general explanation of sexual dimorphism (I’m more inclined to see differences between human ethnic groups as a “beauty matters” issue), he may be right in some cases, and at any rate note that the agency here is exercised by females, not males. In what sense, then, are Fuentes’s females “passive” if they are choosing among males competing for their attentions? Darwin makes the females quite active!

Speaking of stuff that Darwin got wrong, his biggest whopper was his erroneous theory of genetics, in which he thought that hereditary “mutations” were invoked by environmental change, a “Lamarckian” view. We know now that Darwin was wrong, but fortunately his theory didn’t depend on a correct mechanism of genetics, but only on the fact that there was genetic variation in populations that could be passed on, and affected survival and reproduction. The fact that Fuentes omits this biggest whopper in favor of moral indictments shows that he has an explicitly ideological aim, which he reveals in the last paragraph of his article (see below).

Here’s a Fuentes whopper about “survival of the fittest,” a term that Darwin didn’t invent and generally avoided, using it only a handful of times in his writings:

[Darwin] went beyond simple racial rankings, offering justification of empire and colonialism, and genocide, through “survival of the fittest.” This too is confounding given Darwin’s robust stance against slavery.

This is wrong on two counts. First, Darwin never justified genocide, though he did think that by virtue of (inherited) superiority, the white race would come to dominate others by higher relative success. But never did he advocate the killing or extirpation of different ethnic groups. Second, the use of “social Darwinism” by others to justify such mistreatment of other groups was always rejected by Darwin. Darwin simply cannot be blamed for the misuse or misconstrual of his theory by others. In fact, I cannot think of what direct harm Darwin really caused to anyone, save his buttressing the views of English men and women of his time. I always maintain that if Darwin lived today, he would likely decry misogyny, racism, and white supremacy, and would be a liberal English guy. It’s unfair, again, to tar him for adhering to the moral standards of his time—indeed, in having higher standards.

Finally, Fuentes neglects that Darwin did do some backsliding about the hegemony of natural selection as an explanation for everything. Here’s a quote from The Descent of Man: (h/t Nick Matzke)

. . . . but I now admit, after reading the essay by Nägeli on plants, and the remarks by various authors with respect to animals, more especially those recently made by Professor Broca, that in the earlier editions of my ‘Origin of Species’ I probably attributed too much to the action of natural selection or the survival of the fittest. I have altered the fifth edition of the Origin so as to confine my remarks to adaptive changes of structure. I had not formerly sufficiently considered the existence of many structures which appear to be, as far as we can judge, neither beneficial nor injurious; and this I believe to be one of the greatest oversights as yet detected in my work. I may be permitted to say as some excuse, that I had two distinct objects in view, firstly, to shew that species had not been separately created, and secondly, that natural selection had been the chief agent of change, though largely aided by the inherited effects of habit, and slightly by the direct action of the surrounding conditions. Nevertheless I was not able to annul the influence of my former belief, then widely prevalent, that each species had been purposely created; and this led to my tacitly assuming that every detail of structure, excepting rudiments, was of some special, though unrecognised, service. Any one with this assumption in his mind would naturally extend the action of natural selection, either during past or present times, too far.

Yes, Darwin went back and altered the fifth edition of The Origin to reflect this change of views.

In Fuentes’s last paragraph, he reveals his aim: to increase inclusion and diversity (presumably racial and gender diversity) among evolutionists in hope that this will it easier to catch Darwin’s moral errors as well as those of other evolutionary biologists.


Reflecting on “Descent” today one can look to data demonstrating unequivocally that race is not a valid description of human biological variation, that there is no biological coherence to “male” and “female” brains or any simplicity in biological patterns related to gender and sex, and that “survival of the fittest” does not accurately represent the dynamics of evolutionary processes. The scientific community can reject the legacy of bias and harm in the evolutionary sciences by recognizing, and acting on, the need for diverse voices and making inclusive practices central to evolutionary inquiry. In the end, learning from “Descent” illuminates the highest and most interesting problem for human evolutionary studies today: moving toward an evolutionary science of humans instead of “man.”

Re the first part: yes, scientists have long rejected the simplistic view of “races” as easily demarcated groups of people that differ genetically in profound ways, but we still recognize clustered ethnic groupings. As for “no biological coherence to male and female brains”, I believe that this is a matter of debate (see here) and, at any rate, I do believe that evolution has differentiated male and female brains in terms of the tendencies it has given the sexes to behave differently or possess different preferences (there is of course considerable overlap). One example is the male-female difference in sexual behavior, similar to that of many other animals.  This must be coded somehow in the brain. As far as “survival of the fittest” not accurately representing the dynamics of the evolutionary process, well, duhhh. For 30 years I’ve told my classes that “reproduction of the fittER” is a more accurate characterization of how natural selection works, and an even more accurate representation would be that “the genes that become more numerous over evolutionary time are those that leave more copies of themselves.” The latter idea is hard to convey to undergraduates, though!

While I do believe that some of our unrecognized prejudices can be addressed by broadening the types of people we want to attract to evolutionary biology (I think the emphasis on female preference in sexual selection was promoted to some extent by women biologists), I really don’t think that making diversity and inclusion the central focus of “evolutionary inquiry” will lead to profound breakthroughs. This presumes that there are race- or gender-based ways of thinking about evolution, and while this may be true to some extent, I don’t think it’s true to an appreciable or important extent. What we need is to start turning on kids to evolution at a young age; that is, we should “widen the pipeline”, attracting the best thinkers from all groups. It is deeply patronizing to try to hire minorities so they can help us “reject the legacy of of bias and harm in the evolutionary sciences.”

To counterbalance the tut-tutting of Fuentes, though, we have a longer article in the same issue which talks about Darwin’s book, shows its contributions, and steers well clear of morality. Click on screenshot to read the article:

And its summary:

Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man was published in 1871. Ever since, it has been the foundation stone of human evolutionary studies. Richerson et al. reviewed how modern studies of human biological and cultural evolution reflect the ideas in Darwin’s work. They emphasize how cooperation, social learning, and cumulative culture in the ancestors of modern humans were key to our evolution and were enhanced during the environmental upheavals of the Pleistocene. The evolutionary perspective has come to permeate not just human biology but also the social sciences, vindicating Darwin’s insights.

The ideology and the “I’m better than Darwin was” attitude can be left for classes in the history and philosophy of science.


h/t: Nick Matzke, Andrew Berry, Brian Charlesworth, and Matthew Cobb for discussion.

55 thoughts on “A Pecksniffian anthropologist takes down Darwin for being a man of his time

  1. Fuentes: “[Darwin] went beyond simple racial rankings, offering justification of empire and colonialism, and genocide, through “survival of the fittest.”

    Fuentes can’t tell the difference between “ought” justifications and “is” statements. Darwin’s book contained only “is” statements (“SotF” is descriptive, not normative). I bet Fuentes can’t give actual quotes of “justifications” for those things.

  2. In 150 years, Darwin will in all likelihood still be an important part of scientific discussions. Who, I ask you, will give a rodent’s derrière about some peckersniff named Fuentes and his woke religiosity?

  3. Yep, rather hard to give actual quotes that the famous dead person the quotes are attributed to never actually uttered or wrote, although that hasn’t prevented some writers from making up quotes and some readers from unquestioningly accepting them.
    Darwin was very much in many aspects a “man of his time & place” but in many other aspects ahead of this time, attributes which also very much apply to Abraham Lincoln, born on the very same day, and also scorned by some moderns as not being sufficiently modern and progressive in his outlook on race and gender roles, although if he had been he likely would never have been elected President.
    The real problem, however, is not the outlooks or mistakes, real or imagined, of long dead people, but the outlooks and mistakes of people who are alive right now and have a great deal of power and who are actively trying to pull humans back into a dark age of bigotry and ignorance. Too many of them are still in the U.S. Congress as well as elected and appointed officials in many state and local governments, very much including those from my current home state of Florida. Former governor and current senator Rick Scott is one such current disgrace.

  4. It never ceases to amaze me that so many otherwise intelligent people feel that denigrating dead scientists, and often their fields of study, will further the cause of racial harmony. WTF?

      1. As such, perhaps he’ll find enduring fame as the the eponym for “Fuentes syndrome” — the effort to advance one’s own career by diminishing the reputation of one’s historical scientific betters.

  5. I agree 100% with our host here. Fuentes is severely mistaken on some aspects of Darwin, and compared to most of his contemporaries Darwin was a paragon of enlightenment and ‘inclusiveness’.
    He thought the ‘black’ slaves he met in Brazil brighter than most, he was scathing, and deeply pained, about their horrible treatment. Moreover, he was an active abolitionist. Can one ask much more of a wealthy English gentleman in the 19th Century?
    How does Fuentes know he would not have been worse, or even a slave owner (the worst for the woke), had he lived 200 years earlier?
    Judging people of centuries ago with our modern standards is not just ridiculous, it somehow carries the remote stench of cheating.

    1. Quite so. Darwin is to blame for not looking 150 years into his future and modifying his behaviour accordingly? Really?

  6. Isn’t it lovely though ? Darwin’s wrong on so many levels, there’s no race, no sexuality in the brain blah blah blah, BUT, we should have more diversity in the fields of evolution sciences… but… why then ? Where does that diversity come from ? Only “moral” differences, which are mostly social constructs anyway ?

    It’s hard sometimes to wrap your mind around those thoughts.

      1. In that twitter thread you linked to, Ayaan Hirsi Ali invites Robin DiAngelo to a debate about racism, with a kind of opening statement.
        I doubt that DiAngelo will accept, but I would have loved to see that one.

  7. Thank you Jerry. I have training in anthropology but consider myself a biologist (or zoologist more precisely). The obsession with racism and sexism by anthropologists really wears me down on more than one level. To think Fuentes’s article was published in Science. This is the second issue of Science within a three-week span that concerns me. Time to subscribe to Nature instead?

    1. Sadly, no, Nature is as bad. Have you seen the editorial this week? Just one of many woke articles in the last couple of years.

    2. My archaeologist friends tell me this is the kind of thing that has driven the divorce between archaeology and anthropology.

      1. Speaking as someone who wrote a thesis in archaeology and got all his degrees in anthropology, I think it’s work noting that screwy ideas and various strains of fashionable nonsense infect both anthropology and archaeology. It’s part of the reason it’s a little misleading to describe either field, in totality, as a science. There are some very good scientists who happen to be archaeologists and anthropologists, but a reflexive aversion to anything that doesn’t tacitly presume some kind of blank slate view of human behavior still permeates both disciplines. I’d estimate the ratio of kooks and ideologues to scrupulous researchers and scientists is 10:1 for anthropology and 5:1 for archaeology.

  8. Agustin Fuentes’ article is perhaps representative of a new form of historical scholarship: critical evaluation of how major figures of the past failed to anticipate the conventions of the 21st century, such as Darwin’s failure fully to appreciate the principles of Diversity, Equity. and Inclusion. The startling discovery that all the pioneers of the past lived in their own centuries will presumably give rise to a whole new discipline: Critical History, joining Critical Race Theory and Critical Gender Theory as a focus for progressive thinkers in academia. Scholars of this new discipline will soon favor us with the revelations that Mendel was a Catholic, that Thucydides did not understand international law, that Dante wrote in Italian, and that Bach composed music by writing on the 5 line staff rather than by using MIDI.

      1. Newton? His ‘Principia Mathematica’ was already called a ‘Rape Manual’ by Sandra Harding (in 1986!), you simply can’t beat that.

  9. Just a small note of context: Homo has been eating meat for 2.4 million years. Prior to that, just another plant-eating primate. It’s my little play on words that Homo’s true “Descent” was the climb down out of the treetops, discovery of tools to access marrow and brain matter in carcasses left behind by lions, and from there setting off the chain of evolutionary adaption that led to Charles Darwin writing his book.

    The mind boggles calculating the amount of reparations owed to the animal kingdom if it is discovered that Homo eating them was “wrong.”

    1. What about the reparations owed to the plant kingdom? Perhaps the food justice activists of the future will determine that the only moral course was that of the California Breatharians, who claimed (at least) to subsist on a diet limited to air and sunlight.

      1. A person can ‘live’ on air if they have excess stored fat. They burn that in the absence of dietary input. This is called “fasting” and you fuel on ketones released as the stored fat is burned. Great for weight loss!

        NOTE: there is a drastic medical therapy for morbidly obese people called “The UCLA VLC Diet.” Your only intake is 200 grams of a prepared protein/nutrient block. No carbs. No other protein or fat. Basically, you ‘live on air.’ Really, on ketones from burning the body fat. Patients undergoing this mainstream treatment lose 35 lbs per month. My brother was on this, and I can attest to that figure of 35 lb. By the way, you don’t get hungry on this regime.

        Just imagine, however, what happens when you have little or no stored fat remaining, and you try to live on air. It is called starvation.

  10. “I do believe that evolution has differentiated male and female brains in terms of the tendencies it has given the sexes to behave differently or possess different preferences (there is of course considerable overlap).”

    I love this line from Steve Stewart-Williams: “The idea that sex differences are a product of culture alone seems plausible only if you know nothing about other animals.”

    PS: https://twitter.com/SteveStuWill/status/1201471071599419392?s=20.

  11. Three Fuegians accompanied Darwin on his voyage on the Beagle, In his book about it, he was highly complimentary about the man’s ability to fit into English society, and even more impressed by the ability of one of the young women to become competent in Spanish and Portuguese in only a few months in South America. When they returned to their native land, Darwin’s references to “savages” is obviously, in context, a comment on their environment rather than their inherent characteristics, unless, of course, one wants to vilify the man.

  12. A person traveling the world in the early 19th century would encounter some populations of indigenous people living largely as they were when first encountered.
    He would have noticed that some groups built things like Angkor Wat or Notre Dame, while others managed to invent the stick. When encountering people who never progressed to metallurgy, domestication of animals or written language, it might seem a logical argument that those differences might partly be explained through evolution. Especially to a person primarily engaged in researching the subject.
    We have had some time to further explore those questions in the last century and a half, but I cannot fault a 19th century man from getting that initial impression.
    There are a bunch of people now who explain all sexual, cultural or racial differences as being due to oppression. That makes less sense than Darwin’s initial observations.

    But what really gets me is the amazing narcissism on display by these folks. I really get the impression that Fuentes really believes that had he been born in 1809 in Midwest England, he would have accomplished at least as much as Darwin did, and would of course manage to avoid Darwin’s mistakes.

    1. We must bear in mind—or rather, we must be continually reminded—that the Australian aborigines, for example, failed to develop the windmill, the weight clock, the telescope, the sternpost-mounted rudder, the steam engine, and the theory of evolution by natural selection, only because of their oppression by privileged whites, who first arrived in Australia, mostly as prisoners, on 26 January, 1788.

  13. I agree that Darwin imbibed most of the prejudices and shortcomings of Victorian Whigs. I think it’s fair to critique that as a way of overcoming biases. There’s other aspects of Darwin that deserve attention as well, such as his view that evolution had led to an ethical sense based on sympathy. My question though is who got it right, or who at least came close to getting it right? IMO, people like Dewey and Veblen got a lot right, even by contemporary standards when it comes to rejecting invidious distinctions, and they were both strongly influenced by Darwin. Some of the worst people were Lamarckians, though that was not uniform. Perhaps what bothers me most is that people who advance these kinds of critiques in some way almost always draw on strains of theory descended from Nietszche and Heidegger, two people who definitely did not get it right. And you have a really good point about Marx who also absorbed a lot of the prejudices and biases of his day.

  14. What really gets my goat is that 99% of the people who feel the need to write paper and article after paper and article about the “problematic” views of white people long ago will never write about the problematic views held by billions of people today. Can you imagine any of them writing about how, for example, the Muslim countries of the Middle East treat women, LGBT people, etc.? Can you imagine any of them denigrating various African tribes for thinking they’re better than other tribes? Can you imagine them railing against conservative black Christian culture? Or how the dominant culture in India treats people of lower castes and different religions? Yeah, not gonna happen. Instead, we get papers about people from 150 years ago, not because those people had problematic views, but because they’re of a certain sex and race, and writing articles like the one above will signal to their peers that they are proper “progressives.”

    1. Top notch – 100%
      Let’s contextualize things TODAY. I’ll see you at the Gay Pride March in Karachi or
      Take Back the Night/Slutwalk, Kabul. Oh,wait.
      I’ll meet you at the Riyadh Central Synagogue. Oh… wait…


  15. Expecting people from previous centuries to have views in accord with modern “progressive” views is plainly silly.
    If Mr Fuentes had been born in the Europe of the 1800’s then his views would have been similar, or “worse”, than Darwin. Simple observation of the wonders of European civilisation compared to sub Saharan Africa (where written language was unknown) could only have led to one conclusion for an observer of that time. It would have been perverse to think otherwise.

    It is only modern genetics which provides evidence of a high degree of similarity between human population groups..

    1. No, no, Dr. Fuentes implies that had he been Darwin’s neighbor, he would have totally 21st century views on the status of women, people of color, and those from other groups. Dr. Fuentes’s morality apparently transcends time.

    2. The general argument about the relative sophistication of he cultures is valid, but Islam spread south of the Sahara, and written Arabic would be necessary to read the Koran.

      1. You may be right. The Arabian influence in Nigeria and Sudan did seem to produce some written forms of native languages. If you Google the major tribes of sub-Saharan Africa (Zulu, Ashanti, Maasai etc) you’ll find that they did not have a written language prior to European colonisation.

  16. This is totally unfair, Augustin Fuentes is a great scientist. Hitler was also a man of his time, or Stalin, or Pinochet, that does not excuse them for having said and done the things they did, Darwin was racist and sexist because he chose to, nobody forced him, and Wallace was of his time and was much less racist, and actually a feminist, so this falsified your “everybody was like that then”.. if that was so, there would be no social change.. idolization of someone, including Darwin, always involves denial as obviously nobody is perfect

    1. This is, i’m sorry to say, one of the dumbest comments I’ve ever seen. We are talking about Darwin, who did something good and is honored for that, not Hitler or Stalin. Do you perceive any difference in the nature of the argument? Do you perceive that one’s choices are limited if you grow up in a society where the norm is what we would consider less than moral today?

      As for Fuentes being a “great scientist”, I know nothing of his accomplishments. What I know is that his arguments about Darwin, including his factual assertions, are flimsy and laughable. I suppose Dr. Fuentes would have been, if brought up in the 19th century, FAR FAR more moral than Darwin.

      You did see Dr. de Waal’s comment (one of the authors of the REAL paper on Darwin’s book in the same issue) comment, right?

      I made myself LOL.

    2. Every person is a “person of their time”. That’s kind of the point, right? Unlike Darwin, Hitler and Stalin were judged to have done bad things by other people of their time and, as far as I know, did very little good in comparison. You are comparing apples and oranges.

      1. Any good that either Hitler or Stalin did was far outweighed by their crimes against humanity. True, Stalin did much to help rid the world of Hitler and his evil regime, but he was forced by the circumstances of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union and having to take a lead in saving his nation and his own life, although possibly he could have fled further east to avoid capture.
        No “perfect” human, however that is defined, has ever existed (Jesus, whether or not he ever lived, in my estimation, was hardly a paragon of virtue as based on the biblical tales about him; I’m inclined to believe he never existed at all, although he may have been very loosely based on an obscure historical figure). For most of us, however, our “evils” are rather minimal, and some, such as Darwin, did much good in significantly adding to our understanding of the world and life and the likes of Fuentes prove themselves idiots in their efforts to undermine his reputation with falsehoods and speculations. At least a few are very much a mixed bag, doing some significant good as well as evil — Ghenghis Khan and his successors may be considered in that category. Then there are those who may have done a bit of good, but whose atrocities were magnitudes greater.

  17. OK prof. CC (E) — I think you need to understand that whenever you see words like “problematic” “BIPOC” or “colonialist” you’re not dealing with a rational person. When I see those words, I thing “woke alert!” and swipe left (?) and just move / click on.

    I move on to the places where the smart people write, like WEIT, Dawkins, Pinker, Trivers, Taleb, etc. where I can actually learn something valuable on my short time on thiis planet. 🙂

    And anything in the HuffPost is out – it is SO not a serious publication.


  18. Ironically I use Darwin’s Theory of Evolution to defend the claim that there are no qualitative but only quantitative differences between humans (and all other biological life forms). It’s only through humanistic bias we perceive these qualitative value’s; f.i. the false belief that a panda bear has more value than a cockroach.

    Denying the existence of quantitative differences, like Mr Fuentes did, can be dangerous, because this can easily be disproved. F.I. if we disprove “everyone has the same economic value” doesn’t justify different pay as most humans seem to believe.

    Good science is value free.

    1. Unfortunately I don’t think science can be value-free as it is conducted by humans who are steeped in and inevitably influenced by their culture and value systems. It’s much more honest and productive to acknowledge what values we’re entering our scientific inquiry with and be transparent/thoughtful about how that impacts our work.

      I suggest reading some of Helen Longino’s work about this, here is a good place to start:


      1. So could you tell me what values entered my inquiry about how far flies travel in Death Valley. It’s foolish, I think, that because humans have values, all of our scientific research is infected by those values.

  19. When I read stupid articles that the one Fuentes wrote, I frequently wonder what Darwin and his contemporaries in 1871 thought about how their own predecessors 150 years before. Newton (d1726) was perfectly happen to hunt down and condemn to death forgers; the UK still had hanging, drawing and quartering as a legal punishment ( the last person to suffer that died in the 1780s); slavery was rampant etc etc

  20. A good riposte to Mr. Fuentes. What a pity the author spoils it by himself slandering great historical figures. To say Marx and Engels were bigoted against the Irish is both ignorant and totally untrue!
    Marx and Engels were passionate supporters of the Irish struggle for independence, and in fact insisted that the English working class could never achieve its own social emancipation while it continued to hold anti-Irish prejudices. Engels, whose common law wife, Lizzy Burns, was an Irish working woman and participant in the Irish national liberation movement, wrote a (never completed) history of Ireland.

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