On May 22 I discussed, or rather criticized sharply, a takedown of Darwin published in Science by by Agustín Fuentes, a primatologist and biological anthropologist at Princeton University. This year is the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s two-part book: The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. And while there was a good article in the same issue of Science by three other researchers , Fuentes’s short takedown, while it did at least note Darwin’s book had some merit, wound up being a misguided and highly woke critique calling out Darwin for racism, sexism and misogyny. My article pointed out some of Fuentes’s errors; I’ll mention just two of them.
First, Fuentes claimed that Darwin’s view of sexual selection in animals and humans involved female passivity and male choice, ergo it was misogynistic, denying females a role in evolution. (There may, however, indeed be cases where females are passive, as when males compete with each other—e.g., elephant seals or deer—and females are constrained to mate with the winner. Is it really useful to say that male-male competition for females is a misogynistic view? But most theories of sexual selection, including Darwin’s, involve both male traits and behaviors and female preferences for those traits and behaviors, so Fuentes didn’t even get his biology right.
The second involves Fuentes’s ridiculous assertion that Darwin’s views justified genocide and colonialism. As I wrote, quoting Fuentes:
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.
Again, Fuentes didn’t do his homework, for he was eager to convince the world that Darwin, who was far more liberal in his views than most of his Victorian peers (he was, for one thing, an abolitionist), was riddled with moral failings.
Here’s one more beef I had before we move on to Robert Wright’s critique. I wrote this:
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.
As a friend wrote me:
This kind of anachronistic moralization has been neatly exposed by the philosopher Robbie George – way, way, to the religious right of us, but clever and broad-minded (he’s joined with Cornel West in defending academic freedom). George asked his class whether if they had been antebellum Southerners they would have opposed slavery, and of course all of them—preposterously—claim they would have been abolitionists. A moral version of the Fundamental Attribution Error – people think that people who hold bad beliefs must be bad people.
Likewise, I’m sure that had Fuentes been a contemporary of Darwin, his views would have been at least as misogynistic, racist, and colonialist as Darwin’s. So where does he get off using today’s morality to go after a man of the nineteenth century?
But I digress. Another person who offers a thorough critique of Fuentes’s Darwin-bashing is author Robert Wright. I have often disagreed with Wright, but I’m with him 100% in this article from his Substack site (click on the screenshot):
Like Fuentes did towards Darwin, Wright offers some tepid praise for Fuentes’s hit job:
There are things about this essay I like. For example: I understood it, which distinguishes it from many things written by contemporary anthropologists. Also, it’s hard to argue with its claim that Darwin said things about race and gender that would get a guy canceled today. (As one person put it on Twitter, Darwin, “was 19th century euro upper class. It’d be stranger if he WASN’T ‘problematic’ by today’s standards.”)
That is, Fuentes’s piece is laudable because one can understand it. Not high praise! Also, Darwin’s views on race and gender have been well known for years to clash with modern sensibilities, so that’s not new.
But then Wright swings his hammer, and his concern is pretty much the same as mine: Darwin’s supposed justification of genocide. Wright correctly sees a logical error here:
Here’s the confusion: In reading Darwin, Fuentes fails to distinguish between an explanation of something and a justification of something.
Here’s the assertion by Fuentes that, so far as I can tell, is flat-out wrong. After (accurately) writing that Darwin “asserted evolutionary differences between races,” he adds: “He went beyond simple racial rankings, offering justification of empire and colonialism, and genocide, through ‘survival of the fittest.’ ”
I’ve read a fair amount of Darwin, and I don’t remember him defending imperialism or genocide. So I asked Fuentes on Twitter if he could back up that claim by providing actual quotes from The Descent of Man. He didn’t oblige me, but he did direct me to chapter 7. So I pulled my copy of Descent off my bookshelf and took a look.
So Wright contacted Fuentes and asks for evidence that Darwin justified imperialism and genocide. Fuentes doesn’t respond properly, but just points to a chapter in Darwin’s book. Unfortunately for Fuentes, Wright read that chapter and found that while Darwin explains why races supplant each other, he never justifies it. Wright gives several quotes about how tribes drive each other to extinction, but there is nothing even close to the view that Darwin is “justifying genocide” or approving of mass killing.
Wright then goes on to give the well-known evidence that Darwin was often horrified by the damage and pain wrought by natural selection as it eliminates ill-adapted individuals. And, as we know, that Darwin correctly believed in monogenesis: that all “races” and groups of human descended from a single common ancestor. Here’s a bit from Wright with a very famous quote from Darwin:
Anyone who wants to join Fuentes in arguing that Darwin is trying to justify genocide runs into a couple of problems.
First: Wouldn’t it be odd if, in the very chapter of Descent which argues that all groups of humans have an equal claim to being human, Darwin’s intended message was that wiping some of them out is a good thing?
Second, and more important: Fuentes’s interpretation of chapter 7 is at odds with other evidence about Darwin’s sensibilities. In The Origin of Species, Darwin goes on and on about why some kinds of animals flourish and others don’t and why some animals succeed in killing other animals and how such lethal skills are favored by natural selection. He maintains an air of clinical detachment throughout, as he does in chapter 7 of Descent. Yet we know from his personal correspondence that he was so horrified by the cruelty of nature—the cruelty that is both a product of and an engine of natural selection—that he found it hard to reconcile with religious faith.
He wrote to the American botanist Asa Gray: “I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I should wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ [parasitic wasps] with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.”
Does that sound like a man who would want to justify the mass suffering of human beings?
On Twitter, I pressed Fuentes on what exactly he meant when he said Darwin had offered a “justification” for imperialism and genocide. He said, “by justification i mean ‘the action of showing something to be right or reasonable.’ ”
I suppose Fuentes could try to wiggle out of my indictment by underscoring the “or” in “right or reasonable” and then insisting he meant “reasonable” in some value-free way. Such as: Darwin was trying to give explanations for group extinction that are “reasonable” just in the sense of being “plausible.” But if that’s what Fuentes meant, then he’s basically saying that by “justify” he didn’t mean “justify.”
Indeed! Fuentes is conflating what Darwin thought was true in nature (and he may have been wrong) with Darwin’s approval of nature. In other words, Fuentes committed the classic “naturalistic fallacy”: equating what happens in the wild with what is good or worthy of approval.
Wright winds up with one more zinger leveled at Fuentes:
. . . if we don’t understand why bad things happen, it will be harder to prevent their recurrence. So if you’re against imperialism and genocide, maybe you should be careful about casually accusing people of being in favor of them when your only evidence is that they want to understand them.
Good job, Robert!
Although some of us predicted that the Pecksniffs would eventually come after Darwin, other readers said that wouldn’t happen. Well, it did, and perhaps more is in store. But if the best job that can be done is one like Fuentes’s, it’s not a convincing indictment of Darwin as an immoral racist, sexist, and colonialist.
For sure Darwin wasn’t perfect by modern moral lights. But he was more liberal, and more kind, than most Brits in his position, and why should we worry so much about Darwin’s morality when what’s important is his science? The morality of Victorian days is largely gone, but the science remains.
I’d like to think that, in the future, instead of being known as “The man who took down Darwin,” Fuentes will be known as “The Pecksniff who went after Darwin but failed to score a hit.” The man’s scholarship is shoddy, and his piece looks like an excuse to flaunt Fuentes’s own moral superiority—or the moral superiority of moderns over Victorians. But if you want to hear about moral improvement without the snark and finger-pointing, it’s better to read Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.