Response by Brian Charlesworth to the latest episode of Darwin-dissing

June 9, 2021 • 9:30 am

My friend, colleague, and former chair Brian Charlesworth, a well known evolutionary geneticist, had some thoughts about Agustín Fuentes’s op-ed critique of Charles Darwin recently published in Science. (See my own posts about Fuentes here, here, and here.)  As you’ll see, he feels that Fuentes distorted Darwin’s views; Brian attempts a longer and more objective summary.

Fuentes’s thesis was not just that Darwin himself was, on the subject of human evolution, often sexist, racist, and bigoted, but that his views were injurious, justifying “empire and colonialism” as well as “genocide” to those who adopted the thesis of “survival of the fittest.” As I’ve argued before, Fuentes grossly exaggerates Darwin’s bigotry, for although the man shared some of the prejudices of his time, he was far more liberal than the average English gentleman. (For one thing, Darwin was an ardent abolitionist.) Also, Darwin is not responsible, and in fact rejected, the “social darwinism” that justified oppression and conflict by saying it was “natural”.

Brian’s collection of thoughts on Fuentes’s piece is below.  Statements by Darwin himself are indented in normal type, while Fuentes’s statements are indented and italicized.  But first, here’s Brian’s explanation of why he put together the notes; I’ve added a photo of Brian to the bottom of this post.

Why did I compile these notes on Agustín Fuentes’ Science editorial on The Descent of Man, where he accused Charles Darwin of justifying genocide on the basis of the ‘survival of the fittest’? I had previously been a co-author of a paper (Bodmer, W.F. et al. 2021 Heredity ; https://doi.org/10.1038/s41437-020-00394-6) that described the views on eugenics and race of the great statistician and geneticist, R.A. Fisher. This prompted a good deal of criticism, including attempts by an anti-racist group at the University of Edinburgh to have the paper suppressed, on the grounds that it was a “defence of the geneticist R.A. Fisher’s abhorrent views on race and eugenics” (https://twitter.com/UoEREN/status/1374408913861308431). This attracted the attention of the UK national press, with the Daily Mail newspaper asserting that Fisher advocated “sterilisation of people from races he considered ‘mentally inferior’ ” (University of Edinburgh in free speech row over article praising scientist who advocated eugenics | Daily Mail Online).

Both this episode and the Fuentes article raise two issues. First, while I strongly support removing social and racial injustices, I feel that it is important that we examine the context of opinions expressed in past times, and arrive at a judgement of how positive achievements can be recognised, even when some beliefs are expressed that are obnoxious to people today. Conducting such an examination should not be viewed as defending views that are today regarded as abhorrent, as happened to the paper about Fisher. Enormous benefits have accrued to humanity from Fisher’s statistical innovations and from Darwin’s biological discoveries. This contrasts with slave traders, slave owners, segregationists and Nazis, who did nothing but harm. Second, we must get the facts right. Darwin never justified genocide (indeed, he had a lifelong hatred of cruelty in any form); Fisher never referred to ‘inferior races’ or advocated their sterilization.

My notes on the Fuentes article represent an attempt to give a clearer picture of what Darwin actually wrote and thought than was conveyed by the article itself.

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Some Notes on A. Fuentes’ Science Editorial about Darwin’s The Descent of Man

(Science 2021, 372: 769 DOI: 10.1126/science.abj4606)

Brian Charlesworth, Institute of Evolutionary Biology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh

First, it should be recognized that modern readers of the Descent will find a number of statements and wordings objectionable, notably the use of the terms “lower races” and “savages”. This was, however regrettable, the language commonly used by Victorian writers. It does not shed a flattering light on the prejudices of that age, but it should be recognized that Darwin’s general views on social issues, such as his hatred of slavery and child labour, were among the most enlightened of his time. For example, he was a member of the 1864 committee that urged the prosecution of Governor Eyre of Jamaica for his brutal suppression of protests by the black population.

This aspect of Darwin is barely acknowledged by Fuentes, who remarks that:

“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.

This gives a distorted view of the book as a whole. Including Selection in Relation to Sex, there are 954 text pages in the 1874 second edition (John Murray version; the pagination varies among versions), and pp. 319-845 are devoted to animals, not humans. On my reading, the other 45% of the book includes seven passages that express what appear to be racist and sexist views. The most obnoxious of these (p.213) was not written by Darwin himself, but is a lengthy quotation from a Mr Greg concerning competition between Saxons and Celts (the latter being held to be inferior).

[From Fuentes’s piece]:

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.

There is only a handful of references to the mental abilities of Africans in the book; contrary to the impression given by Fuentes. Darwin’s statements about mental differences between the races are ambiguous and fluctuating, and many of them are very enlightened compared with remarks by his contemporaries such as T.H. Huxley, Karl Marx and Walt Whitman. For example, on p.276 he says:

“ .. they [races] are found to resemble each other closely in a multitude of points. Many of these are of so unimportant or of so singular a nature that it is extremely improbable that they should have independently acquired by aboriginally distinct species or races. The American aborigines, Negroes and Europeans are as different from each other in mind as any three races that can be named, yet I was incessantly struck while living with the Fuegians on board the “Beagle”, with the many little traits of character, shewing how similar their minds were to ours; and so it was with a full-blooded negro with whom I happened once to be intimate.”

Furthermore, in Darwin’s diary of the voyage of the Beagle (July 3, 1832), he describes the black men of Brazil in complimentary terms:

“I cannot help believing they will ultimately be the rulers. I judge of it from their numbers, from their fine athletic figures … & from clearly seeing their intellects have been much underrated; they are the efficient workmen in all necessary trades.”

It should be remembered that Darwin (and his contemporaries) had no clear grasp of the distinction between genotype and phenotype that is at the core of modern genetics, and he attached considerable significance to the inheritance of acquired characters in the Descent. Therefore, when he referred to race or sex differences in mental traits, it is often unclear whether he thought they were purely cultural in origin, or were innate; but several passages make it clear that Darwin attached considerable importance to cultural factors. When comparing the indigenous inhabitants of New Zealand and Tahiti, he remarked on the effects of education by missionaries on “teaching them the arts of civilization” on the former and the “kind, simple manners” of the latter (Letter to Caroline Darwin, 27 December 1835).

At the end of Chapter 7, Darwin argued forcefully that civilized societies have comparatively recently emerged from barbarian societies and (p.223) noted that:

“The Tahitians when first visited had advanced in many respects beyond the inhabitants of most of the other Polynesian islands. There are no just grounds for the belief that the high culture of the native Peruvians and Mexicans was derived from abroad.”

Fuentes goes on to say:

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.

Darwin appealed to sexual selection as a process in differentiating human populations; this is simply a sub-class of natural selection as far as evolutionary mechanisms are concerned.

Fuentes’s statement seems to suggest that he thinks that there are no genetic differences between human populations and that natural selection has nothing to do with them. This is in contradiction with many findings of human population geneticists concerning the action of selection on important traits, such as resistance to malaria, the ability to resist anoxia in high altitude populations, and lactose tolerance in populations that consume milk products. Even without selection, genetic differences between populations in selectively neutral characters can evolve by random genetic drift – subtle differences in the frequencies of large numbers of DNA sequence variants have been revealed even within the population of the British Isles.

Accepting the evidence for genetic differences between human populations carries no implication of believing in racial purity or superiority, or the related pseudo-scientific justifications for discrimination with which we are all too familiar. For quantitatively varying traits, which are subject to both environmental and genetic influences, differences between populations are statistical, in the sense that there is much variability within populations (as Darwin himself noted in relation to human races), which is often greater than any between-population variation. Without complete standardisation of the environment, it is impossible to determine whether observed differences in the mean values of a trait between populations has a genetic basis (this is the basis for the classic “common garden” experiments of plant evolutionary geneticists).

He went beyond simple racial rankings, offering justification of empire and colonialism, and genocide, through “survival of the fittest.” 

There is no evidence Darwin use his science to justify “empire and colonialism, and genocide”. It is true that, like most Victorians, he took a favourable view of British colonization of the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, as shown by some of his statements. But his discussion of the extinction of indigenous populations in Chapter 7 of the Descent emphasised the role of disease and demoralisation, and it is unjust to suggest that he thought that such extinctions were to be applauded.

For example, in his Beagle Diary (4th-7th of September 1833), he exclaims with horror about the massacres of Indians in Patagonia:

“Who would believe in this age in a Christian, civilised country that such atrocities were committed?  … The country will be in the hands of white Gaucho savages instead of copper coloured Indians. The former being little superior in civilisation, as they are inferior in every moral virtue”.

Fuentes also says:

In “Descent,” Darwin identified women as less capable than (White) men, often akin to the “lower races.” He described man as more courageous, energetic, inventive, and intelligent, invoking natural and sexual selection as justification, despite the lack of concrete data and biological assessment. 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.

This presumably refers to the following passage on p.858 of the Descent:

“It is generally admitted that with women the powers of intuition, of rapid perception, and perhaps of imitation, are more strongly marked than in man; but some, at least of these, are characteristic of the lower races and therefore of a past and lower state of civilisation.

The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown 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.”

This was followed by (pp.859-860):

“These latter faculties [various mental traits] … will have been developed in man, partly through sexual selection… and partly through natural selection… Thus man has ultimately become superior to woman. It is, indeed, fortunate that the law of equal transmission of characters to both sexes prevails with mammals; otherwise it is probable that man would have become as superior in mental endowment to woman, as the peacock is in ornamental plumage to the peahen.”

This certainly shows that Darwin believed in the mental inferiority of women, and that this had, at least in part, an innate rather than cultural basis. This was the prevalent view at his time, which persisted until very recently (Fuentes’ institution, Princeton University, did not admit women until 1969, and my old Cambridge college only allowed the entry of female students in 1983).

However, Darwin strongly emphasized the importance of female choice in the evolution of sexual dimorphism in animals, so that Fuentes’ characterization of his views of the role of females in evolution is inaccurate. Darwin even extended it to humans (pp.914-915):

“Preference on the part of the women, steadily acting in any one direction, would ultimately affect the character of the tribe; for the women would generally choose not merely the handsomest, according to their standard of taste, but those who were at the same time best able to defend and support them. Such well-endowed pairs would commonly rear a larger number of offspring than the less favoured.”

Darwin’s theory of sexual selection was not well received, partly because of the emphasis on female choice, and (apart from R. A. Fisher’s advocacy in 1930), it did not start to receive serious attention from biologists until the late 1950s. Today, of course, it is recognized as a major factor in evolution, illustrating Darwin’s originality when he was able to free himself from prejudice.

Fuentes alleges that:

Racists, sexists, and white supremacists, some of them academics, use concepts and statements “validated” by their presence in “Descent” as support for erroneous beliefs, and the public accepts much of it uncritically.

I doubt that characters like Governor George Wallace and Sheriff Clark were much influenced by reading The Descent; in any case, most US racists probably do not believe in evolution.

Darwin scholars have discussed in great detail how a variety of ideologues of very different political persuasions have appealed to Darwin’s writings. Social Darwinism is, of course, notorious. On the other hand, Robert Richards, in his 1986 book (p.526), described how August Bebel, the 19th century leader of the German Social Democrats, thought that “capitalism put artificial restraints on the action of natural selection, so that the idiot son of the factory owner had the advantage over the talented son of the factory worker.” Bebel believed that “the natural forces of progressive evolution would produce a classless society in which property would cease to exist and women would not longer suffer political and sexual subjugation”. Other German thinkers, such as Ernst Haeckel, drew entirely opposite political conclusions; as Richards states (p.533), these contributed to the rise of Nazi ideology. But Richards adds that “The Nazi elite resisted evolutionary theory, despite its scientific charms. After all, could the Aryan race have descended from a tribe of baboons?”.

It seems that, unless you are an out-and-out creationist, you can interpret Darwin to justify almost any a priori belief.

Fuentes concludes by asserting that:

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.”

First, “man” as used in the title of the Descent is a gender-neutral term referring to “humans”, as was common English language usage until recently.

Second, the last phrase suggests (perhaps unintentionally) that the modern evolutionary biology of humans has hardly moved on since Darwin’s day, and is still burdened with racial and sexist prejudices. This is a misleading caricature; while evolutionary biologists respect Darwin’s towering achievements in founding their field, they recognise that he (inevitably) was wrong about many things, most notably the mechanism of inheritance. There is a damaging confusion here between the views on certain issues of individuals who pioneered a branch of science, and the content of the science as it is currently practised and taught.

Brian Charlesworth

10 thoughts on “Response by Brian Charlesworth to the latest episode of Darwin-dissing

  1. “Darwin thought he was relying on data, objectivity, and scientific thinking…but for much of the book, he was not”.

    One could level a similar accusation at Fuentes. His piece is informed by an ideological perspective that results in a far from objective assessment of Darwin’s views and beliefs as Charlesworth demonstrates. His statement about Darwin invoking sexual selection yet adamantly asserting the passivity of the female in the evolutionary process makes no sense at all – female choice is a key component of sexual selection.

  2. I wonder what gives Fuentes the desire to pick up this topic and find an enemy in a famous, historical, figure? It’s impossible, without a sincere confession, to know what triggered this misguided bit of writing. I will speculate that it is a desire to stay in the flow of culture, to generate clicks, to earn some income. He’s clearly riding a wave of interest. For Fuentes to come up with a really original, thoughtful, piece for publication, he’d have to expend real intellectual energy and perhaps not be as widely read or as well payed. Articles like his saturate the market and are produced like cheap sausage to feed the appetite of the hungry readers. In other words, he’s a hack. On the other hand, he might just believe every bit of it. Who’s to say?

    1. I agree it is hard to know about motives without a “confession”. In cases like this I try to default to Hanlon’s razor: never ascribe to malice what can be accounted for by ignorance. I suspect Fuentes simply has no idea what he’s talking about, and is just giving in to the incentives you noted (clicks, money). I don’t think that makes him a hack, maybe just a pathetic conformist.

  3. But Richards adds that “The Nazi elite resisted evolutionary theory, despite its scientific charms. After all, could the Aryan race have descended from a tribe of baboons?”.

    Indeed, they flat-out rejected evolutionary theory in favour of a creationist view of the Aryan race as “God’s handiwork” that was the “highest image of God among His creatures” which they needed to preserve in the “original, God-given form” (quotes from Mein Kampf).

    Houston Stewart Chamberlain (the leading Nazi ideologue) called Darwinism an “English sickness” and said:

    “Thus, for instance, man was said to be descended from the ape; the anatomical impossibility of this is established to-day by a thousand reasons … the nonsensical dogmas of the theorisers on natural selection and descent may once and for all be rejected.”

    1. “[T]he anatomical impossibility of this is established to-day by a thousand reasons” – which lasted about as long as the thousand-year Reich…

    2. Yes, Hitler was not influenced by Haeckel as by Gobineau and Chamberlain. RJ Richards has debunked the claim that Haeckel inspired the National Socialists, moreover he was no antisemite, on the contrary, a bit of a ‘semitophile’ (IIRC).

  4. Fuentes says “that [Darwin’s] views were injurious, justifying ’empire and colonialism’ as well as ‘genocide’ to those who adopted the thesis of ‘survival of the fittest,” This is like saying that the first guy to discover that people can be killed by projectiles like rocks is responsible for every war, every ethnic and religious cleansing, every gun death, and basically every other death, colonialism, and war that ever involved the use of anything from slingers to missiles. The fine-tuning of physics over the year isn’t somehow injurious because it’s allowed for the building of rockets. The continued research on metals isn’t somehow injurious because one of its side effects has been the better building of war ships.

    Knowledge can be used for many things. It isn’t the fault of the person who discovered some piece of general knowledge when that knowledge is used for nefarious means. It’s such an absurd claim that it doesn’t even deserve to be considered as worthy of rebuttal.

    1. That bastard Newton had a lot to answer for when the bombers dropped their bombs over London, Guernica, Dresden, Hanoi, etc!

  5. Another excellent rebuttal from a man who looks surprisingly similar to my brother-in-law!

    I have been hoping to hear from Janet Browne, whose two-volume biography of Darwin I have recently purchased, but this response was certainly welcome.

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