Was Charles Darwin a racist? Was he a white supremacist? Did he promote slavery? Was he a God-hater? These are some of the questions that have swirled around the mention of Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution for years. Search the internet and you will find arguments that he was or wasn’t for all of these questions. They can be answered from his writings since he was not known as being shy about expressing his opinions.
Darwin’s views on slavery & race
Darwin once wrote the following in 1861 to a Harvard botanist Asa Gray: “I never knew the newspapers so profoundly interesting. North America does not do England justice; I have not seen or heard of a soul who is not with the North. Some few, and I am one of them, even wish to God, though at the loss of millions of lives, that the North would proclaim a crusade against slavery. In the long-run, a million horrid deaths would be amply repaid in the cause of humanity. What wonderful times we live in! Massachusetts seems to show noble enthusiasm. Great God! How I should like to see the greatest curse on earth—slavery—abolished!”
In another letter to the same gentleman, Darwin stated: “If abolition does follow with your victory, the whole world will look brighter in my eyes, and in many eyes. It would be a great gain even to stop the spread of slavery into the Territories…”
Thirty years prior to this, in 1832, Darwin wrote this to J. S. Henslow: “I would not be a Tory, if it was merely on account of their cold hearts about that scandal to Christian nations—Slavery.”
And the following year, he wrote to a relative, saying, “I have watched how steadily the general feeling, as shown at elections, has been rising against Slavery. What a proud thing for England if she is the first European nation which utterly abolishes it! I was told before leaving England that after living in slave countries all my opinions would be altered; the only alteration I am aware of is forming a much higher estimate of the negro character. It is impossible to see a negro and not feel kindly towards him; such cheerful, open, honest expressions and such fine muscular bodies. I never saw any of the diminutive Portuguese, with their murderous countenances, without almost wishing for Brazil to follow the example of Hayti; and, considering the enormous healthy-looking black population, it will be wonderful if, at some future day, it does not take place. There is at Rio a man (I know not his title) who has a large salary to prevent (I believe) the landing of slaves; he lives at Botofogo, and yet that was the bay where, during my residence, the greater number of smuggled slaves were landed. Some of the Anti-Slavery people ought to question about his office…”
So we can see how Darwin was very much against slavery. However, what gives some people pause is his reference to non-Europeans as “lower races” throughout his book, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. For example, he states, “It is generally admitted that with woman the powers of intuition, of rapid perception, and perhaps of imitation, are more strongly marked than in man; but some, at least, of these faculties are characteristic of the lower races, and therefore of a past and lower state of civilisation.”
Darwin also stated in that same book, “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked (18. ‘Anthropological Review,’ April 1867, p. 236.), will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.”
Although Darwin hated slavery, he seemed to think it was okay to be racist. His feelings appear contradictory — one minute admiring blacks and other non-Caucasians while the next minute expecting them to be killed off. And those views helped continue hatred for non-Caucasians after colonialism ended and slavery became illegal.
Darwin’s religious views
When writing to Asa Gray in 1860, Darwin said, “Let each man hope and believe what he can. Certainly I agree with you that my views are not at all necessarily atheistical. The lightning kills a man, whether a good one or bad one, owing to the excessively complex action of natural laws. A child (who may turn out an idiot) is born by the action of even more complex laws, and I can see no reason why a man, or other animal, may not have been aboriginally produced by other laws, and that all these laws may have been expressly designed by an omniscient Creator, who foresaw every future event and consequence. But the more I think the more bewildered I become; as indeed I probably have shown by this letter.”
In 1876, Darwin wrote in his autobiography, “During these two years (October 1836 to January 1839.) I was led to think much about religion. Whilst on board the ‘Beagle’ I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality… But I had gradually come by this time, i.e. 1836 to 1839, to see that the Old Testament was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos…
“By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported,—and that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become,—that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost incomprehensible by us,—that the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneously with the events,—that they differ in many important details, far too important, as it seemed to me, to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eye-witnesses… I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation.
“But I was very unwilling to give up my belief… But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress…
“Although I did not think much about the existence of a personal God until a considerably later period of my life, I will here give the vague conclusions to which I have been driven. The old argument from design in Nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows.”
There you have it. Darwin hoped natural selection would get rid of God and he denied intelligent design. But he drew his conclusions assuming the science of his day was static, unchanging. Now evidence is accessible and advances have been made that debunk his view of the Bible and that show the various systems within everything organic and inorganic have specific designs as revealed in DNA.
Charles Darwin. The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin. 1887. volumes I, II. Edited by his son Francis Darwin.
Charles Darwin. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Second edition, 1874.
Harry A. Gaylord