It seems the 150th anniversary of Origin of Species is to be marked by a neverending series of muddled articles that are marked by a notable lack of research. Following on the heels of New Scientist’s irredeemable conduct, we now have Philip Ball, a science journalist who should know better, writing a lazy reviewÂ which mucks up Darwin and fails basic journalistic standards.
Ball is reviewing a book by Adrian Desmond and James Moore (but not Desmond Moore!) which makes the startling claim that Darwin was prompted to develop evolutionary theory as an argument against slavery. Ball quite rightly points out that this really is yet another in a long line of moralisms applied to Darwin retrospectively. Ball writes:
To the Victorians, [Darwin] was an atheistic agitator undermining humankind’s privileged moral status. In the early 20th century, he became a prophet of social engineering and the free market. With sociobiology in the 1970s, Darwinism became a behavioural theory, while neo-Darwinist genetics prompted a bleak view of humanity as gene machines driven by the selfish imperatives of our DNA.
I think Ball is right on the money here. Darwin was an abolitionist and an evolutionary theorist, but it does not follow that he was one because he was the other. Slave traders claimed that Africans were a separate species to Europeans and therefore it was moral to treat them as property, just like farm animals. And, as Ball writes, “it is hard to dispute Desmond and Moore’s contention that Darwin aimed to overturn the notion, conveniently adopted by slavers, that blacks and Europeans (and other races) were separate species.”
But this is not an evolutionary argument. The fact that blacks and whites have common ancestry is one of the few points on which both evolutionary theory and Biblical literalism agree (albeit from very different premises). What’s more, in evolutionary theory having common ancestors does not mean you are of the same species. This is the entire point behind the concept of speciation, to which Darwin devoted so much writing. Whether two populations are separate species is certainly a biological question, but it is not an evolutionary one. The working definition of a species is a group of organisms capable of producing fertile offspring. The fact that slavers tried to argue that humans were not one species should be seen not as a sign of any scientific dispute, but in the same light as tobacco companies lying about smoking causing cancer and nicotine being addictive. (It is also worth pointing out that even if blacks were a separate species to whites, that would still not make slavery acceptable; the critical question is not speciation but what moral rights should be incumbent upon sentience.)
Ball seems to think that “the many-species view of humankind was not then as nonsensical as it now appears. Data on the long-term fertility of progeny from cross-race unions was scant and often distorted.” But this can only be believed if you take slave trader propaganda at face value. Fertile offspring of mixed parents have been around since time immemorial. The word “mulatto” was first recorded in 1595. The words quadroon (1707) and terceroon (1760) both refer to the offspring of a mulatto and a white person. The word “caste” comes from the Latin “casta raca”, or “unmixed race” — clearly there’s no need for the adjective “casta” if you don’t believe races can mix. Humans can interbreed freely. The Romans knew it and the 18th century English knew it; I see no reason to suspect that 19th century Englishmen didn’t.
Then we go from poor research to utterly abysmal research leading to a gross distortion of Darwin’s views.
ItÂ is often said that Darwin cannot be held accountable for these excesses [of eugenics and so on], but their seeds are obvious in his works, most notably The Descent of Man (1871), in which he finally explained what his evolutionary theory meant for humankind. The book echoes the concerns of Galton and others about overbreeding in “the reckless, degraded and often vicious members of society”, such as the “squalid, unaspiring Irishman” who “multiplies like rabbits”. There is a clear natural order of class, rank and race and only Darwin’s insistence on a moral duty to help the weak partly redeems him.
All this, and not least Darwin’s provocative talk of “favoured races in the struggle for life”, seems now to be a residue not only of the chauvinism of the times but of a reluctance to abandon belief in abstract “fitness peaks” that natural selection seeks to scale. In fact, evolution can have no targets; races and species cannot be “perfected”.
I have no idea where Ball got the idea that when Darwin said “favoured” he or anybody else took it to mean “perfected.” But there’s another problem with this: when Darwin used the phrase “favoured races,” he was not reflecting the chauvinism of his times. He meant it as a synonym for favoured species and he was not talking about human races. How do we know this? The full titleÂ of the book is The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle For Life –Â theÂ book is all about species and speciation and Darwin very carefully excluded humansÂ from the book. This is a well-documented piece of creationist quote mining. I think it behooves a science journalist to know better.
Worse still is Ball’s unquestioning repetition of the phrasesÂ ”the reckless, degraded and often vicious members of society” and “squalid, unaspiring Irishman multiplies like rabbits.” The problem here is that Darwin did not say these things himself. He was quoting other writers, in the first case Galton and in the second case a Mr W.R. Greg. And if Ball had actually openedThe Descent of Man, he would know that Darwin made it quite clear that this is the opinion of others and immediately sets out to show some strong counter-arguments. “There are, however, some checks to this downward tendency,” Darwin writes before launching into a lengthy and sophisticated look at the evidence against the eugenic view. Â For instance:
“It has been urged by several writers that as high intellectual powers are advantageous to a nation, the old Greeks, who stood some grades higher in intellect than any race that has ever existed…ought, if the power of natural selection were real, to have risen still higher in the scale, increased in number, and stocked the whole of Europe.
This is Darwin’s riposte to genetic determinism as an explanation for the rise of civilisations. And Darwin is quoting Galton. Thus even Galton was a more sophisticated thinker than modern critics would like to admit (even though he was still wrong on many counts, including the moral argument).Â And there’s this:
The remarkable success of the English as colonists, compared to other European nations, has been ascribed to their “daring and persistent energy”; a result which is well illustrated by comparing the progress of the Canadians of English and French extraction; but who can say how the English gained their energy?
Again, Darwin goes on to reject evolutionary superiority as an explanation, calling the mechanisms behind the rise of civilisations “obscure.”
The Descent of ManÂ is widely available and is free online courtesy of the Gutenberg Project. It would be nice if writers and reviewers could go to the effort of actually checking the context of the quotes they use. It is time to stamp out Research by Search String in which finding a phrase in a text is considered the same as proving the author’s intention.Â Darwin’s views on racial and sexual equality were about as enlightened as it was possible to be in his time; that does not make him a truly modern moralist, just better than almost any of his contemporariesÂ (and to be fair his views are a lot more defensible than those of many of today’s opinionistas). It is no disservice to his legacy to be honest about it. But it is a disservice to exaggerate it, especially as this is a misrepresentation particularly dear to the hearts of creationists.
Far from “echoing” Galton’s views, Darwin quoted them in order to show their deficiencies. One wonders why one couldn’t equally ascribe those quotes to the journalists who “echo” them. After all, Mr Ball, you yourself wrote that the Irish are squalid and unaspiring. We have it in writing.