Charles Darwin is a great British hero. That’s hardly surprising, since he was one of the most influential thinkers of the past 200 years. I happened to live opposite Darwin’s former lodgings when I was a student at Cambridge University, so I looked out each morning on a blue plaque hailing him as one of the greatest Britons who ever lived. I’m not saying he didn’t deserve that commemorative plaque, but I should point out that he wasn’t a British hero but a British villain. You don’t need to be a Bible-thumping evangelical to question whether Darwin’s thinking deserves to be given a bit more thought.
Whatever your views on origins and evolution, we can hopefully all agree that, at present, we give far too much honor to the British thinker who justified genocide.
Devaluation of Humans
Darwin didn’t hide his view that his evolutionary thinking applied to human races as well as to animal species. The full title of his seminal 1859 book was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life. He followed up more explicitly in The Descent of Man, where he spelled out his racial theory:
The Western nations of Europe . . . now so immeasurably surpass their former savage progenitors [that they] stand at the summit of civilization. . . . The civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races through the world.
Thankfully, most British people today are embarrassed by the racist rhetoric that undergirded the late-Victorian British Empire. What’s astonishing is how little they understand that Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution provided the doctrine behind its white supremacism. Whereas the British Empire of the early 19th century had been dominated by Christian reformers such as William Wilberforce, who sold slave badges that proclaimed, “Am I not a man and a brother?”, Darwin’s writings converted an empire with a conscience into an empire with a scientific philosophy. Four years after Darwin published The Origin of Species, James Hunt turned it into a justification for slavery. In his 1863 paper, “On the Negro’s Place in Nature,” he asserted: “Our Bristol and Liverpool merchants, perhaps, helped to benefit the race when they transported some of them to America.”
Christian reformers had spent decades in the early 19th century teaching Britain to view non-European races as their equals before God. In a matter of years, Darwin swept not only God off the table, but also the value of people of every race with him.
Victorian Britain was too willing to accept Darwinian evolution as its gospel of overseas expansion. Darwin is still celebrated on the back of the British £10 note for his discovery of many new species on his visit to Australia; what’s been forgotten, though, is his contemptible attitude—due to his beliefs about natural selection—toward the Aborigines he found there. When The Melbourne Review used Darwin’s teachings to justify the genocide of indigenous Australians in 1876, he didn’t try and stop them. When the Australian newspaper argued that “the inexorable law of natural selection [justifies] exterminating the inferior Australian and Maori races”—that “the world is better for it” since failure to do so would be “promoting the non-survival of the fittest, protecting the propagation of the imprudent, the diseased, the defective, and the criminal”—it was Christian missionaries who raised an outcry on behalf of this forgotten genocide. Darwin simply commented, “I do not know of a more striking instance of the comparative rate of increase of a civilized over a savage race.”
Meanwhile, several thousand miles away, Cecil Rhodes was gleefully embracing Darwin’s thinking as justification for white expansion across southern Africa. He was so inspired by Darwinian evolutionist Winwood Reade’s The Martyrdom of Man that he later confessed, “That book has made me what I am.”
What it made him was the architect of one of the most brutal and immoral acts of European expansion and genocide in history. Rhodes wrote in 1877:
I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. . . . It is our duty to seize every opportunity of acquiring more territory and we should keep this one idea steadily before our eyes that more territory simply means more of the Anglo-Saxon race, more of the best, the most human, most honorable race the world possesses.
If what Rhodes believed sounds shocking to you—and I hope it does—then understand that he was simply stating what he drew from the works of both Darwin and Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, who extrapolated his cousin’s thinking to pioneer racial eugenics.
Select Your Choice
I’ve used British examples because I’m British, and it seems more polite to point out the errors in my own national worldview than in that of other nations. I could’ve pointed out how Darwin’s thinking was used by late 19th-century Americans to justify acts of genocide against Native Americans. I could’ve pointed out how Hitler and his Nazi philosophers used it to justify wars of expansion and horrific holocaust. I could’ve pointed out how Communist Russia used Darwinian evolution to justify its liquidation of non-Russian people groups within the Soviet empire. I could’ve pointed out how it was used by Serbs to justify their genocide against Croatians and Kosovans.
But I don’t have to. The British example is enough to make us question whether Charles Darwin was truly a British hero at all. At least we should strip him of his place on our £10 banknote and stop protecting his thinking from the scrutiny it deserves in school classrooms, in TV documentaries, and in the corridors of power.
Because whether or not you agree with his thoughts on evolution, you should at the very least want to discover he was wrong.
Whom would you rather discover was right all along? The Christian reformers of the early 19th century, like William Wilberforce and the Earl of Shaftesbury, who argued from belief in divine creation that slaves should be freed and that children shouldn’t be forced to work themselves to death in factories for having been born to the wrong parents? Or Charles Darwin, who argued from belief in a godless beginning to the universe that natural selection is a virtue and that, consequently, acts of genocide are part and parcel of the way the world was always supposed to be?
In the words of Jesus himself, “By their fruits you will be able to judge their teaching.”
Editors’ note: This article appeared at Think Theology.