Charles Darwin was a racist

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingLast week, I re-read parts of Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle whilst comp- iling I and the Bird #42. I first read the book about 15 years ago, when I was in my late teens. Below is an excerpt from chapter 19, in which Darwin describes the Aborigines as “savages”:

At sunset, a party of a score of the black aborigines passed by, each carrying, in their accustomed manner, a bundle of spears and other weapons. By giving a leading young man a shilling, they were easily detained, and threw their spears for my amusement. They were all partly clothed, and several could speak a little English: their countenances were good-humoured and pleasant, and they appeared far from being such utterly degraded beings as they have usually been represented. In their own arts they are admirable. A cap being fixed at thirty yards distance, they transfixed it with a spear, delivered by the throwing-stick with the rapidity of an arrow from the bow of a practised archer. In tracking animals or men they show most wonderful sagacity; and I heard of several of their remarks which manifested considerable acuteness. They will not, however, cultivate the ground, or build houses and remain stationary, or even take the trouble of tending a flock of sheep when given to them. On the whole they appear to me to stand some few degrees higher in the scale of civilization than the Fuegians.


It is very curious thus to see in the midst of a civilized people, a set of harmless savages wandering about without knowing where they shall sleep at night, and gaining their livelihood by hunting in the woods. As the white man has travelled onwards, he has spread over the country belonging to several tribes. These, although thus enclosed by one common people, keep up their ancient distinctions, and sometimes go to war with each other. In an engagement which took place lately, the two parties most singularly chose the centre of the village of Bathurst for the field of battle. This was of service to the defeated side, for the runaway warriors took refuge in the barracks.

Update (February 12th, 2007; Darwin’s 198th Birthday!): I stress that in writing this post I am not attempting to discredit Darwin, and that I do not dispute evolution. Darwin’s views on race are open to interpretation, and I interpret his use of the word “savages” as being quite offensive. But they were his opinions, and therefore have to be considered independently of the great contribution he made to biology.


12 thoughts on “Charles Darwin was a racist

  1. This is a pretty provocative title for your post. When Darwin says this group is uncivilized, he may mean only that they do not farm, build houses,or herd sheep. Maybe what he has in mind is some early form of sociological description that one would not use today.

    He did apparently oppose slavery and there are sort of egalitarian racial ideas later in his Descent of Man. Maybe a bit more detailed post on this topic is in order.

  2. I don’t think there is any doubt that Whites/Europeans thought themselves better than other racial groups(perhaps still do). I’m reading a book, “Jewelry Making & Design” copyrighted 1949 and first published in 1918. The writer continuously refers to Native Americans as “savages” or “the savage” even while writing fondly of their metalworking abilities.
    As far as Darwin et al, not to excuse the language, but it was common for times. I’m surprised you find it shocking. Far worse has been said.
    Culutural relativity comes to mind…

  3. For his description, he was really a good observer. Perhaps poor people in England were kind of “savages” too, with no place to sleep… and I know Darwin worried about the condition of poor people. I can find nothing wrong with his observation, at the time, because we know that the progress of civilizations is not linear or evolutive like in biology, but cultural.

    Priests in Europe used to investigate if children had a soul, then, if Indians had a soul… for this lack of “auto-image” and understanding of all of what can be considered as human still exists, even if people have trains and airplanes, perhaps they are not more “civilized” than Aboriginals. Some lack of a true spiritual “civilization” that some people in “tribes” reveal sometimes have a better understanding of cultural relativity than “civilized”.

    I just enjoy reading Darwin. I can find nothing wrong with him. Even for such good observer like Darwin, it was common sense and common language.

    So, in a certain sense, you can find me more “racist” than Darwin.

    In the last paragraph, if I understand it, Darwin makes a paralel that to me means he must have been intelligent.

  4. C’mon, exchange “savages” for “people” and you have a IMHO great description, amazingly respectful of cultural differences for the time it was written. Darwin might as well be a racist bigot, I don’t know, but this excerpt is hardly evidence for your claim. How about “Charles Darwin was not of the highest Political Correctness (by today’s standards)” for a post title? 🙂

  5. Ken – I don’t think the title is at all provocative. Nor do I think a more detailed post is needed. It’s there in black & white (if you’ll excuse the pun) – Darwin thought the Aborigines were “savages”, and this is what I’m referring to specifically. In Descent of Man there are passages in which Darwin advocates social justice, but then there are others like this:

    There is, however, no doubt that the various races, when carefully compared and measured, differ much from each other,- as in the texture of the hair, the relative proportions of all parts of the body,* the capacity of the lungs, the form and capacity of the skull, and even in the convolutions of the brain.*(2) But it would be an endless task to specify the numerous points of difference. The races differ also in constitution, in acclimatisation and in liability to certain diseases. Their mental characteristies are likewise very distinct; chiefly as it would appear in their emotional, but partly in their intellectual faculties. Every one who has had the opportunity of comparison, must have been struck with the contrast between the taciturn, even morose, aborigines of S. America and the lighthearted, talkative negroes. (Chapter 7)

    Both Darwin and Huxley clearly believed that some races had evolved further than others.

    Mc – Intelligence and racism are not mutually exclusive – Darwin was, obviously, extremely intelligent, and his views on racism do not make me doubt evolution.

  6. I doubt he was a racist, especiallialy as we would define one now. What is clear, especially from his time on the Beagle and in the book, was that he abhorred slavery. He even argued with Capt FitzRoy (a Tory supporter of slavery) on the matter. Arguing with the captaiin of a Royal Navy ship in the 1830s, now that was big potatoes. In Chapter 21 of The Voyage, Darwin writes:

    “On the 19th August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God I shall never again visit a slave country.’ He then goes one to write very movingly of examples he saw – and tried to intervene in – of incidences of cruelty to slaves and finishes: ‘It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble to to think that we Englishmen and our American descendents, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty: but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made greater sacrifice, than ever made by any nation, to expiate this.’

  7. Here is why I think the title is provocative. The term “racist” applies to a wide range of views, including racial hate groups such as neo-Nazis and the Klu Klux Klan. These groups think that there are difference among races. Darwin agreed with this. These groups also think that some races (theirs) are morally superior to other races. The passage you cite from the Descent of Man and from the Voyage of the Beagle could be interpreted as noting mere differences, without claiming the moral superiority of whites. The difficulty lies in whether or not to construe certain terms as morally evaluative. “Civilized” does sound superior to “uncivilized”, but it could also have a descriptive element, with reference to such things as farming, herding, and the construction of shelter. It seems to me that your post is not very sensitive to the distinction between races merely being different and races being in some form of moral hierarchy. And Darwin was perhaps not as sensitive to this as he should have been.

    What may be true of Darwin is that he did not fully overcome the prejudices of his day and his social class. I think this has been noted in some of the previous posts. As Daniel notes, a less provocative title would be something like “Charles Darwin was not PC.” So, there is something for which one might fault Darwin. But, Darwin does not seem to display racial hatred. Nor does he seem to explicitly invoke the moral superiority of whites over blacks. This seems to differentiate him from neo-Nazis and the KKK.

    Or put the matter this way, it is one thing for Darwin to believe that whites and blacks evolved in different ways. It is another for Darwin to believe that whites evolved to a higher moral level than did blacks. Darwin apparently does think the former, but one might be sceptical of the latter. I think that Chapter 7 of the Descent suggests that sexual selection has lead different racial groups to differ, but not that different racial groups are in any sense better or worse. He, in fact, appears to reject the idea that different racial groups are better adapted to their environments than are other racial groups.

    I don’t want to be put in the position of being an apologist for Darwin, because I do think some of what he says was indeed problematic. This is why I proposed that you offer a more detailed post that would clarify some of these matters.

  8. It’s worth noting here that the etymology of ‘savage’ lies with ‘sylvaticus’ i.e. ‘of the woods.’ It’s clear by the context that Darwin is employing the word to mean ‘wild, nomadic’ and not ‘crude, cruel or dangerous.’ ‘Sauvage’ still means ‘wild’ in French .

    Darwin, like the vast majority of his Victorian peers was surely a racist by contemporary standards. His son Leonard was a eugenicist (though that word too was once not nearly as dirty as it is today). It may be quite proper to judge Darwin against our standards, given his influence and remarkable achievements.

    However, by measuring Darwin against contemporary standards we risk the same error of mis-judgement that Darwin made when he compared ‘harmless’ nomadic hunter-gatherers against rampaging imperial Victorians, and found the former lacking.

  9. I cannot accept this as evidence that Darwin was a racist, in the sense that the BNP or the KKK are racist.

    He certainly uses the word ‘savage’, but this word at that time did not have the same loading or connotations that it might have today.

    Nor would Darwin have argued that any race or species was ‘further evolved’ than another – he did not think of evolution as a linear process leading to ‘higher’ and ‘more evolved’ species.

    This is a fundamental mistake that many people make when they think about evolution – they think of it as a straight line pointing from the amoeba to the human being, with us as the ultimate outcome of such a process. (A very anthropocentric point of view – which it is very easy to fall into).

    Evolution as Darwin describes it is actually far more like a bush – with many branches pointing in all directions, and no single direction being ‘better’ than another – in our charts we tend to put ourselves at the top – this is a misrepresentation of the scientific understanding of evolution, similar to the way we all place our own country at the centre of a map of the world, or that we used to place our own planet at the centre of the universe.

    Darwin’s point about the physical and mental differences between ethnic groups are not as outrageous as they may seem – there are definitely certain diseases that affect people of different ethnicity differently – sickle cell anaemia and Lupus spring to mind, and differences in culture can exacerbate these differences -pointing this out does not make you someone who believes in the superioriy of one race over another.

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  11. just read your article on Darwin and thought I would share what Darwin actually said- in his own words- on the subject of racism. His words speak in opposition to what many have stated about him on various web sites. Darwin, as we know, is long gone and so he can’t stand up for himself when it comes to accusations. But I feel it necessary to defend him. I hope you will find the following link enlightening..

    Best Regards,


    ps- I do believe racism is wrong with all my heart.

  12. the people above can be accused of using religious argument to protect darwin. If you come across a difficult part of the bible christins make an excuse, and try to break down the language for their cause. but the attempts to defend darwin have failed. what is clear is that darwin was a racist and plenty of evolutionists, seculairsts and atheists wish to defend his bigotry. how ignominious a race are atheists

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