Today, genius copes with its own racism. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Stephen Jay Gould tells
about Darwin's first article -- long before he
wrote on evolution. Darwin was just 29. He and the
captain of the Beagle wrote on
"The Moral State of Tahiti."
It was a paternalistic little piece. They said
missionaries hadn't only done away with
"dishonesty, licentiousness, and intemperance" on
Tahiti. They'd also eliminated human sacrifice. The
article carefully tries to head off any claim that
decency might've been there before missionaries
Did an older and wiser Darwin leave this youthful
racism? He did not. In fact, he was sexist as well
as racist. He said we'd be in trouble without the
law of equal transmission of characteristics to
both sexes. Without it man would've grown so
superior to woman as to be a different species.
Darwin shares a birthday with another great man who
held equally racist ideas. That was Abraham
Lincoln. Like Lincoln and the rest of the white
race in the 1800s, Darwin never doubted the
superiority of his kind. Like Lincoln, Darwin
became a hero in the cause of human rights despite
We catch a hint of Darwin's wisdom even in this
early article. He says many Europeans dislike
missionaries out of sexual frustration. They come
to Tahiti expecting a Playboy mansion in the sun.
Then they find the natives behaving themselves.
Maybe Darwin didn't see that native women had had
standards before the missionaries came. But he did
see how fragile white claims to moral superiority
Another, more powerful, theme rises in Darwin's
early writing. Even more than Lincoln, he was
deeply offended by slavery. In The Voyage of
the Beagle, we read Darwin's horror over an
old lady in Brazil who used thumbscrews to punish
her slaves. He also wrote,
Picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over
you, of your wife and your little children ...
being torn from you and sold to the highest bidder!
And those deeds are done ... by men who profess to
love their neighbors as themselves ... and pray
[God's] Will be done on earth! It makes one's blood
So, if we've found feet of clay on yet another
hero, we've also made the hero larger. For, like
Lincoln, Darwin's genius was his ability to let his
mind take him where he had not meant to go. Darwin
inherited the full set of 19th-century prejudices.
Then he created a new scientific vision that laid
waste to those very beliefs.
And he sensed the change coming. He left us with a
prophetic remark in his Voyage of the
Beagle. He warns us that,
If the misery of the poor be caused, not by the
laws of nature, but by our institutions, [then]
great is our sin.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Gould, S.J., The moral State of Tahiti -- and of
Darwin. Natural History, October 1991,
For more on Darwin and the Beagle, see
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H.