Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 617:
DARWIN AND RACISM

by John H. Lienhard

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 created them.

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 came.

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 himself.

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 were.

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 boil.

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 work.

(Theme music)


Gould, S.J., The moral State of Tahiti -- and of Darwin. Natural History, October 1991, pp. 12-19.

For more on Darwin and the Beagle, see Episode 1260.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H. Lienhard.