taking the words of Jesus seriously

Darwin was a racist, and his racist theories have had an enormous impact on American thinking.  In terms of science, Darwin’s account may be solid indeed.  But value free?  Nothing could be further from the truth—and that’s where the problem lies.

Some creationists fear Darwin because his theories contradict their literal biblical belief that creation occurred in six 24-hour days.  But they do not get at the real dangers of Darwinism.  They do not realize that an explanation of the development of biological organisms over eons of time really does not pose the threat that they suppose.  Instead, they, along with the rest of us, should really fear the ethical implications of Darwin’s original writings.

In reality, Darwin’s writings have been used to lend credibility to the prevalent racism of the 19th century and, when reinforced by Herbert Spencer, who has been called “Darwin’s Philosopher, ” endorsed an extreme laissez-faire political ideology that legitimized the neglect of the suffering poor by the ruling elite.

Those who disagree about Darwin being a racist probably have given scant attention to the full title of his most famous book, which is On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life.  If they had, they might have gained some inkling of the racism propagated by this controversial theorist.

If they then had gone on to read his next book, The Descent of Man (1871) they likely would be shocked to learn that among Darwin’s “scientifically” based proposals was the elimination of “the negro and Australian peoples, ” which he considered to be savage races whose continued survival was hindering the progress of civilization.  In this second book, Darwin ranked races in terms of what he believed was their nearness and likeness to gorillas; and then went on to propose the extermination of races he defined as inferior.  If this were not done, he claimed, those inferior races, with their much higher birthrates than “superior” races, would exhaust the resources needed for the survival of better people, eventually dragging down all civilization. Darwin even argued that advanced societies should not waste time and money on caring for the mentally ill, or those with birth defects.  To him, these unfit members of our species ought not to survive.

In case you think that Darwin sounds like a Nazi, you ought to know that there is a connection.  Darwin’s ideas were complicit in the rise of Nazi ideas.  Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson, in her insightful essay on Darwin, points out that the German nationalist and anti-Semitic writer Heinrich von Treitschke and the biologist Ernst Haeckel also drew on Darwin’s writings to justify racism, nationalism and harsh policies toward the poor and less privileged.  Although these men’s lives much predated Hitler’s rise to power, their ideas were very influential as Hitler developed the racist ideas that led to the Holocaust.  Konrad Lorenz, a biologist who belonged to the Nazi Office for Race Policy and whose work supported Nazi theories of “racial hygiene, ” made Darwin’s theories the basis for his reasoning.

Lest you think the racism inherent in Darwin’s writing was used only to legitimate the evil doings in Nazi Germany, consideration of the immigration policies developed here in the United States during the 1920s will convince you otherwise.  Picking up on Darwin’s ideas were the very questionable theories of what was then called “The New Eugenics Movement.”  Francis Galton, the foremost proponent of this movement, contended that progress in America’s future was dependent on negating the influence of those races of immigrants which he claimed were inferior to those of northwestern Europe which he said, “had primarily settled, founded, and developed our country.”

The most extreme conclusions of the New Eugenics Movement were set forth in an explanation of history by Madison Grant in his bestselling book, The Passing of the Great Race. It is hard for us today to imagine just how great was the impact of Grant’s book, but there is little question among scholars that this Darwinian inspired publication set off an uproar that led to action by Congress that made racism official U.S. immigration policy.  Prominent sociologists, such as E.A. Ross and Henry Pratt Fairchild, added what they claimed was scientific support for America’s racist immigration laws by “proving” that there was empirical evidence that a whole variety of social problems could be explained within a Darwinian based biological framework.  Immigrants from “lesser races, ” they claimed, were responsible for many of America’s social pathologies.

Two very important documents published in the 1920s were the major means for introducing this Darwinian inspired racism into the governmental legislative process.  They were the 42 volumes of the Senate Immigration Commission, Report, and the Laughlin Report to the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. The sheer mass of data provided in these documents overwhelmed opposing views.  A more popular version of the Senate report was published in a book by one of the members of the Senate’s Committee, Jeremiah W. Jenks.  He, with the help of W. Jett Lauck, produced a text that was destined to become the standard college text on immigration utilized in academia throughout the country for more than three decades.

Harry H. Laughlin of the Eugenics Record Office of the Carnegie Institution of Washington later submitted an additional report to Congress in which he made the case that through faulty evolutionary development, such “degeneracies” as “criminality” were racially developed.  He pointed to the “Italian race” as the foremost representative of this kind of degeneracy as he wrote:

We in this country have been so imbued with the idea of democracy, or the equality of all men, that we have left out of consideration the matter of blood or natural inborn hereditary mental and moral differences…However, the surest biological power, which the Federal Government now possesses, to direct the future of America along safe and sound racial channels is to control the hereditary quality of the immigration stream.

The racist immigration policies that developed here in America under the long shadow of Darwinism did not go away quietly.  They continued on in a variety of laws that had expression as late as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, usually referred to as the McCarran-Walter Act.  It was not until some progressive legislation under Lyndon B. Johnson that the last vestiges of “official” racism in our government laws on immigration were dealt with effectively.  Nevertheless, there is little doubt in my mind that Darwinian racism still influences how we think about immigration, especially when we consider what is sometimes said about what to do with those who come into our country from Mexico and Haiti.

None of what I have said about Darwin’s racism is an attempt to question the explanations that scientists have about the biological evolution that culminated in the emergence of homo sapiens, or to make a case for either creationism or intelligent design.  What I have endeavored to communicate instead is that we must guard against any attempt to carelessly use evolutionary doctrines to justify social policies that reek of racism, as Darwin’s theories did.  Too often, influenced by evolutionary thinking, some contemporary policy makers have, at times, promoted the doctrines of Social Darwinism, one of Darwin’s stepchildren.  I, for one, reject such theories as proposed by the likes of Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner, who thought that biological evolution produces superior races which create, in turn, superior societal systems.  Instead, I affirm what Lester Ward and Franklin H. Giddings offered as rebuttals to Social Darwinism.  These latter social scientists affirm that biological evolution was what gave rise to the human race, but that once homo sapiens evolved, further progress was in humanity’s hands.  We, they said, are called upon to direct the future progress of the human race through cooperative engineering that utilizes the geniuses of all peoples, with no given race being defined as having a superior edge with the intelligence required for a better tomorrow.

In today’s world, the influence of Darwin, as well as the influence of the ideology of that other dominant British proponent of evolution, Herbert Spencer, lives on.  Darwin gave evidence of evolution on the organic level while Spencer became the exemplar of what sociologists now refer to as Social Darwinism.  The latter extended evolutionary doctrines to political and economic policies.  It was Spencer’s belief that government should not interfere with the process of natural selection in the realms of business and industry.  This kind of thinking has become common among contemporary political conservatives.  Any attempt, contended Spencer, to ameliorate evolutionary progression would, he believed, have negative consequences for society.  That the “market” should regulate the economy in laissez faire fashion is a way of thinking that is heir to both Darwin and Spencer.  This, of course, has contributed to creating the policies that over the last few decades have led to the deregulation of banks and insurance companies.

“Survival of the Fittest”—a phrase coined by Spencer—is a concept that has highly influenced America’s conventional attitudes towards the poor and has impacted our public debates on everything from welfare policies to issues concerning universal health insurance.

It is no wonder that at the height of his career Spencer was brought to America for a cross-country lecture tour sponsored by an array of industrialists along with the Chamber of Commerce.  Darwin’s philosopher, Herbert Spencer, seemed to provide scientific evidence that laissez faire policies, even in their most extreme forms, were the guarantors of progress.

If there seems to be a tone of meanness in the discussions taking place on the floors of Congress and in the commentaries of the likes of Rush Limbaugh as to what to do with the poor of our own nation and how to respond to the needs of the economically oppressed in the Third World, that kind of harsh talk can be traced back, in part, to Darwin and Spencer.

The good news is that there is more going on in the American mind than the consequences of evolutionary philosophies.  There are also the countervailing effects of religion and humanitarian humanism.  It is easy to discern a charitable streak in the American thought processes which become brilliantly evident whenever Americans are called upon to respond to tragedies resulting from catastrophes like earthquakes and tsunamis.  We give our dollars to help the needy and even volunteer to go to serve in difficult places when people are victimized by natural disasters.  Granted, we respond primarily with charity to the needs of the poor, but often fail to address the need for a just restructuring of society so as to alleviate the sufferings of the poor.  In time, however, our spiritually generated altruistic impulses that stand over and against the seemingly cool indifferences stemming from Darwinian and Spenserian ideologies just might transform the geist of America to embrace the social justice that is inherent in our faith doctrines.  These doctrines are still alive and well among us, and their effects may, in time, overwhelm the social Darwinism that has permeated American political and economic thought.

This article was originally published in the November/December 2010 issue of Tikkun Magazine.

About The Author


Tony Campolo is Professor of Sociology at Eastern University, and was formerly on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. For 40 years, he founded and led the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, an organization that created and supported programs serving needy communities in the Third World as well as in “at risk” neighborhoods across North America. More recently, Dr. Campolo has provided leadership for the Red Letter Christians movement. He blogs regularly at his own website. Tony and his wife Peggy live near Philadelphia, and have two children and four grandchildren.

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