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Kezia Picard: The Descent of Man was a landmark book that established that all human beings shared a common origin. For this universalist idea, Darwin is often celebrated on the left as a radical. Was he?
Samuel Grove: The idea was certainly revolutionary. Polygenism (the belief in the separate creation of the human races) was very widespread in the nineteenth century and was the view most closely associated with the scientific racism at that time. Darwin’s evolutionary idea struck a death blow to creationism, and thus this particular form of scientific racism.
At the same time Darwin is the recipient of a fair amount of historical revisionism. In a recent book, Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Adrian Desmond and James Moore argue that Darwin’s views on human evolution were motivated by his hatred of slavery. They draw a neat, but in my view very dubious, distinction between the racism of polygenism and the righteousness of Darwin’s monogenism (the belief in the unity of the human species) that then allows them to effectively equate evolution with emancipation. They even credit Darwin with having “saved the blacks”. This is very misleading.
Darwin abhorred slavery and did believe in the common origin of the human races. However, his views on the human races were far from radical. It is important to remember that by Darwin’s theory, the distinction between races and species is arbitrary. “It is almost a matter of indifference” he wrote, “whether the so-called races of man [are] ranked as species or sub-species.” He expected the debate between the polygenists and monogenists to “die a silent and unobserved death” — not because the monogenists were right, but because, evolution aside, he considered the debate irrelevant. Darwin did not abandon scientific racism so much as he transformed it.
KP: Indeed. The Descent of Man is littered with derogatory statements about black people, indigenous people, the Irish, women, the poor and so on. It begs the question whether the anniversary is something we should celebrate at all.
SG: Debates about historical racism tend to get mired in the question of moral relativism. Should Darwin be judged by the standards of today, or should we view him in a Victorian context in which bigotry was accepted and mainstream? More recently, this debate has been deepened with broader questions about whether we give too much attention in our education system to the achievements of dead white men. In the universities there has been a movement to decolonise the curriculum, to pluralise the education system, to make it more diverse and so on. On the other side, opponents of these movements complain that students might be deprived of studying classic works in the name of political correctness.
In each case, the question is an either/or. Do we cast judgements upon authors of the past, or even cast them out entirely, or do we stick with tradition regardless of how our politics, our values, our morals change? Actually, what I think antiracist and feminist perspectives encourage us to do, is not just to read more widely, but read more thoroughly.
KP: How can antiracist and feminist perspectives encourage us to read Darwin more thoroughly?
SG: There is a tendency to take white supremacism or patriarchy at face value. To just assume that because the writers of the past projected an air of superiority, certainty, confidence, and arrogance that they really are that confident and certain. This wasn’t the case for Darwin at all. Studying his own notes and letters more closely, we can see Darwin was very disturbed by the problem of human evolution. It caused him an enormous amount of anxiety.
Darwin’s discomfort surrounding human evolution began, I think, when he first encountered an indigenous man from Tierra Del Fuego. He describes how the Fuegian’s cries and demeanour greatly disturbed him. In a letter he referred to the shattering effect it had on him — “What will become of me hereafter, I know not; I feel, like a ruined man” The literary theorist Gillian Beer has argued, persuasively, that the impact derived from the reciprocal nature of the gaze. In confronting the Fuegian’s animality, Darwin was also forced to confront his own.
A great deal of Darwin’s writings since can be read as his fidelity to this moment but also his disposition to keep the experience at bay. Rather than confront man’s animal origins, he was more inclined to anthropomorphise the entire animal and plant kingdoms. Humanise animals, rather than animalise humans, if you like. This was his rhetorical strategy in The Origin of Species.
Unfortunately, while he convinced readers that evolution had happened, most were still unwilling to extend the concept to human beings. In The Descent of Man Darwin had no choice but to confront the problem directly. He had to animalise humans. Rather than animalise Anglo-Saxon men like himself, however, he, rather cowardly, focused on humans lower down the pecking order. Indigenous people, black people, women, and the poor were more convenient targets — for both Darwin himself and the types of people he was trying to convince.
KP: How did Darwin deal with Anglo-Saxon men, did they appear at all in The Descent of Man?
SG: They do, and in an interesting way. Much of Darwin’s anxieties around human evolution hovered around a single question: If humans had evolved, like every other organism, from blind selection, what confidence could anyone have in, as he put it, “the convictions of a monkey-mind”? He called this his “horrid doubt“.
The problem has many dimensions to it, but the one he addresses in The Descent of Man is a very specific one. According to his theory, nature selects for survival, not truth. Surely, Darwin asked, selection would favour organisms that were prepared to lie and cheat for their own personal success? A dogmatic fidelity to truth would appear to degrade one’s chances of survival rather than improve them. And yet acceptance of his theory entailed that evolution had produced subjects capable of discovering scientific truths in general, and human evolution in particular.
How could this have happened? Darwin’s proposed solution was that there had to have been a selection process which favoured tribes composed of more courageous, honest, truthful men. This selection process then culminated in Anglo-Saxon men — the pinnacle of mankind — capable of recognizing their evolutionary origins.
KP: Was this evolutionary story enough to resolve Darwin’s doubts?
SG: Not at all. Darwin’s “horrid doubt” went with him to the grave. Moreover, there are good reasons to believe that Darwin would have been very unsatisfied with his line of argumentation. To begin with, Darwin was loath to commit himself to any definitive evolutionary explanation. Indeed, in The Origin of Species, Darwin had declined to propose one single evolutionary explanation. Instead, he confined himself to hypothetical scenarios in which selection could have taken place.
Secondly, Darwin’s evolutionary story here relied on group selection — a selection process in which some tribes are favoured above others. This was because courage and heroism do not confer advantages for survival on individuals. Darwin was, in fact, virulently opposed to group selection and had spent an enormous amount of time through the 1850s and 1860s trying to prove that selection only took place at the level of the individual. [Now I happen to think Darwin was wrong to insist on the fallacy of group selection, but for different reasons]. The fact that he resorted to a group selectionist argument in the case of human evolution, and the evolution of truth, is indicative of just how rattled he was. How desperate he was to resolve this paradox.
KP: Darwin’s evolutionary argument wasn’t just racist, by your reckoning, but also sexist as well. It was very much men that were courageous, virtuous and truth seeking (and women were not).
SG: Yes. There is an interesting background story to this. In The Descent of Man Darwin credits Immanuel Kant for recognising the importance of “courage” as a subjective condition for truth (“sapere aude!“). Darwin’s use of Kant stands out because Darwin almost never engaged in philosophy. He considered it antithetical to the scientific method.
Well, it turns out that he was introduced to Kant by a feminist, Elizabeth Power Cobbe. They had got into a debate in which Darwin boasted that men had evolved their superior vigour in an evolutionary struggle for the possession of women. Cobbe, in return, mocked the idea that one could understand such questions without some understanding of philosophy and advised him to read Kant. No doubt chastened by the experience, Darwin’s subsequent use of Kant and his persistent emphasis on male superiority can be read as his belated rejoinder to Cobbe.
KP: This encounter does not give the impression of a scientist detached from political conflicts?
SG: Darwin, to his credit, was about as close as it gets to the ideal of the detached scientist. He spent most of his time on his own, carrying out experiments in his garden, and writing. It did mean, however, that what conflicts he did have, affected him. He was, in general, a very anxious person. I think this also helps to explain his resort to bigotry in The Descent of Man. He was, ironically, terrified of offending people. Not the people on the receiving end of his bigotry, of course, but the Anglo-Saxon men he went to such lengths to flatter in the book.
KP: Racism and sexism can be read in many other writers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (not least the aforementioned Kant), but I’m guessing they weren’t all crippled by doubt and anxiety.
SG: That is true. Darwin, as I have said, had personal encounters, particularly with the man from Tierra Del Fuego, that affected him deeply. But what is remarkable about this kind of virulent racism — that, as you say, can be read all over the scientific and philosophical literature of the time — was that it often came from writers that hadn’t travelled at all. Kant barely left his hometown of Königsberg. The psychoanalyst Oscar Manoni once wrote that the ghost of the colonial encounter haunted men who hadn’t even left Europe. He’s right. But I think to understand why, we have to move away from personal explanations and analyse the function of racism at an epistemological level. A lot of the anxiety that I believe underpinned the racism of this time was epistemic in nature. Let me explain.
Darwin was writing at the back end of what Eric Hobsbawm called the ‘dual revolution‘ — the British Industrial Revolution and the French Republican Revolution. It wasn’t just the dual revolution either. There was the revolution in Haiti, there were the Latin American independence wars, there were mutinies in India, and so on. These events would change the world, including the way in which the world was conceived. Quite suddenly it became clear to people — scientists, geologists, philosophers, social theorists among them — that the world wasn’t stable. It became clear that the world could undergo massive irreversible change.
Before the dual revolution, ‘time’ was conceptualised in a very different way. It was regarded as essentially empty and unthreatening. Events would take place, but nothing fundamentally would change. ‘Time’ was viewed rather like the seasons; as cyclical and repetitive. This empty form of time provided Western thought with a very stable foundation. It provided the basis for scientific certainty, the discovery of laws and eternal truths. In a sense, it provided the basis for scientists’ and philosophers’ own sense of immortality. Their work, their ideas, their discoveries would last forever. Or so they thought.
However, in a world that was constantly changing in drastic and unpredictable ways, such claims became much more precarious. Scientists and philosophers were forced to confront their mortality. This was a very difficult thing for Western thinkers to even comprehend, still less accept. Much of their work was organised around resolving this problem: how to exempt themselves and their ideas from the proverbial ‘ash heap’ of history. The solution they came up with—this is seen most notably in the work of Kant, Hegel, Comte etc — is a conception of history that advances lawfully until it finally produces men capable of knowing the truth. These men were, invariably, themselves. Michel Foucault referred to this as the age of ‘transcendental narcissism’ and you can see why.
At the same time there is a sudden surge of bigotry in the works of the very philosophers and scientists proposing these historical laws. Non-white people were derided for their ignorance, their vanity, their folly and so on. It’s very difficult not to read this as a form of projection. It was other, non-white people that would have to carry the burden of history so white men wouldn’t have to.
KP: Isn’t this essentially the same argument that Darwin made in The Descent of Man?
SG: Not quite. Darwin proposed a selection process that wasn’t lawful but lawlike. Part of why Darwin was so anxious about his theory was that he couldn’t seek recourse in comforting laws. Unlike other evolutionary theories, he had proposed that evolution was entirely contingent, driven by blind chance.
Take Jean Baptise Lamarck’s theory for example. He had proposed that there was a gradual complexifying force that leads organisms to become steadily more advanced. With such evolution it’s not difficult to justify man’s place at the top of the heap. Darwin’s theory of natural selection provides for no such fixed law. By his theory, the evolution of one organism is entirely separate from all the others. There is no steady advance for organisms over time. Darwin was quite explicit about this. “Never say higher or lower” he wrote.
This had two radical consequences. The first was that Darwin had flattened the hierarchy between organisms. There was no scientific basis for arguing that one type of organism, or indeed one type of human being, is cosmically superior to another. By Darwin’s theory there is only adaptation to local circumstances. Bacteria are just as advanced, maybe more advanced in terms of survival capacity, than humans.
The second radical consequence was that Darwin’s contingent theory could be applied in different ways. It opened the space for alternative, competing arguments for evolutionary history. Much of this is conveniently forgotten now, but in fact Darwin’s theory gave rise to radical re-interpretations of evolutionary history from a feminist perspective. People like Antoinette Brown Blackwell and Eliza Burt Gamble applied Darwin’s theory to emphasise female agency and capacities in human evolution. A hundred years later Huey P. Newton (one of the founders of the Black Panther Party) became interested in evolutionary biology and offered his own re-interpretation of human evolution.
Whatever Darwin’s motives, he had proposed a theory that not only robbed the ruling elites of validating tales about their divine providence, but a theory that could be appropriated by other groups of people in the service of very different, even liberatory, interpretations of evolutionary history. Darwin’s The Descent of Man didn’t so much settle questions of human origins so much as instigate them.
KP: I don’t suppose that re-interpretations like those of Blackwell and Gamble make up the majority view?
SG: Not at all. The Descent of Man gave rise to a tidal wave of reaction, both in the scientific and the popular literature. It is a mistake, however, to believe this was because Darwin’s theory was inherently reactionary. It was the very fact that Darwin rendered relations between the sexes and races indeterminate and contingent that generated the reaction. White Anglo-Saxon men could no longer take their superiority for granted.
KP: Which comes back to your point about anxiety and doubt underpinning so much of Victorian bigotry.
SG: Quite. Darwin had formulated a theory that was far more radical than even he was comfortable with.Endnotes:
 A. Desmond and J. Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins (London: Penguin Books, 2009), viii.
 C. Darwin. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex In Two Volumes.–Vol. 1 with Illustrations, London, 1st Edition, (London: John Murrary, 1871), 235.
 G. Beer, Open fields: science in cultural encounter. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 24.
 C. Darwin. The Descent of Man, 179.
 M. Foucault, “An historian of culture”, in Foucault Live: Collective Interviews, 1961-1984 (Semiotext(e), 1996), 99.
 This was Darwin’s note to self in the margins of his copy of Robert Chambers’ Vestiges. Darwin cited in S. J. Gould, Full house (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2011), 137.
Editor’s note: The interview was edited slightly for readability.
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