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Louisiana legislation decides that Darwin was "racist."
May 21, 2001 9:35 AM   Subscribe

Louisiana legislation decides that Darwin was "racist." It's not just the fundamentalist right... now it's Democrats pushing for the demonization of evolution. The full text of the resolution (in PDF format) can be found here. This is a Salon article about it. And this is the full text of "Darwin's Descent of Man", so that someone can point to me where exactly is Darwin suggesting that some races are "more evolved" than others... I mean don't they read the books before they start putting stickers on them?
posted by talos (10 comments total)

> point to me where exactly is Darwin suggesting that
> some races are "more evolved" than others...

The second "whereas" in the linked article explains:

> WHEREAS, Adolf Hitler and others have exploited the
> racist views of Darwin and those he influenced, such as
> German zoologist Ernst Haekel

The bill's sponsor is upset about the doctrines of "social Darwinism," which can be pretty accurately oversimplified as "my group's on top, therefore we must be more evolved than your group." She's concluded that since there wouldn't be social Darwinism without Darwinism Classic, then it must be Darwin's fault.

No polital party has a monopoly on idiots, and quite a number of leftish persons (though they'll of course say they believe in Darwinism, this being a tribal marker to distinguish them from idiots of the right who say they don't) are actually very uncomfortable when one comes to some of the implications of viewing humans as just another form of animal, with certain genetic limitations which might mean that nastiness like war, sexism and racism won't ever be entirely eliminated. In that sense one might very well see Darwin as giving aid and comfort to the oppressors, whoever your favorite oppressor happens to be.
posted by jfuller at 10:07 AM on May 21, 2001

i think it's fair speculation that darwin might have held onto some prejudiced ideas. in darwin's time, it was common to suppose that certain cultures were "primitive": in particular, those in south america, africa, and like tribal cultures. in modern times, most reputable anthropologists would not claim that there is a "properly advanced" civilization, or feel that there should be any attempt to "civilize" the "barbarians" of any particular culture. the reality, however, is that a lot of people in darwin's time (possibly himself) did feel that way.

i am not about to read the full text of darwin to go prove that point, so i won't say yes he was racist or no he was not. but i will say i would not be surprised, and i don't think anyone really ought to be. that does not mean we should discount his writings: we don't discount the writings of many of the leaders in this country who possibly were racist in their own ways, george washington or john adams.
posted by moz at 10:38 AM on May 21, 2001

I think this may come from the fact that people think they know what evolution is, but then assume that evolution is a progression toward advanced civilizations and super-big pulsating brains.
And I think every major advocate of Darwin today thinks social darwinism is just insane, anyway.
posted by Doug at 10:55 AM on May 21, 2001 [1 favorite]

This is nothing more than a new tactic in the fight against teaching evolution in the schools. This is the Scopes trial, Part II...

No polital party has a monopoly on idiots

This is true, nor does any state, but Louisiana has been trying really really hard to establish one for as long as I can remember.
posted by fooljay at 11:20 AM on May 21, 2001

Nothing preached by classical racists (such as Hitler) should be deemed to be Darwinism even as its most benighted.

Indeed, a recurring theme of racist theory is that the "bad" must be affirmatively stamped out because they have the tendency to thrive (i.e. continue to be competitively and reproductively successful) despite, or even because of their pervasive evil. Hence the tendency to associate the bad with vermin, or mud, or other things that are always with us despite their evident undesirability.

Social Darwinism, on the other hand, posited that if poverty, stupidity or laziness would have consequences that reduced a person's reproductive fitness, then society should not intervene, as the reduced (or eliminated) reproduction was a (desirable) incidence of natural selection. Indeed, social Darwinism, in glorifying wealth as the evidence and guarantor of fitness, directly contradicted classical European anti-Semetism, in which the (real or perceived) success of the Jews in amassing wealth was seen as a reason to effect their eradication.

Racial purification, and eugenics and other non-explicitly racist doctrines embraced by the Nazis were all about substituting the judgment of the Party as to who should live for the judgment of families, communities, or the market for who should live and how well they should live.

Social Darwinism lost its evidenciary base as it became extraordinarily clear in the first half of the 20th century that, far from creating a permanent stratification between the (fit) rich and (unfit) poor, industrial capitalism was instead extraordinarily dynamic, as great titans of wealth arose from the poorest of families and concentrations of great wealth and power were successively surpassed by new innovation, and as the clear benefit to the economy of having a large, secure, skilled working middle class (and the requisite income and social security protections that that security requires) became clear.

Sociobiology, which is Social Darwinism's descendant (or distant relative, depending on your school of thought) remains vital (and certainly despised by the left).

(Sociobiology claims that the various social behavior patterns that we now observe evolved and continue to evolve through a process of natural selection, as some behaviors increased communal reproductive success and some behaviors decreased communal reproductive success. A sociobiologist might claim that a moderate form of racism, being almost entirely pervasive among all cultures, probably has some positive returns to the reproductive success of a culture, as it reinforces cohesion, diminishes extreme exogamy, and motivates effective competitive action.

Sociobiology is almost entirely excluded from secondary curricula, so it doesn't have to go through the routine political attacks that entangle any somewhat controversial scientific theory which is taught before college.
posted by MattD at 11:22 AM on May 21, 2001 [1 favorite]

Well, of course Sociobiology, like any other science starting with the prefix "Socio-", is a social science and therefore has its political left-right axis.

There quite a bit of merit in some aspects of its analysis. (see Jared Diamond in "The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee").

Much of it is tosh too...
posted by lagado at 4:46 PM on May 21, 2001

Sociobiology has enemies on the left (those who feel that it is used to justify the supremacy of cultures of European descent) and on the right (those who feel that the moral standards of the prosperous were handed down by God, not evolved through milenia of iterations of victorious tribal armies and diminished childhood mortality).

Sociobiology has precious few advocates on the contemporary left, because the opposition of the left is so fervent that any left-leaning advocate quickly finds himself driven from the warmth of the left-leaning alcoves of the Anthropology Department lounge into the comforting company of the old Republican Egyptologists...
posted by MattD at 8:05 PM on May 21, 2001

MattD: your posts remind me of an interesting book I read a while ago called "Buddha's Nature", which was a sort-of screed of sociobiology and suggested that Buddha was one of the first sociobiologists. The author's notion was that our moral choices are based out of a brain that's an neurochemical cocktail mixed by the evolutionary bartender- sociobiology, basically. He then went on to suggest that Buddha was aware of this in a philosophical sense, and thus recommended that we all step out of ourselves every now and then and pay attention to how our body and mind automatically responds in a situation.

Not that Buddha would have used words like "neurochemical", of course. He might have instead suggested that our emotional responses are like clouds passing in the sky; it's so easy to see them and mistake them for the sky itself- but they aren't the sky, they're just passing through.

Ooooh. Deep! =)

My point in mentioning that is to suggest that sociobiology, if redeemed as a legitimate theory of moral development, should still simply serve to encourage us as individuals to "step out" of our chemically reactive natures, and become aware how much of our passion, our love and hate and rage and pity are controlling us instead of the other way around.
posted by hincandenza at 10:37 PM on May 21, 2001

I did read alot of Darwins work in highschool (mostly to pass the time while people I could possibly have been smarter than taught stuff that only tended to confound me in its mundane lowly unenlightened backwardsness), and I find that this idea of darwin being a racist could have some merrit.
Merrit in the same way that Malcom x was a racisist, and all the idiologies of oppressed (real or imaginary) peoples who seek to understand their world in the context of their lives.
Darwin, was amongst other things, a man who lived in a time when slavery and the british empire were evidence of the power of one group over all others. His recurring comments about cultures which were essentially less powerful or "civilized" than that of the ruling bodies of europe was simply a social commentary of the time.

The phrase "Social Darwinisim" has nothing to do with Darwins direct work on his obsevations of our species. Furthermore, people who dont know much about evolution tend to make all kinds of interesting mistakes and assumptions about what it is all focussed on.
Sure, when you boil it down to its most imbecellic points, you see his essential Ideal is that man is decended from monkey. Ok, not everyone agrees on it. I certainly dont.
I was raised Christian (read cult) and branched out into many personal studies over the years, one of which included eating sleeping and breathing the contents of The Origin of the species".

You want to know why bible thumping creationists are running around like monkies and flinging verbal feces at this book and this man? Simple:
They understand some of its very principals intimately.
For a very long time, Darwins "Origin of Species" sold as well, if not better than the bible. Now, if thats not cause for alarm in a christian mind (some of them can be very small, and are only filled with the idea that only they have the copyright on what is or isnt a good idea), then I dont know what is.

Simply put, the 2 books were at evolutionary war of commerce and population saturation control. Any good christian leader will tell you (once you get him good and drunk on the communal wine) that the key to controlling the "masses" is not their souls, but their minds. If everyone believes every word written in the bible, then the cult of christianity has no work to do, but pluck people like over-ripe fruit. If on the otherhand everyone believes in scientific teachings, then its not so easy to sway the mind when its filled with practicality and proof, as opposed to the seldem proven and often laughable "facts" of the bible.

I dont thouroughly support either side in the matter.
Anyway, getting back to the point of my ramble: context. Bottom line is : in a christian world, there is NO differing context, only what is "Gods Law". The up side is the idea that all colours are one in gods eyes, the downside is that if you dont jump to the christian idea of god, then its time to be cast out of their world.

In Darwins context: a race of people who did not have the ability to compete with the european kingdoms clearly was uncivilized. So what. No relavance today. And yet the christian groups like to put any label they can find on anything that challenmges them and has an honest chance of winning.

Like their ancestors that founded the curch from the fall of rome, they are committing acts that go against their teachings, and generally being mob-like in their thinking. Ancient christians rose up and became exactly like their hated enemies, the romans, all the while preaching that they were doing gods good work. All they have ever done is adapt every nasty defence mechanisim that is available and used it to make their ideals the only ideals known, thusly the correct ones. This is so a perfect case of social evolution, which can of course trace the routes of its thinking back to work based on Darwins physical evolutionary models.

I hope I didnt lose you reader along the way. To quote a clever speaker I heard once: Ill ask you all to clap now, because Im done.
Ok, well, maybe not clap. Just, well....
posted by Azaroth at 11:41 PM on May 21, 2001

Yes, Darwin was a product of his time and class, and therefore he was certainly affected by the racist biases of his time as far as "civilized" vs. "uncivilized" is concerned... BUT, he argues strongly in chapter 7 of his "Descent of Man" that all humans are the same species (and not 2 or 3 as some of his, indeed racist, contemporaries were claiming) rejecting also the notion of distinct "sub-species" of the human kind, pointing out that the similarities between "races" are immensely more prominent than any differences. He highlights in other writings (couldn't find a link- sorry) how all humans have similar intellectual potential and the only thing one can accuse him of is "Western Paternalism" since he seems to have believed that when exposed to "higher" (western) civilization, all races can improve their condition. Racist by today's standards? Sure. But it is a far cry from advocating an inherent superiority of one race over the other.
Also Darwin could not have made the claim that one race is "more evolved" than another because that would negate the whole theory of evolution, since evolution implies adaptation to a species' environment, so there can be no quantifier as far as whole species are concerned.

Now all this is something that I'm sure the Louisiana State Assembly could have found out if they bothered to ask any evolutionary biologist at LSU...
posted by talos at 2:28 AM on May 22, 2001

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