Especially on his birthday, don’t call Darwin racist — he wasn’t

Creationists, Intelligent Design proponents, and several other anti-science and historical revisionist groups come unglued every February about this time — February 12 is Charles Darwin’s birthday.  He was born in 1809, on the exact same day as Abraham Lincoln.

Part of creationists’ coming unglued revolves around that fact that the science behind evolution grows stronger year by year, and at this point no argument exists that creationists can make against evolution that has not been soundly, roundly and thoroughly.  This makes creationists nervous in a discussion, because even they recognize when they lose arguments.   Creationists don’t like to lose arguments about how well Darwin’s theories work, because they erroneously believe that if Darwin is right, God and Jesus are wrong.

God and Jesus cannot be wrong, in their view, but intellectually they see they are losing the argument, and they grow desperate.  In their desperation they grasp for claims that shock uneducated or unfamiliar viewers.  Since about 1970, among the more shocking arguments one can make is to claim one’s opponent is racist.

Claiming Darwin, and hence evolution, boost racism, slaps history with irony.  Creationism’s roots were in denying that Europeans and Africans are evolutionarily equal, a claim necessary to allow slave holders to enslave Africans and go to church on Sundays.  The Civil War is 150 years away, the Emancipation Proclamation 148 years old, and even die-hard creationists generally have forgotten their own history.

Creationists accuse Darwin of being a racist, they claim evolution theory is racist, and they claim, therefore, it cannot be scientifically accurate.  There are a lot of holes in that chain of logic.

This is Darwin’s birthday.  Let me deal with major wrong premise, and give creationists room to correct their views with accurate history, so we don’t have a shouting match.

Way back in 2008, nominally-liberal evangelical preacher Tony Campolo got suckered in by a conservative evangelicals claim to him that evolution and Darwin are racist.  Below is my answer to him then — I think Campolo learned his lesson — but this builds on the claims Campolo made which are really copied from creationists.

In short, Darwin is not racist, and here are some explanations why, with a few updated links and minor edits for Darwin’s birthday, and Lincoln’s birthday, in 2013:

Tony Campolo is an evangelical Christian, a sociology professor and preacher who for the past 15 years or so has been a thorn in the side of political conservatives and other evangelicals, for taking generally more liberal stands, against poverty, for tolerance in culture and politics, and so on. His trademark sermon is an upbeat call to action and one of the more plagiarized works in Christendom, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Coming” (listen to it here). 

Tony Campolo

Rev. Tony Campolo

Since he’s so close to the mainstream of American political thought, Campolo is marginalized by many of the more conservative evangelists in the U.S. Campolo is not a frequent guest on the Trinity Broadcast Network, on Pat Robertson’s “700 Club,” nor on the white, nominally-Christian, low-budget knock-off of “Sabado Gigante!,” “Praise the Lord” (with purple hair and everything).

Campolo came closest to real national fame when he counseled President Bill Clinton on moral and spiritual issues during the Lewinsky scandal.

His opposite-editorial piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer back in 2008, “The real danger in Darwin is not evolution, but racism,” is out of character for Campolo as a non-conservative evangelistic thinker — far from what most Christians expect from Campolo either from the pulpit or in the college classroom. The piece looks as though it was lifted wholesale from Jerry Falwell or D. James Kennedy, showing little familiarity with the science or history of evolution, and repeating canards that careful Christians shouldn’t repeat.

Campolo’s piece is inaccurate in several places, and grossly misleading where it’s not just wrong. He pulls out several old creationist hoaxes, cites junk science as if it were golden, and generally gets the issue exactly wrong.

Evolution science is a block to racism. It has always stood against racism, in the science that undergirds the theory and in its applications by those scientists and policy makers who were not racists prior to their discovery of evolution theory. Darwin himself was anti-racist. One of the chief reasons the theory has been so despised throughout the American south is its scientific basis for saying whites and blacks are so closely related. This history should not be ignored, or distorted.

Shame on you, Tony Campolo.

I’ll offer some quick comments to point Dr. Campolo to the straight and narrow.

The real danger in Darwin is not evolution, but racism

Tony Campolo is professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University and served as pastoral counselor to former President Clinton Many who support the separation of church and state say that the intelligent design theory of creation ought not to be taught in public schools because it contains a religious bias. They dislike its suggestion that the evolutionary development of life was not the result of natural selection, as Charles Darwin suggested, but was somehow given purposeful direction and, by implication, was guided by God.

Arguing for what they believe is a nonprejudicial science, they contend that children in public schools should be taught Darwin’s explanation of how the human race evolved, which they claim is value-free and depends solely on scientific evidence.

Intelligent design shouldn’t be taught in science classes anywhere because it is academically sterile, and corrupt. It shouldn’t be taught in science classes because it has no basis in science. It shouldn’t be taught to Christians because it depends on distorting the views and facts of science — lying, in essence and fact — and it’s really crappy theology, requiring a creator who is deceptive, a creator who is contrary to Christian theology.

Evolution theory is not value free at all. It depends on honesty and openness in the practice of science an in instructing students in what the science is and how it works. Evolution depends on the democratic basis of modern science, where anyone can get in the doors of the halls of science simply by doing the work to gather the facts, either observing nature, or devising experiments testing nature on the lab bench.

Intelligent design’s values, to the extent they are counter to the values of honesty and openness in science, are also contrary to Christian theology.

So intelligent design strikes out as science, as good values, and as theology. We advocates of evolution don’t urge value-free science. Integrity is vitally important to science, so much so that we have made it illegal to lie about science in federally-funded research (which is one barrier to intelligent design research with public monies), and we have established by tradition, law and culture, peer review processes to establish accuracy in research reporting, and to find and stamp out error and fraud.

Theologists could learn a bit about values from scientists.

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 great threat to the dignity of our humanity that they suppose. Instead, they, along with the rest of us, should really fear the ethical implications of Darwin’s original writings.

Look out! Campolo is about to adopt some of the falsehoods of anti-science advocates. He needs to tread more knowledgeably here.

In reality, those writings express the prevalent racism of the 19th century and endorse an extreme laissez-faire political ideology that legitimizes the neglect of the suffering poor by the ruling elite.

No. Darwin’s writings do not show the sensitivity of a 21st century feminist member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), but they are remarkably anti-racist for the 19th century, and for much of the 20th century. Stripped of archaic language conventions of the 19th century in which he wrote, Darwin’s work is amazingly progressive.

For example:

  1. Darwin despised the sociologist Herbert Spencer’s hypothesis that poor people were poor because of some trait, probably inherited, and that the rich therefore did not need to act charitably, or honorably to eradicate poverty. Darwin especially did not like Spencer’s phrase, “survival of the fittest,” and adopted it only in the later editions of his most famous book when he was convinced that, in biology, the antisocial stigma of the idea was stripped away.
  2. Darwin argued for equality among races. He befriended an African man, John Edmonstone, in Edinburgh who taught him both taxidermy and equality of races. Darwin was shocked by the racist foundations of slavery especially as he saw it practiced in Brazil, and he complimented the African-descended slaves as both noble and brilliant, equal to any Roman general, Darwin wrote in Voyage of the Beagle.
  3. Darwin despised slavery; he argued that humans should not abuse other humans in such a way. In a famous roue, Capt. Robert FitzRoy banned Darwin from the Captain’s Mess aboard The Beagle when Darwin argued in favor of slavery’s being abolished. Darwin said FitzRoy’s defense of slavery using the Bible was an abuse of scripture. This enraged the deeply religious FitzRoy; within a few days FitzRoy apologized. Darwin never backed down.  Later historians suggest that Darwin’s strong anti-slavery views may have helped form his view of evolution.
  4. Darwin put his money behind his anti-slavery views; the entire Wedgwood family did (Darwin was a peripheral member). They strongly supported the ban on slavery in the British Empire as advocated by William Wilberforce, and they supported Wilberforce’s work (a favor forgotten by Wilberforce’s son Samuel, who later tangled with Thomas Huxley with insults towards Darwin in a famous debate on evolution).
  5. Darwin argued that aboriginals were superior to Europeans and whites, especially in their own lands. His Descent of Man lament for the lost aboriginals of Tasmania was based partly on his conviction that the natives were much better adapted to Tasmania, evolutionarily, and that their displacement by Europeans with guns was no gain for the human race.

Campolo appears not to have read Darwin in any depth.

Those who argue at school board meetings that Darwin should be taught in public schools seldom have taken the time to read him. If they knew the full title of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life, they might have gained some inkling of the racism propagated by this controversial theorist. Had they actually read Origin, 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 savage races whose continued survival was hindering the progress of civilization.

Those who argue against Darwin have almost never read him. This op-ed is a case in point.

Campolo steps into ignorance and fiction here. In Darwin’s now provocatively-titled book, he addresses human evolution not at all. When he refers to “races” in the title, he’s referring to what modern scientists would call varieties or subspecies. There is no basis for human racism in Origin of Species (nor a basis for any other animal’s racism).

Darwin’s discussion of Australians is in Descent of Man, and it is in the context of his lamenting of the destruction of aboriginal peoples, especially the Tasmanians. Darwin doesn’t say aboriginals hinder progress at all. What he says is that Europeans with guns will probably win the brutal conflicts with aboriginals, and wipe them out. Darwin was recounting history. The war against Tasmanians began in 1805, four years prior to Darwin’s birth; by the time he visited the area in 1831, there were fewer than 100 Tasmanians. Darwin discussed their inability to reproduce to increase their numbers, and wondered whether this path to extinction was an effect of racism and oppression.

The claim that Darwin proposed to eliminate other races is an unholy, unChristian lie.

In his next book, The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin ranked races in terms of what he believed was their nearness and likeness to gorillas. Then he went on to propose the extermination of races he “scientifically” defined as inferior. If this were not done, he claimed, those races, with much higher birthrates than “superior” races, would exhaust the resources needed for the survival of better people, eventually dragging down all civilization.

That’s whole cloth lie. Darwin never ranked races. He noted that in a future time when all humans lived in cities, and no humans lived in jungles alongside gorillas, in conditions similar to those of gorillas, skeptics would have a more difficult time noting the small gap between humans and other great apes. How do creationists mistake that for “ranking races?” Campolo is not the first to make the crazy claim — it’s a staple of representatives of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) who ask to grant science degrees in Texas.

Darwin never called for extermination of any group of humans. Never. He always lamented such genocidal actions. The moral vacuity of creationism is on display here: Were creationism morally superior to science and especially evolution theory, whole cloth lies such as that one would not be required to make a case. If creationism were moral, such distortions of science would not be tolerated. It’s cheap gossip, and untrue.

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.

Tony Campolo, you need to repent. Such false claims are unbecoming a Christian, let alone a clergyman. Darwin argued that humans need to be altruistic, that the survival of humans depends on it — in chapter 5 of Descent of Man (see pages 155-156), in which Darwin discusses possible evolutionary routes for the rise of morality. Quite contrary to Campolo’s claim, Darwin argued we need to be kind to one another. Modern biology has only strengthened that line of thought.

In case you think Darwin sounds like a Nazi, 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.

Clearly she didn’t win a Pulitzer for that essay. She needs to get her facts straight. (I’m not sure I agree with Campolo’s truncation of her essay, which is wild enough, but doesn’t quite argue that Darwin is to blame for the Nazis while religious creationists are not — it’s more of a ‘pox on both your houses’ whine.)

While it is accurate that some German racists pointed to evolution as a part of their justification, it is untrue that such justification exists there. Robinson failed to mention Darwin’s rebuke of Haeckel, and it appears she can’t tell the difference between evolution and racism. Campolo, appearing never to have read Darwin or even a good biography about him, accepts such a falsehood at face value. Shame on creationism, shame on evangelistic Christianity.

German nationalism never needed Darwin to rise and spread. Especially in the aftermath of World War I and the oppressive demands of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany and the Nazis were not discussing biology and Darwin as they carted their baskets of billions of Deutsche marks to the bakery to buy a loaf of bread. Germans, and especially Nazis, didn’t read Darwin to decide to arm and take over the western world. Darwin’s writings don’t cover international affairs and economics.

To attribute the rise of Naziism and its racist policies to Darwin is an insult to history. It’s simply wrong. It ignores the actual events, World War I, for example, and the economic realities of the world that were the real causes of World War II. Campolo’s claim is an ironic vindication of Woodrow Wilson, who warned us that if his 14 points were not adopted after World War I, there would be later, greater wars, and later yahoos to defend those wars false grounds. Wilson’s 14 points were not adopted, and the U.S. refused to join Wilson’s League of Nations. Not even Wilson thought the yahoos would hang on so long after a second war, though, I’ll wager.

Perhaps more important, there is not a shred of evidence that Adolf Hitler ever read Darwin, or understood evolution theory, or ever thought to use evolution as a justification for getting rid of peoples he didn’t want in Germany. Nick Matzke at the National Center for Science Education found the actual history — Hitler banned Darwin’s works (no surprise; Darwin was every bit an Englishman and as such rather congenitally anti-German), and the Nazi’s burned Darwin’s works! 

Hitler used a German word that sometimes means “evolution” in Mein Kampf, but he never used it in terms of biological evolution. Hitler never got close to describing anything like Darwinian evolution theory in any of his writings. Ashley Montagu and others have noted that Hitler seemed completely ignorant of evolution, refusing to allow blood transfusions for German soldiers for example, for fear they might get a hint of Jewish blood, and turn Jewish. Hitler subscribed to a long-discredited notion of heritage by blood — an idea suggested in the Old Testament, but long refuted in science, by Darwin, Mendel, and genetics.

Many creationists, giddy with their own false accusations, often go on in error to claim that, not only was fascism an outgrowth of Darwin’s work, but so was Marxism, communism, and every form of totalitarian barbarity practiced in the 20th century. Never mind that fascism and communism are rather opposites. Creationists work overtime to invent ways in which science might be seen as the root of evil, in order to demonize it in Sunday sermons. This is the only creationism falsehood on the sociological side of evolution to which Campolo does not succumb.

Although these men’s lives much predated Hitler’s rise to power, their ideas were very influential as he 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.

Here we get another glimpse of just how hard Campolo strains to indict science. Konrad Lorenz, the 1973 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine, joined the German army in 1941 to avoid a more cruel impressment into service. Lorenz was not a Jew; but neither was he an ardent Nazi racist, as Campolo urges. In fact Lorenz was captured by the Soviets in 1942, and held until 1948 as prisoner in forced labor. Lorenz apologized for not seeing the Nazi threat earlier and opposing it more. He described his service to the Nazis:

In autumn 1941 I was recruited into the German army as a medical man. I was lucky to find an appointment in the department of neurology and psychiatry of the hospital in Posen. Though I had never practised medicine, I knew enough about the anatomy of the nervous system and about psychiatry to fill my post. Again I was lucky in meeting with a good teacher, Dr. Herbert Weigel, one of the few psychiatrists of the time who took psychoanalysis seriously. I had the opportunity to get some first-hand knowledge about neurosis, particularly hysteria, and about psychosis, particularly schizophrenia.

In spring 1942 I was sent to the front near Witebsk and two months later taken prisoner by the Russians. At first I worked in a hospital in Chalturin where I was put in charge of a department with 600 beds, occupied almost exclusively by cases of so-called field polyneuritis, a form of general inflammation of nervous tissues caused by the combined effects of stress, overexertion, cold and lack of vitamins. Surprisingly, the Russian physicians did not know this syndrome and believed in the effects of diphteria – an illness which also causes a failing of all reflexes. When this hospital was broken up I became a camp doctor, first in Oritschi and later in a number of successive camps in Armenia. I became tolerably fluent in Russian and got quite friendly with some Russians, mostly doctors. I had the occasion to observe the striking parallels between the psychological effects of nazi and of marxist education. It was then that I began to realize the nature of indoctrination as such.

About a half-year from recruitment to capture by the Soviets. Was Lorenz a supporter of the dreadful policies prior to his military service? He didn’t oppose the government; neither did his work appear to support a claim that he was sympathetic with the Holocaust or any racial hatred. In his later years he was a campaigner against war and environmental damage — an early supporter of the Austrian Green Party.

Why the gratuitous and mostly incorrect swipe at Konrad Lorenz? Were it accurate, I suppose, it would bolster Campolo’s case. Nothing in Campolo’s case is accurate, however.

I hope our schoolchildren will be taught that it is up to science to study the processes that gave birth to the human race. But, as postmodern as it may be, I also want them to learn that whatever science discovers about our biological origins, there is, nevertheless, a mystical quality in human beings that makes each of us sacred and of infinite worth.

Regardless of how we got here, we should recognize that there is an infinite qualitative difference between the most highly developed ape and each and every human being. Darwin never recognized this disjuncture. And that is why his theories are dangerous.

The second to last paragraph rather accurately describes Darwin’s views. Modern scientists do not deny any mystical qualities, for the most part; the few who make the case that the mystical should be dismissed do so not on the basis of findings of science, but instead on the almost total lack of support for the opposite view. It’s not rational to argue that there is a supernatural without evidence, some like Richard Dawkins argue. They are in the minority by far, though they do not argue in error about what is in evidence (and therefore they hold to a higher morality than creationists tend to).

Darwin, for his part, fully recognized the noble qualities of humans. Where Darwin differs from Campolo is in Darwin’s understanding that other animals also demonstrate admirable qualities — so if Darwin didn’t recognize a “disjuncture,” it is because such a disjuncture is not evident in nature.

And there Campolo shows the great danger of this scurrilous case against Darwin. In science, Darwin found ample evidence to oppose racism. The evidence is much stronger today, with findings that all humans are one race, and that human variation is less among the 6 billion humans than among any of the other three species of chimpanzees. In dismissing Darwin, Campolo leaves the door open for the next crazy, racist hypothesis to take hold. Or the door is open to the next crazy, religiously-based sexist hypothesis. Or anti-intellectual hypothesis.

Darwin stuck to the facts. For that we should honor and follow him, for in the facts are the truth. Truth, Christians learn in John 8, brings freedom.

The danger of anti-Darwinism is that good Christians will be misled to eschew the truth, and to promote falsehoods. Campolo was so misled, and now misleads others. He needs to repent.

Tip of the old scrub brush to commenter Chris, at a post at Pharyngula, for alerting us to this travesty.

See also this discussion at Pharyngula.




6 Responses to Especially on his birthday, don’t call Darwin racist — he wasn’t

  1. […] Response to a preacher’s claim that Darwin was racist, and evolution is racist, also from the … […]


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Also, this:


  3. jsojourner says:

    Tony Campolo is a brilliant man with an earned doctorate in sociology. He certainly should know better. And I say that as one of his greatest admirers.

    I interviewed Tony several times back in my broadcasting days. In fact, his theological outlook played a major role in my decision to leave Evangelicalism for a more sacramental, ancient and socially just Christian tradition.

    I would suggest you send this on to Tony. I think it’s even possible you get a mea culpa, provided he actually sees what gets sent to him.

    He should have made it clear that Darwin was not racist.

    However, Tony continues to bear witness to the very palpable reality that social darwinism — the current tea party gospel — IS racist. And we need all the progressive Evangelical voices we can find. They are so very few in number.



  4. JamesK says:

    the criteria, poly, is your sides words and actions.

    Now is every Republican/conservative racist? Of course not.

    But sorry we’re not going to pretend that none of you are racist just because it hurts your little feelings.


  5. […] It is very likely, alas, that the criteria used by liberals which judge most of the GOP as racist, tar your hero such as well. […]


Please play nice in the Bathtub -- splash no soap in anyone's eyes. While your e-mail will not show with comments, note that it is our policy not to allow false e-mail addresses. Comments with non-working e-mail addresses may be deleted.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: