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How Racism Has Been Shaped by Evolutionary Ideas.
Racism has been perpetuated falsely by evolutionary ideas throughout history. Since the beginning of intelligent life mankind has discriminated against others of it’s own species. The “in group” mentality may be a genetic psychological trait. However, evolutionary theory has been used to justify unfair treatment of certain groups. Literature and other forms of influence have used evolutionary ideas to perpetuate racism. The ideas of Charles Darwin and other respected evolutionists have been misconstrued to serve the racist hate of many leaders, writers and clergy.
Given that species evolved over time. Darwin strove to deduce a means by which descent with modification might occur. He cleverly named his mechanism natural selection, because it was familiar to anyone acquainted with the breeding of domestic stock, dogs or horses, for this was the insight that showed Darwin how the whole mechanism of evolution might operate. Although nothing was known of modern genetics, DNA, or chromosomes, it was apparent to most that offspring often inherited the characteristics, physical and mental, of their parents. Darwin’s most convincing proof of his theory, to many readers, was the evidence of breeding practices that were put into use every day, with important consequences.
In summary, Darwin claimed that as some horses are selected by their owners for breeding because they are faster runners, and some cows for their higher yield of milk, so too do the different variations in physique or ability among a wild species sometimes enhance or damage the reproductive success of particular individuals. It was a commonplace in Darwin’s day that any good horseman looks for the best stallion to breed to his prize mare, hoping that their offspring will enjoy the best qualities of each. Advertisements for the services of particular stallions appeared regularly in newspapers in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, In fact, the benefit of selective breeding was so irrefutable, that English mares had been segregated from stallions except for planned breedings since the 1100s (Shipman, Pg. 21).
Darwin could see that his natural selection would fuel the process of adaptation to differing habitats by differential survival and reproduction-this group living in a more arid area than that one, or the one population coping with denser vegetation than the other. Adaptations would, of course, be manifested physically, in longer or shorter limbs, thicker of thinner fur, more pointed of blunter beaks, and so on, each set of traits typifying a different group according to it’s ecological niche.
If this were so, then the process of evolution occurred over vast amounts of time. If this were so, there ought to be intermediates, traditional forms, species caught in the act of evolving from one thing to another. Where was this ” infinitude of interconnecting links”? Darwin mulled over this stumbling block for a long time. Eventually he came to believe that most of these transitional species of populations would have been exterminated, because the linking populations would be by definition less well adapted than their adaptive neighbors, whose superior numbers and more suitable adaptations would overwhelm the intermediates, It was to be expected that the links would be missing, Darwin concluded contentedly. Once the intermediates or links were destroyed, what was left formed a diverse array of separate species, all sufficiently similar to be grouped into a single genus and each beautifully adapted to its habitat, Time and natural selection are the only two prerequisites.
Darwin never imagined that his idea would influence so many racist ideas. It was simply meant to explain how so many organisms came to be. He simply had a theory that hereditary modification was possible. However, the future held that several people would use his theory to perpetuate their hatred for others. People would use evolutionary theory to ease the guilt of enslavement and murder. Darwin did not intend this to happen. Perhaps, it was inevitable. In fact, Darwin stated that there is no living less evolved species. He wrote that any intermediaries would become extinct due to the better-adapted species winning resources. Therefore, only the best-adapted species have survived and currently inhabit the earth.
The first of several examples is the African. Imported as slaves, treated as property to be bought and sold, denied citizenship rights, and considered less than human for much of American history, most African Americans have not been able to enjoy the benefits that come with living in the United States. The legacy of two hundred years of slavery, thirty years of post Civil War oppression, and another century of systematic discrimination in housing, employment, education, and virtually every social sphere persists. Even as many of the old forms of discrimination have been dismantled since the 1960s, discrimination remains a part of the African American experience.
Being black poses a problem in a white world. Blacks are perceived as an opposite color than whites. Skin color is, in the biological sense, a minor genetic trait, but in the sociological sense it is anything but minor. Identifiability makes people easy targets of discrimination; Most members of white ethnic groups look like the dominant population. Black people cannot shed their color. However, assimilation has occurred since the Africans were pressed into slavery, resulting in generations of individuals with various degrees of dark skin pigmentation.
Negative beliefs about African Americans in the early days of slavery had portrayed them as “uncivilized heathens”, “bestial”, “sexually aggressive”, and as suffering ” the curse of god” who made them black (Jordon 81-90). Slavery was considered a positive good because it protected Africans from their “savage instincts”. The following is an excerpt from a speech given by John C. Calhoun given to the U.S. Senate in 1837:
“I hold it [slavery] to be a good, as it has thus far proved itself to be, and will continue to prove so if not disturbed by the fell spirit of abolition. I appeal to facts. Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.”
During this period the “Black Sambo” stereotype evolved, which portrayed the African as childlike, helpless, shuffling, and fumbling, yet aggressive (Jordon, 83). Even after slavery was abolished, Africans were thought of as inferior because they had not excelled financially like their white ethnic counterparts. Treatment of African Americans has historically been based on the belief that black people are biologically inferior and should be segregated.
Consider this quote by Henry Fairfield Osborne, a prominent American anthropologist and director of The American Museum of Natural History written circa 1926:
“The Negroid stock is even more ancient than the Caucasian and Mongolian, as may be proved by an examination not only of the brain, of the hair, of the body characters, such as teeth, the genitalia, the sense organs, but the instincts, the intelligence. The standard of intelligence of the average adult Negro is similar to that of the eleven-year-old youth of the species Homo Sapiens.”
Between the world wars, from 1914-1941, evolutionary theory and results on intelligence tests were interpreted to confirm as scientific fact the inferiority of Africans.During this time a test that supposedly measured intelligence was gaining popularity. The test was known as the Stanford-Binet test. It was believed that high scores were correlated with intelligence, success, and morality while low scores with criminality and pauperism. The testing of all children, military personnel and Africans became strongly urged. The idea was that the tests would place each individual in tasks and responsibilities that were commensurate with their ability (Shipman, 128). However, these tests were culturally biased toward literate, English speaking whites. This reinforced the prevailing belief that segregation was necessary to keep blacks from diluting the superior white biological stock.
Evolution was used by some to oppress in the name of the survival of the fittest. The strongest survive. Therefore any group that has an advantage over another has the right to oppress or exterminate the weaker group. This removes the weak genes from the gene pool, making the species stronger as a whole. As far as these racist evolutionists are concerned, it is perfectly acceptable for whites to dominate blacks, Ariens to dominate Jews, Serbs to dominate Albanians ETC. One of the most ironic happenings in the story of racism is that Adolph Hitler’s extermination of one million Jews aided American repulsion of racism.
The genocide of Jews in Nazi Germany may have been perpetuated by evolutionary theory as well. Friedrich Nietzsche adapted Darwin’s ideas and promoted a “superman” or “super-race” philosophy. He took the idea of natural selection further, suggesting that warfare, eugenics, and the merciless extinction of inferior races was appropriate.
Another German of influence was the great evolutionary biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919). Haeckel is known for his “Ontogeny recapitulates Phylogeny” (the embryo re-traces evolution) contribution to the field of evolution, a theory which is now discredited but still lingers on. Haeckel became one of Germany’s major ideologists for racism, nationalism, and imperialism. The ideas of racial supremacy and the survival of the fittest race reached its zenith with the National Socialist party of Nazi Germany. The legacy of Haeckel and Nietzsche turned many German scientists into racist evolutionists. Adolph Hitler himself was an evolutionist. His book “Mein Kampf” (My Struggle) has a strong theme of the necessity of struggle, a struggle between the races. Hitler likened Jews to parasites. Which if left alone would kill its host, The Nordic race. Throughout Mein Kampf Adolph Hitler uses evolutionary theory to perpetuate hatred for Jews. In volume 1, Chapter 6 of Mein Kampf he writes about the superiority of the Aryan race. Hitler portrays races as a hierarchy, encouraging that no Aryan capitulate with a lesser race. The consequence would be offspring inferior to that of the Aryan but still superior to the race of the lesser parent. Such mating is contrary to nature’s intentions of higher breeding of all life.
Others in Nazi Germany were evolutionists as well. The notorious head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Himmler stated that the law of nature must take its course in the survival of the fittest. This statement was surely influenced by the writings of Philosopher Herbert Spencer.
A school of thought led by Spencer, an influential contemporary of Darwin’s, held that some people were naturally superior to others, and that the perfection of the species required that the inferior ones bite the dust, leaving the future of humanity to their betters. This theory merged conveniently with aspects of nineteenth-century capitalism to justify economic policies sacrificing social welfare in favor of rampant capitalism and the rich getting richer. Traces of that thinking persist in one form or another to this day. To Spencer, Evolution was not only a theory of species, but also one that applied every aspect of reality. Spencer argued that everything went through a progressive development. Everything from the solar system to animal species and human society were the end result of evolutionary progress. Human products, such as art, science, industry, and language, also evolved, going from the lower, homogeneous stages to ever increasing differentiation. Simplicity and uniformity give way to heterogeneity and “individuation.” This was an inevitable and good process that functioned best when left largely undisturbed, Spencer believed, so he advocated an extreme form of laissez-faire government. Some might suffer along the way-indeed, it was inevitable that they would suffer-but the outcome was for the greater social good, the overall improvement of mankind and society.
It was a view of life reminiscent of the Protestant perspective of previous generations. Worldly success had been accepted as evidence of goodness or divine approval. Now that a scientific rather than a religious standard was to be met, worldly success was obviously an indicator of Darwinian fitness and genetic superiority. The poor and the working classes, which lived in poverty and misery, suffered because they were made of inferior genetics. Their struggles were simply the manifestation of nature’s plan, of natural selection, and to interfere was to doom the society, the race, or even the species as a whole. Society and the economy would be led by those most fit to lead, those who had been selected over long generations of superior performance, and it was absurd to contemplate any rapid of profound changes. The ideal meshed neatly with the long-standing practice of judging a new acquaintance by inquiring after his or her family; if you knew someone’s “people,” it was believed, you knew what tendencies and personality traits that individual was likely to have inherited.
Of course Spencer’s ideas certainly must have evolved from those of Malthus and the mathematical certainties of overpopulation followed by mass death, If the unfit, lower classes persisted in breeding, they would reap the inevitable consequences of their imprudence. He actually believed that the poor probably deserved to starve, but allowed that a minimum of charity so benefited the character of the donors that it would probably do no lasting harm. (Shipman, PG. 108)
Prior to the genocide of German Jews and the enslavement of African Americans, American Indians were being discriminated against under the assumption that they were less evolved wild animals. Many Europeans disregarded them as animals without souls. Thus, making it acceptable to displace, enslave, and even kill them. If they were animals, why should they be treated any different than oxen? European whites believed that it was the will of god that their superior race, made in god’s image, should seize and occupy the land in America. The scientific attack on the Indian as inferior and expendable, which thrived from 1830 to 1850, gave many Americans the authoritative backing they needed for long assumed beliefs (Horsman 190). Frontiersmen were as pleased to accept the scientific condemnation of the American Indians as slave owners were to accept scientific attacks on the blacks. The dominant scientific position by the 1840s was that the American Indians were doomed because of innate inferiority, that they were succumbing to a superior race, and that this was for the good of America and the world. The extermination of American Indians was viewed as acceptable because it followed the widespread intellectual view that the replacement of an inferior race by a superior one was fulfillment of the laws of science and nature.
Consider this story about Indigenous Americans and the voyage of The Beagle.
The history of Jemmy Button and his compatriots Fuegia Basket, York Minster, and Boat Memory exemplifies the nineteenth-century Englishman’s view of the humanness (of lack thereof) of different races. Jemmy Button and the others were members of the Yahgan or the Alacaluf, two hunting and gathering tribes that eked precarious livings out of the marine coast of Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of South America. Encountered on a voyage of the Beagle previous to Darwin’s, these four Indians were removed from their families and homes and transported to England by Captain FitzRoy. FitzRoy had initially seized the two adult men, York Minster and Boat Memory, as hostages after numerous episodes of thievery and assault. Fuegia Basket, About nine Years old, had been apparently abandoned by her parents, and Jemmy Button, a youth, came aboard voluntarily out of curiosity. FitzRoy soon decided to take them back to England as curiosities, a course of action unthinkable if they were sentient humans like himself.
FitzRoy’s hope was that, once these Indians spoke English and had seen the wonders of the civilized world, their return to their native environment might spark a lively and profitable trade, His high handed kidnapping was neither unique nor shocking. One of the four Indians died of smallpox and the others learned only rudimentary English. Three years after their departure, Jemmy, Fuegia, and York returned to Tierra del Fuego on the Beagle with Darwin; Richard Matthews accompanied them. Horrified by the savagery of the people, among whom he found himself, he feared for his life and begged to be taken aboard again.
His perception of danger probably right, Some twenty years later, in November of 1859, Jemmy and several hundred Yahgans brutally massacred a group of English missionaries during a hymn service. The assault followed months of classic, cross-cultural misunderstandings and conflicts, The event was half a world away in terms of behavior. When the tale of this dreadful carnage in South America reached the ears of a shocked and Victorian England, the moral was clear. Darwin might say that humans had evolved, but here was proof positive that such primitive creatures as Jemmy were barely human at all. (Shipman, PG. 25)
Racism is a deep-rooted evil. For centuries racial inferiority has been professed by scientists, Written into law by politicians, and worst of all, race inferiority has been taught in schools. Racism has been taught in public schools as well as at the university level. It was professed by Yale Professor, William Graham Sumner, that people were biologically, and more important morally unequal. Natural selection must be left to take its course, he maintained, and he felt a deep animosity for the social meddlers who were always trying to help the unfit. Poverty was simply the natural result of innate inferiority and a lack of thrift, industry, honesty, and sobriety. To alleviate it was to encourage bad behavior, to foster the spread of undesirable traits in the population, and to burden unfairly those who had succeeded through hard work. The only justifiable role for government was to defend the property of men and the honor of women. Natural selection might be harsh, Sumner believed, but it was just, He once quipped that the only alternative to survival of the fittest was survival of the unfit(Shipman 110).
Evolution, like any other scientific theory, is simply an attempt to explain observed natural phenomena. People who do use the Theory of Evolution to support their own political agendas are simply trying to add a stamp of authority to their offensive prejudices. Basically, racists will latch onto anything if it appears to support their views. You find racist Christians using the Bible to “prove” that blacks are inferior to whites (e.g. God cursed the children of Ham and turned their skin black, therefore all blacks are cursed by God), or trying to use evolution to scientifically “prove” the same thing (e.g. God created the white “race” in His image, but blacks evolved from monkeys). Their ideas cannot stand up on their own, so they must try to find some well-known respectable ideas that appear to back them up. There is not really such a thing as “race”. We are all members of one species. The genetic differences between, Nelson Mandela, Louis Farrakhan and
Bill Clinton are insignificant. Go back up your family tree a few dozen generations and you are probably related to most people in your town. Back a few hundred and you’re related to most people in your country. Back a few thousand and you are a cousin of everyone on your continent. Goback far enough and it’s easy to see that every human on the planet is related. Blacks, whites, browns, yellows and reds did not all evolve separately. We are all descended from common ancestors. Keep going. Back several thousand more generations and you’re related to all the mammals on the planet, from rats to whales. Back more and you are a cousin of all vertebrates. The theory of evolution tells us how things work, not how we should treat each other. People who try to use religion or science to discriminate against others do so simply because, on their own, their beliefs can not stand up to any scrutiny.
Accepting the theory of evolution does not mean that you have to start killing people of a different color, homosexuals, the physically or mentally disabled or people who disagree with your beliefs. Accepting the theory of evolution is simply a case of understanding the world as it really is.
The theory of evolution should encourage people to have more respect for each other. Someone is not inferior to you because they have a different skin color or slightly different facial characteristics. You are directly, if distantly, related to them. All this stuff that people come out with, like “Well, I’m not a racist, but it’s a known fact that blacks have smaller brains.” is simply nonsense. It’s a fact that blacks have darker skin than whites.
Shipman, Pat. The Evolution of Racism: Human Differences and the Use and Abuse of Science. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.
Jordon, Winthrop D. White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968.
Spencer, Herbert. The Data Of Ethics. New York: P.F. Collier and Son.
Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.
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