The Impending Cancellation of Charles Darwin

Based on the criteria that have been used to cancel other deceased luminaries, there is no reason to believe that Darwin is immune from cancellation

Noah Carl
12 min readJul 7, 2020

[Updated: 9th September, 2020.]

Recent weeks have witnessed the defenestration not only of Confederate generals, slave-traders, colonialists, Founding Fathers and Union generals, but of many academic luminaries too. The following scientists and philosophers have all been subjected to actual or attempted defenestrations: Sir Francis Galton, Sir Ronald Fisher, Karl Pearson, Clarence Cook Little, Carl Vogt, Edward Drinker Cope, J. Marion Sims, H. C. Yarrow, Carl Linnaeus and David Hume.

In a recent op-ed, I argued that even Charles Darwin might not be safe, given that his writings “contain ample statements that would put him far beyond the pale of what is now considered acceptable.” Here I want to expand on this argument. More specifically, I want to show that—based on the criteria that have been invoked to cancel other deceased luminaries—there is no reason to believe that Darwin is immune from cancellation. By this I mean that there may soon be an attempt to remove a monument to Darwin, or to rename something that is named after him.

Reviewing the attempts that have been made to cancel other deceased luminaries, there are two areas of Darwin’s writings that could be considered particularly “problematic”. The first concerns what he said about race, and the second concerns what he said about eugenics. (Darwin also made controversial remarks about differences between the sexes, as I noted in my op-ed. But I will not discuss those here.)

First, race. In June of this year, residents of Geneva submitted a motion to the municipality’s Grand Council to rename a street named after Carl Vogt. According to a write-up in the journal Science, Vogt was a “a vocal advocate of irreconcilable differences in cranial capacity between Black and white people, claiming in his Lectures on Man that Black people were closer anatomically to apes than humans.” And according to a news report, the following quote has been cited as evidence against Vogt: “The adult negro holds, with regard to his intellectual faculties, on the one hand the child, and on the other hand the woman and the white old man”.

Also in June, some members of the Entomological Society of America (ESA) started a petition calling for the society’s annual Linnaean Games, named after Carl Linneaus, to be renamed. In an accompanying article, the petitioners argue that:

Linnaeus was instrumental to the development of the concept of human races that arose during the Enlightenment as a product of European colonialism […] He was one of the first to classify humans into ostensibly biological categories, following the schema he developed for other animals and plants in Systema naturae (Linnaeus 1735). While Linnaeus defined these categories based on geographic regions, he attributed stereotypical physical traits, most notably skin color, as well as value-laden social traits to each group. Linnaeus characterized the white Homo sapiens europaeus as wise, lawful, and gentle, while dehumanizing Indigenous (red Homo sapiens americanus), African (black Homo sapiens afer), and Asian (yellow Homo sapiens asiaticus) people with degrading descriptors like “obstinate”, “haughty”, “covetous”, “crafty”, “indolent”, “lazy”, “lusty”, and “careless” (Linnaeus 1758).

At the beginning of July, some students at the University of Edinburgh started a petition calling for the David Hume Tower to be renamed. The petitioners contend that “David Hume wrote racist epithets not worth repeating here.” And during a recent protest, a placard was placed on top of the statue of David Hume on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. The placard stated: “I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites”, which is a (slightly edited) quote from Hume. The quote is taken from his essay Of National Characters, and is given in full below:

I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation; no ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present TARTARS, have still something eminent about them in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity, tho’ low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In JAMAICA indeed they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ’tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.

I will now contrast the above quotations with some of the things Darwin said about race in his book The Descent of Man. On p. 64 of Chapter 2, he writes:

The taste for the beautiful, at least as far as female beauty is concerned, is not of a special nature in the human mind; for it differs widely in the different races of man, as will hereafter be shewn, and is not quite the same even in the different nations of the same race. Judging from the hideous ornaments and the equally hideous music admired by most savages, it might be urged that their æsthetic faculty was not so highly developed as in certain animals, for instance, in birds. Obviously no animal would be capable of admiring such scenes as the heavens at night, a beautiful landscape, or refined music; but such high tastes, depending as they do on culture and complex associations, are not enjoyed by barbarians or by uneducated persons.

On pp. 94–95 of Chapter 3, he writes:

Most savages are utterly indifferent to the sufferings of strangers, or even delight in witnessing them. It is well known that the women and children of the North-American Indians aided in torturing their enemies. Some savages take a horrid pleasure in cruelty to animals, and humanity with them is an unknown virtue. Nevertheless, feelings of sympathy and kindness are common, especially during sickness, between the members of the same tribe, and are sometimes extended beyond the limits of the tribe. Mungo Park’s touching account of the kindness of the negro women of the interior to him is well known. Many instances could be given of the noble fidelity of savages towards each other, but not to strangers; common experience justifies the maxim of the Spaniard, “Never, never trust an Indian.”

On p. 96 of Chapter 3, he writes:

The other self-regarding virtues, which do not obviously, though they may really, affect the welfare of the tribe, have never been esteemed by savages, though now highly appreciated by civilised nations. The greatest intemperance with savages is no reproach. Their utter licentiousness, not to mention unnatural crimes, is something astounding.

On p. 97 of Chapter 3, he writes:

This conclusion agrees well with the belief that the so-called moral sense is aboriginally derived from the social instincts, for both relate at first exclusively to the community. The chief causes of the low morality of savages, as judged by our standard, are, firstly, the confinement of sympathy to the same tribe. Secondly, insufficient powers of reasoning, so that the bearing of many virtues, especially of the self-regarding virtues, on the general welfare of the tribe is not recognised. Savages, for instance, fail to trace the multiplied evils consequent on a want of temperance, chastity, &c. And, thirdly, weak power of self-command; for this power has not been strengthened through long-continued, perhaps inherited, habit, instruction and religion.

On pp. 145–146 of Chapter 4, he writes:

The belief that there exists in man some close relation between the size of the brain and the development of the intellectual faculties is supported by the comparison of the skulls of savage and civilised races, of ancient and modern people, and by the analogy of the whole vertebrate series. Dr. J. Barnard Davis has proved by many careful measurements, that the mean internal capacity of the skull in Europeans is 92·3 cubic inches; in Americans 87·5; in Asiatics 87·1; and in Australians only 81·9 inches.

On p. 201 of Chapter 6, he writes:

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.

On p. 216 of Chapter 7, he writes:

There is, however, no doubt that the various races, when carefully compared and measured, differ much from each other, — as in the texture of the hair, the relative proportions of all parts of the body, the capacity of the lungs, the form and capacity of the skull, and even in the convolutions of the brain. But it would be an endless task to specify the numerous points of structural difference. The races differ also in constitution, in acclimatisation, and in liability to certain diseases. Their mental characteristics are likewise very distinct; chiefly as it would appear in their emotional, but partly in their intellectual, faculties.

On p. 238 of Chapter 7, he writes:

When civilised nations come into contact with barbarians the struggle is short, except where a deadly climate gives its aid to the native race. Of the causes which lead to the victory of civilised nations, some are plain and some very obscure. We can see that the cultivation of the land will be fatal in many ways to savages, for they cannot, or will not, change their habits. New diseases and vices are highly destructive; and it appears that in every nation a new disease causes much death, until those who are most susceptible to its destructive influence are gradually weeded out; and so it may be with the evil effects from spirituous liquors, as well as with the unconquerably strong taste for them shewn by so many savages.

Darwin said similar things about race in his correspondence with other scholars. In an 1859 letter to Charles Lyell, he writes:

I suppose that you do not doubt that the intellectual powers are as important for the welfare of each being, as corporeal structure: if so, I can see no difficulty in the most intellectual individuals of a species being continually selected; & the intellect of the new species thus improved, aided probably by effects of inherited mental exercise. I look at this process as now going on with the races of man; the less intellectual races being exterminated.

In an 1862 letter to Charles Kingsley, he writes:

It is very true what you say about the higher races of men, when high enough, replacing & clearing off the lower races. In 500 years how the Anglo-saxon race will have spread & exterminated whole nations; & in consequence how much the Human race, viewed as a unit, will have risen in rank.

In an 1881 letter to William Graham, he writes:

Lastly I could show fight on natural selection having done and doing more for the progress of civilisation than you seem inclined to admit. Remember what risks the nations of Europe ran, not so many centuries ago of being overwhelmed by the Turks, and how ridiculous such an idea now is. The more civilised so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilised races throughout the world.

These quotes from Darwin are not obviously less “problematic” than the ones cited cited as evidence against Vogt, Linnaeus and Hume. Given that Linnaeus and Hume are of comparable significance to Darwin, and that Vogt is still quite significant (albeit less so than the others), there would appear to be a prima facie case against honouring Darwin.

Next, eugenics. Based on their support for eugenics, Galton, Fisher, Pearson and Little have all been successfully defenestrated in the past few months. (A professorship and a lecture theatre named after Galton have been “de-named”. A lectureship named after Fisher has been renamed, and a window commemorating him is due to be removed. A building named after Pearson has been “de-named”. And a building named after Little has been renamed.)

As I noted in my op-ed, Darwin’s “views on eugenics are not entirely clear (the term was coined one year after Darwin died), but it is obvious from his remarks in The Descent of Man that he believed industrial society could have dysgenic effects.” What’s more, in the final chapter of that book he openly advocates normative eugenic practices, while quoting his half-cousin Francis Galton approvingly.

On p. 168 of Chapter 5, he writes:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

However, he does also say on pp. 168–169 of Chapter 5:

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature […] Hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely the weaker and inferior members of society not marrying so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased, though this is more to be hoped for than expected, by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage.

On p. 177 of Chapter 5, he writes:

If the various checks specified in the two last paragraphs, and perhaps others as yet unknown, do not prevent the reckless, the vicious and otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better class of men, the nation will retrograde, as has occurred too often in the history of the world. We must remember that progress is no invariable rule. It is most difficult to say why one civilised nation rises, becomes more powerful, and spreads more widely, than another; or why the same nation progresses more at one time than at another. We can only say that it depends on an increase in the actual number of the population, on the number of the men endowed with high intellectual and moral faculties, as well as on their standard of excellence.

And on p. 403 of Chapter 21, he writes:

Both sexes ought to refrain from marriage if in any marked degree inferior in body or mind; but such hopes are Utopian and will never be even partially realised until the laws of inheritance are thoroughly known. All do good service who aid towards this end. When the principles of breeding and of inheritance are better understood, we shall not hear ignorant members of our legislature rejecting with scorn a plan for ascertaining by an easy method whether or not consanguineous marriages are injurious to man […] as Mr. Galton has remarked, if the prudent avoid marriage, whilst the reckless marry, the inferior members will tend to supplant the better members of society. Man, like every other animal, has no doubt advanced to his present high condition through a struggle for existence consequent on his rapid multiplication; and if he is to advance still higher he must remain subject to a severe struggle […] There should be open competition for all men; and the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding best and rearing the largest number of offspring.

In summary, if there is a case against honouring deceased luminaries such as Galton, Fisher, Linnaeus and Hume because of their views on race and/or eugenics, then there is a case against honouring Darwin as well. I myself am in favour of honouring all these luminaries, and the point of this blog post is to illustrate that—if you are in favour of honouring Darwin—you should oppose the defenestration of other impugned scientists and philosophers.