Who would you rather discover was right all along? The Christian reformers of the early nineteenth century, like William Wilberforce and the Earl of Shaftesbury, who argued from belief in divine creation that slaves should be set free and that children should not be forced to work themselves to death in the factories for having been born to the wrong parents? Or Charles Darwin, who argued from his belief in a godless beginning to the universe that natural selection was a virtue and that, consequently, acts of genocide were part and parcel of the way the world was always supposed to be?
Charles Darwin is a great British hero. That’s hardly surprising, since he was one of the greatest and most influential thinkers of the past two hundred years. I happened to live in the house opposite Charles Darwin’s former lodgings when I was a student at Cambridge University, so I looked out each morning on a blue plaque hailing him as one of the greatest Britons who ever lived. Now I’m not saying that he didn’t deserve that commemorative blue plaque on the wall, but I feel I have to point out that he wasn’t a British hero but a British villain. You don’t have to be a bible-thumping evangelical to question whether Charles Darwin’s thinking deserves to be given a bit more thought. Whatever your views on origins and evolution, we can hopefully all agree that, at present, we give far too much honour to the British thinker who justified genocide.
Darwin didn’t hide his view that his evolutionary thinking applied to human races as well as to animal species. The full title of his seminal book in 1859 was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. He followed this up more explicitly in his later book The Descent of Man by spelling out his racial theory:
The western nations of Europe … now so immeasurably surpass their former savage progenitors [that they] stand at the summit of civilisation … The civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace the savage races through the world. (Vol II, pp. 796-797)
Today, most British people are, thankfully, pretty embarrassed by the racist rhetoric which undergirded the late-Victorian British Empire. What is astonishing is how little they understand that Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution provided the doctrine behind its white supremacism. Whereas the British Empire of the early nineteenth century had been dominated by Christian reformers such as William Wilberforce who sold badges of black slaves which proclaimed, “Am I not a man and a brother?”, Charles Darwin’s writings converted an empire with a conscience into an empire with a scientific philosophy instead. Four years after Darwin published his Origin of Species, James Hunt turned it into a justification for slavery. He argued in his paper ‘On the Negro’s Place in Nature’, published in 1863, that “Our Bristol and Liverpool merchants, perhaps, helped to benefit the race when they transported some of them to America.” Christian reformers had spent decades in the first half of the nineteenth century teaching Britain to view non-European races as their equals before God. In a matter of years, Darwin not only swept God off the table but also swept the value of people of every race in God’s eyes off the table with him.