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Ruse's Spin on Darwin's Racism

[Editor's Note: Historian Richard Weikart is featured prominently in the just-released DVD, "What Hath Darwin Wrought?" exploring the painful history of Social Darwinism in Germany and America from the twentieth century to the present. To purchase a copy or find out more information about this documentary, visit www.whathathdarwinwrought.com.]

One of the biggest errors in Ruse's recent op-ed piece in Huffington Post is his claim about Darwin's racism. While admitting that Darwin upheld conventional Victorian racial views, Ruse still tries to distance Darwin from any connection to racial extermination. When discussing Darwin's Descent of Man Ruse claims, "Darwin was explicit that when the races met and (as so often was the case) the non-Europeans suffered, it came not from intellectual and social superiority but because non-Europeans caught the strangers' diseases and suffered and died." Yes, Darwin did claim that disease was an important cause of racial extermination when Europeans encountered other races. However, Ruse conveniently forgot that Darwin also mentioned (on the same page of Descent of Man) other causes of racial extinction: "war, slaughter, cannibalism, slavery, and absorption."

Though Darwin expressed these in the context of tribal competition rather than European colonization, in other places in Descent he makes clear that Europeans are intellectually and morally superior and that this led to their advantage in the racial struggle for existence. For instance, Darwin stated, "At the present day civilised nations are everywhere supplanting barbarous nations, excepting where the climate opposes a deadly barrier; and they succeed mainly, though not exclusively, through their arts, which are the products of the intellect. It is, therefore, highly probably that with mankind the intellectual faculties have been gradually perfected through natural selection." Darwin did not applaud racial extermination in Descent, but he clearly did think that Europeans were supplanting other races due to their superior intellectual and moral traits. Why is Ruse so unwilling to admit this? (stay tuned tomorrow for part 3 on "Darwin's Racism and Darwin's Sacred Cause")

Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State Univ., Stanislaus, a research fellow of Discovery Institute, and author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany and Hitler's Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress.