How should we address Charles Darwin's complicated legacy?

The Descent of Man, 150 years old this month, is a work of humanist brilliance – yet its errors, particularly on sex, now make for uncomfortable reading

“Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” That sentence is the sole reference to human evolution in Charles Darwin’s masterwork On the Origin of Species, which in 1859 set down the theory that explains how life on Earth has evolved. Darwin had entirely excluded humans from his scheme. That tease comes in the final chapter, almost like a post-credit scene in a superhero movie, as if to simply say: “To be continued…”

The sequel did come, in the form of The Descent of Man, published in February 1871. All of Darwin’s canon is worth reading (though the one about worms and vegetable mould is perhaps a bit niche), but The Descent of Man is my favourite, because it is the one where he holds humans up to the light. Darwin was a great writer, and the prose is typically grand:

With all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system – with all these exalted powers – Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”

This passage contains the central idea of the book: that we are nature’s most paradoxical creation. We are animals, but we are special. We are part of evolution, but look how far we have come. We are, to borrow from Hamlet’s own introspection, the paragon of animals.

Darwin covers a lot of ground in the two volumes of The Descent of Man, including a detailed and lengthy examination of the role of courtship and sex in evolution, whereby males and females enact complex strategies to maximise their reproductive success and pass on their genes, mostly via competitive males and choosy females.

He explores the commonality, in bones and embryonic development, of humans and other animals, and this and other strands of evidence draw us towards what is now an unequivocal truth: that we are animals, evolved from earlier animals, and sit alongside all life on Earth as creatures begotten not created. He tells us that only prejudice and arrogance could lead us to conclude something else, and warns us that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” – a phrase that could be a mantra for the 21st century.

And then there is the question of race. Are populations of humans all the same species, or are we different? This was a central question for more than a century preceding Darwin’s work. The conflict pitted the monogenists against polygenists, the former arguing that all humans are the same species, the latter asserting that different races have different origins. Voltaire, that champion of reason and Enlightenment thinking, was also an ardent racist, and thought that black people were a different species. The debates around race were all part of the marshalling of science into the political ideology of empire, with the invention of taxonomies that were not merely classification, but hierarchical. Every time, without fail, white Europeans were deemed superior to all others. Dozens of men had a go at accounting for the races, everyone from Linnaeus to Kant, mostly from their salons without a shred of field work. Darwin gently ribs them, pointing out that the range of races was anything between one and 63, depending on who’s counting.

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin… ‘right about some of the most important ideas anyone ever had, and wrong about others’. Photograph: English Heritage/PA

Instead, he concludes, with typically voluminous evidence, that all races are indeed one species, and that proposed boundaries of physical or behavioural characteristics that separated the races were false, and the differences we see are graduated between different populations. He argues against racial essentialism – the idea that racial characteristics are fixed in populations. Just as with Darwin’s theory of evolution, these ideas have been fleshed out and fully validated by modern genetics. Physical differences are real between populations with different ancestries, but they are fluid and continuous, and the terms of race as we use them today are by social consensus rather than via some underlying biology.

Darwin was a liberal, and an abolitionist, perhaps influenced by his taxidermy tutor in Edinburgh, a Guyanese man called John Edmonstone who had once been enslaved. But we must be honest in our assessment of him and his work. He was a man of his time, and The Descent of Man contains many passages that seriously jar today, being scientifically specious and politically outmoded. Darwin never mentions Edmonstone by name, only as a “full-blooded negro with whom I happened once to be intimate”. He speaks of how the “civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races”.

In the more elegant quotations, you may note the typically Victorian use of “man” to mean all humans. It is less forgivable given Darwin’s belief that women were intellectually inferior: “If men are capable of a decided pre-eminence over women in many subjects, the average of mental power in man must be above that of woman.” At least part of his incomparable legacy is that we now know this to be incorrect.

We live in febrile times, in which historical giants are subject to reassessment, and in some cases, removal from the public sphere – so-called “cancelling”. Darwin offers praise to his half-cousin, Francis Galton, in The Descent of Man, and Galton’s ideas about intellect permeate Darwin’s thinking. In 2020, Galton, a scientific genius and committed racist and eugenicist, had his name removed from a lecture theatre and professorships at UCL, which is most closely associated with his work on eugenics.

No one sensible is calling for the cancelling of Darwin, though that does not mean that he and his work are exempt from historical reassessment. His descriptions of differences between the sexes and various human populations are well documented and studied, and some of it now makes for uncomfortable reading. He was right about some of the most important ideas anyone ever had, and wrong about others. Unlike the work of Galton, his ideas did not generate policy implications, which, at least in Galton’s case, were enacted around the world for much of the 20th century with genocidal consequences. These distinctions require discussion, scholarship, context and nuance, and above all, they should be intellectually honest.

Who knows what we will be scalded for in 150 years’ time. This is the process of history. Modern debates framed along the spurious lines that we cannot change history, and therefore should cast our statues in aspic, fail to understand that history, by definition, is always changing. It is the past, not history, that is fixed, and the job of historians is to constantly reassess it with new discoveries and new analysis in our current culture.

This is ultimately why The Descent of Man is my favourite Darwin book, because even the greatest of us are merely people – complex and flawed. It is a deeply humanist book. Darwin casts aside the idea that “savage races” are distinct from the civilised, while using language that bears the indelible stamp of imperial dominance. Yet at the same time, he sees that humankind’s strength lies in cooperation, liberalism and kindness:

“As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.

These are words to live by in any era.

How to Argue With a Racist by Adam Rutherford is published by Orion (£8.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

• This article was amended on 15 February 2021. An earlier version referred incorrectly to “gender”, rather than sex, in the subheading.

Contributor

Adam Rutherford

The GuardianTramp

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