A complicated legacy: Reassessing Darwin‘s views on race and gender 150 years after the ‘The Descent of Man’

Credit: Philosophy Talk
Credit: Philosophy Talk

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”. 

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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. 

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