Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln had more in common than their date of birth. Lincoln is hailed in this bicentenary year as the greatest American president, while Darwin is proclaimed in celebration events to be the greatest biologist ever and some say even the greatest scientist. Just as his proof of evolution displaced the religious conception of divine creation, so the abolition of slavery reshaped the American constitution and embedded belief in human equality across racial differences. Darwin passionately opposed slavery from his early years and closely followed Lincoln’s leadership of the Civil War. Lincoln believed in evolution and, like Darwin, had no religious convictions.
They shared another significant belief that is scarcely noted in the celebration events: they did not believe in racial equality. Instead they believed that humankind is structured in a hierarchy with Caucasians at the peak and “primitives” at the bottom.
When I mention this to colleagues, I encounter a shocked reaction. Surely opponents of slavery must believe in human equality?! Their logic is ironclad today, but it wasn’t always so. Consider the Declaration of Independence. “All men are created equal” and enjoy the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. If so, slavery is contrary to the most basic rights. Yet the principal author of these words, Thomas Jefferson, was a slaver-owner, as were 16 other Declaration signatories.
The US Constitution explicitly recognised slavery. “All men” was implicitly understood to mean “white men”. Not only were blacks and Amerindians excluded, so were women. In most states they had not the right to vote and were substantially constrained in marital rights, property ownership, and business activity.
Opposition to slavery prior to the Civil War was not synonymous with belief in equality. It was compatible with laws discouraging free blacks from settling in a particular state. Illinois was one such state and Lincoln supported that legislation.
It was also compatible with very explicit statements that races are not equal. Lincoln made many such statements. Let’s hear one, made in 1858: “I am not, nor ever have been, in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favour of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.”
One scheme to resolve the problem was to return blacks to Africa or to settle them in the Caribbean. This too Lincoln supported. He was the first president to conference with blacks in the White House, but the discussion was about promoting the return of blacks to Africa! As Commander-in-Chief, he could have integrated blacks into the army. Instead, they were organised into separate units, under a white commander. This arrangement was not phased out until after World War II. Civilian racial discrimination abided a bit longer, and continues in some respects even today.
Darwin’s anti-slavery feelings were consistent with his family heritage. His grandfather, Erasmus, was a member of the progressive Lunar Society and he promoted evolution, including our primate origin. The young man’s sense of human kinship was tested on the voyage of the Beagle by bringing him into contact with peoples whose way of life was completely different from civilised life. In his later years he recalled “the astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore … for the reflection at once rushed into my mind - such were our ancestors. These men were absolutely naked and bedaubed with paint…”
He carefully observed them, and talked with them, hoping to identify the factors that caused the difference. Was it true, as some argued, that we are not one species, but three, or five, or ten, descended from different origins? This possibility came vividly to his attention when he witnessed the destruction of natives who obstructed the establishment of cattle stations in Argentina. It was no contest: they were slaughtered at the will of Spanish settlers. The shock of that carnage didn’t displace his belief in the unity of the human species. But its lesson is incorporated into his theory of evolution, which postulates a “war of nature” in which the fittest survive while the weak perish.
What this means for us is implied by the subtitle of his great book: “The Preservation of the Favoured Races in the Struggle for Existence.” Which races are favoured, and which are destined for extinction?
Darwin was clear about this in numerous statements extending over four decades. Let’s hear a few. Not long after his Argentina visit, he wrote in his notebook, “When two races of men meet, they act precisely like two species of animals. They fight, eat each other, bring diseases to each other etc., but then comes the most deadly struggle, namely which have the best fitted organisation, or instincts (i.e., intellect in man) to gain the day.”
Three decades later he declared: “The more civilised so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world in no more distant date, what an endless number of lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilised races throughout the world”.