Welcome to Superoceras, a blog about science and natural history, slightly biased towards paleontology and zoology, but inclusive of all sciences. Started in October of 2009, my goal is to communicate scientific knowledge (and the occasional piece of nonsense) in an informative and entertaining manner. Feel free to contact me with questions, comments, concerns, or criticism at superoceras(at)gmail(dot)com, and follow me on Twitter @Superoceras for all that and more in 140 characters or less!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Don't mess with Darwin.

I'm not going to sugar coat things - my life is pretty much filled to capacity at the moment. But if there's one thing you can bet I'll stop everything for, it's defending the honor of my good friend, Charles Darwin. I happened across this article from, which includes (at the bottom) a "top ten" list of the most ridiculous and offensive things said in the year 2010 by a rather well know, conservative political pundit. This one in particular caught my eye.

"Charles Darwin is the father of the Holocaust."
- Glenn Beck, 20 August 2010 -

Come on, really? You're going to hate on Darwin? You're probably basing your misguided opinion on the following quote, which you clearly only read parts of.

"Although the existing races of man differ in many respects, as in color, hair, shape of skull, proportions of the body, etc., yet, if their whole structure be taken into consideration, they are found to resemble each other closely in a multitude of points. Many of these are of so unimportant, or of so singular a nature that it is extremely improbable that they should have been independently acquired by aboriginally distinct species or races. The same remark holds good with equal or greater force with respect to the numerous points of mental similarity between the most distinct races of man.”

- Charles Darwin, from “Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex”, 1871 -

It's time to settle this, once and for all. While many have tried to interpret the writings of Charles Darwin as racist or misogynistic, I think that you have to look past what was common language of the time to see what Darwin was really saying about the features of existing "races".

I think it becomes clear when reading the whole quote, that the idea of “race” was common to naturalists, biologists, and anthropologists in the 19th century. They thought it was perfectly acceptable to set apart Europeans, Africans, and Native Americas based upon “color, hair, shape of skull, proportions of the body, etc.”, and to use a system of hierarchy to establish which of those “races” was above or below the other on the “ladder”. But similar to his views on evolution from “On the Origin of Species”, Darwin believed that there was no “Ladder of Life”, but rather, a branching “Tree of Life” that showed all organisms, and in this case all “races” shared a common ancestry based on their “whole structure” and “multitude of points” of similarity that Darwin insisted in his writing had to “be taken into consideration”. He stresses the improbability that these similarities in physical and mental state arose in multiple independent lineages, and that it is much more likely that the similarities come from common ancestry, meaning that all “races” of people are equally human, regardless of their differences.

While I think it is unfortunate that the term “race” (which we now know to be biologically meaningless) was so heavily used by Darwin and his contemporaries, it is the only word that they had at the time to describe the differences they saw in the various peoples of the world. I think a more appropriate word would be “ethnicity”, but at the time of the publication of “Descent of Man”, “race” was the popular term. That doesn’t mean that Darwin was a racist, but rather, a man of science, searching for a way to make sense of the natural world based on observations that he made.

That term aside, I think he did a phenomenal job. And he was certainly not a racist. You still don't believe me? Perhaps you'll find PZ Myers of Pharyngula a more reliable source of information on the subject. But either way, keep that in mind the next time you want to pick on Charles Darwin. Thomas Henry Huxley might no longer be on the scene, but I'll gladly take his place as "Darwin's Bulldog".


  1. Well put, and incredibly well written. Man I hate Glenn Beck.

  2. Thanks, Nathaniel. I really can't stand it when people make these baseless accusations about a man who was as humble and brilliant as they come without any understanding of who he actually was as a person, or the things he actually said.