The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 52): Charles Darwin and The Descent of Man–Yes, Racism and Eugenics are Really Bad

If my previous two posts about Charles Darwin has come across as a validation of Darwin’s theory of evolution, it should, at least partly. The point I wanted to make was that one must make a clear distinction between the biological/scientific theory of evolution and the philosophical/naturalistic worldview of Social Darwinism. The two are not the same. Failure to make this distinction has led to 150 years of unnecessary conflict.

To be clear, Origin of Species puts forth the biological/scientific theory of evolution, and that theory rises and falls on the weight of the natural, scientific evidence. And since it is a scientific theory, both the Christian and the atheist (and anyone in between) can analyze, debate, doubt, and be convinced of the entire theory, or parts of it, for it is a theory that is limited to the natural world, and has absolutely nothing to say regarding the existence of God or the dignity of man.

Darwin’s Other Book
But in 1871, twelve years after Origin of Species, Darwin wrote another book, The Descent of Man—and that book is, so to speak, quite a different animal. It is a book in which Charles Darwin contemplates the possible impact his scientific theory may have on understanding the society mankind, and this immediately brings philosophical issues into the mix. Benjamin Wiker cites The Descent of Man as one of the top ten books that has screwed up the world. And after reading Wiker’s take on The Descent of Man, I just might have to agree.

My reason is simple: The Descent of Man essentially starts with the assumption that human beings are not only biologically no different than the animal kingdom, but ultimately, they are no different ontologically either. Therefore, any concept of human beings being uniquely made in the image of God goes out the door, and human beings are assumed to be “just animals.” Wiker puts it this way: “The deep-down nastiness of the Descent is eugenic: the idea that the ‘survival of the fittest’ should be applied to human beings” (Ten Books that Screwed up the World 88).

Now it is true: if there is no God, and if the laws of nature are the only things guiding a natural, evolutionary process, and if human beings are inherently no different than anything else in the natural world, are ontologically no different than apes, and thus have no special dignity and are not created in God’s image (which would go without saying if one already didn’t believe in God)—if all that were true, then yes, “survival of the fittest” should be applied to human beings, because that would mean human beings are natural, biological organisms…nothing more.

But as I’ve mentioned in the earlier posts, it must be stated again clearly: Darwin’s theory of evolution is completely impotent when it comes to answers those larger, metaphysical questions, just as, let’s say, a technical manual explaining the construction and inner workings of a computer—however technologically fascinating it may be—it still completely unable to tell you anything about the person who first designed and built the computer, or what the internet is, or what “the cloud” is, or who Bill Gates first kissed, or what is love anyway? …you get the picture.

Or to put it another way: biological descriptions do not determine ontological significance. Those who attempt to do so are using science to do something it cannot do; they are, in actuality, hijacking science to push a particular philosophical agenda. It was The Descent of Man that essentially gave the eugenicists of the early 20th century license to (in the name of “science”) commit some of the worst atrocities in the history of mankind.

Communists, Nazis, Shaw, and Sanger…Descent, Indeed
The problem with The Descent of Man, and the subsequent problem that we see surface in the first half of the 20th century, is its dabbling in the philosophical worldview of Eugenics—a movement that (a) began with the philosophical presupposition that human beings are just more highly-evolved animals that contain no God-given, inherent dignity or worth, and then (b) rushed to the frightening conclusion that human beings can and should be “bred” in the same manner as one would breed dogs. It was the worldview of Margaret Sanger, George Bernard Shaw, the Nazis, and a host of other progressive (and outright racist) thinkers in the first half of the 20th century. Make no mistake, the philosophical worldview that underpinned the Eugenics movement was completely inhumane, anti-Christian, and evil. It was a philosophical worldview that manipulated Darwin’s scientific theory of evolution to suit and legitimize its own goals.

But Darwin did write Descent of Man, did he not? Was he not a eugenicist? Well, he certainly contemplated the possible ramifications of his biological theory. Perhaps the most infamous quotation from his book is this one:

“With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health…. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox.

“Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one has attended to the breeding of domestic animals and will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.  It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”

Now, that certainly sounds like Darwin is berating human beings for showing compassion to the weak and wanting of the human race. In Expelled, the 2009 “Intelligent Design” movie starring Ben Stein, Stein reads this very quote—the point the movie is making is quite clear: it is claiming that the theory of evolution itself is inherently racist and eugenic. But, like I’ve said before, we cannot conflate the scientific theory with the philosophical worldview some might try to attach to it.

Darwin’s Clarification
In any case, we must allow Darwin to speak for himself. Yes, as the first part of his argument goes, it does seem odd that human beings, unlike other species, do in fact care for the “least of these” within the human species. Let’s face it, that is true: when one looks in the biological world or animal kingdom, one does not see animals, plants, or any other organisms take care of and look after the weaker members of its species. At this point, Darwin is not saying anything that anyone would disagree with: in the natural world, human compassion is clearly unique. The question thus becomes, “Where does human compassion for the ‘least of these’ come from?” Darwin continues:

“The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. Hence, we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely the weaker and inferior members of society not marrying so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased, though this is more to be hoped for than expected.”

Not surprisingly, Darwin chalks up human compassion to the evolutionary development of social instincts. As a Christian, I obviously think that not only is he wrong at that point, but that when he makes this point, he stands on the edge of the philosophical abyss. For to reduce compassion to simply an evolved instinct is to obliterate the uniqueness of human beings; and opens the philosophical door to a worldview that says human beings are nothing more than animals. And once you step across that threshold, all talk of morality and right and wrong go out the door, for that means everything about human beings–even morality itself–is reduced to mere natural processes.

As the quote shows, Darwin actually dangles his toe over that threshold, so to speak, by suggesting that it would be a good thing to prevent “the weak” from marrying and propagating (which is a eugenic tenet to the core). But even then, he quickly draws back and says, “…we can’t expect this happening.” Nevertheless, though, it was Descent of Man, and not Origin of Species, that opened the door to the dark movement of eugenics. Even if Darwin proved himself too timid to even really open the door, he did open it a crack, and it would be thrust open in the next century. The 20th century would witness the most cruel and inhumane societal actions known to man, be it eugenics, the Nazi program, or Communism.

An example of how “creation science” sees evolution: as the root of every evil in modern society, including Racism, Nazism, Euthanasia, and Communism.

Tomorrow, I will have one more post related to Darwin that will attempt to tease out the tension and challenge that people still wrestle with today regarding the relationship between the scientific theory of evolution and the potential societal implications it has on a philosophical level. The fact is, Darwin’s theory did have tremendous philosophical and societal implications that people are still debating today. Hopefully tomorrow’s post will shed some light on this very challenge.


  1. I note that despite opening the door to having human compassion dismissed as base instinct, Darwin nevertheless affirms it as the noblest part of our nature, and clearly thinks that ridding ourselves of it, even if only towards certain individuals, would be disasterously injurious to our species.

    1. Yes, I agree. But the philosophical problem is that if you reduce it to being ultimately just a result of natural processes, then however noble you say it is, it still is just a part of natural world. To use the earlier Greek categories, you’re still trying to place ultimate meaning in a “particular” and not a “universal.” Or simply put, if human compassion is ultimately just a natural phenomenon, then it is just another part of the process of evolution, and then “survival of the fittest” applies.

  2. The horrors of the 20th century should teach us that atheism, not evolution is the idea that leads to pure evil. An evolutionary idea that includes Imago Dei for humans, is consistent with moral goodness. Atheism has no underlying principles to avoid genocide. So perhaps one conclusion from you analysis is that it is the combination of evolutionism (applied to humans) and atheism that is the most dangerous force in the world.

    1. Yes, that is my point. The problem isn’t with the actual scientific theory of evolution. The problem is with philosophical materialism (i.e. atheism) wrongly appealing to evolution as a justification for whatever political or social agenda they may choose. In the early 20th century, it was eugenics, Nazism, and Communism. It is the philosophical claim that human beings are nothing more than animals that is the problem, not the description of the biological connections and similarities human beings have with the natural world.

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