Charles Darwin on the Races of Man

Making Sense of Biology

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution, Theodosius Dobzhansky. (1973). The American Biology Teacher, 35(3), 125-129.


Charles Darwin on the Races of  Man

In 2001, I testified before the Louisiana House of Representatives to deflect a motion sponsored by State Representative Sharon Westin Broome.  This motion declared that Charles Darwin was himself a racist and the father of all modern scientific racist ideology. House Concurrent Resolution (HCR) 74 stated that “the writings of Charles Darwin…promoted the justification of racism” And urged public schools in Louisiana to address “the weaknesses of Darwinian racism.” Elsewhere, the resolution asserted “Adolf Hitler and others have exploited the racist views of Darwin and those he influenced.” According to newspaper accounts, Broome linked Darwinism to the Ku Klux Klan and the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. On May 1st, the Louisiana House Education Committee passed HCR 74 by a 9-5 vote.  

Broome’s ties to Louisiana special creationist interests suggested that this resolution was designed to be an assault on the teaching of evolution, not a truly anti-racist resolution. It went to the full House on May 8, 2001.  My testimony and that of other scientists led to the house rejecting the notion that Darwin was responsible for the birth of scientific racism. The motion passed as a general condemnation of racism, but with no mention of Darwin1.   

Creationists have attempted to distort and misrepresent Charles Darwin and evolutionary biology in every way that they possibly can.  Therefore, it is entirely appropriate on the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, to set the record straight on what Charles Darwin actually believed concerning human biological variation and the origin of the human species.  First we must recognize that Darwin’s descent with modification vies for one of the most important scientific discoveries of the last millennium.

Arguably only the Copernican/Galilean revolution had more impact on human thought concerning ourselves and our place in the universe.  In the Emperor’s New Clothes (2001), I argued that all previously existing notions about the meaning and significance of human biological variation could not have been correct2.  This is because those ideas were not rooted in a mechanism that could correctly explain how and why humans displayed different physical features.  However Charles Darwin was not simply motivated by the scientific questions surrounding the origin of species when he wrote about and discussed human beings.  Contrary to the claims of creationists, Darwin’s motivation for getting the science of human variation  correct was his life-long opposition to slavery and racism3.

Darwin’s Anti-Slavery Heritage

Charles’ paternal grandfather was the liberal polymath Erasmus Darwin.  Erasmus’s progressive views were responsible for the word “lunatic” entering the English language – from his Lunar Society.  His maternal grandfather was Josiah Wedgewood who was himself an anti-slavery crusader.  Josiah was a confidant of William Wilberforce, a supporter of the former slave Olaudah Equiano, and a major financier of  anti-slavery crusader Reverend Thomas Clarkson (these three individuals are prominently featured in the recent film on Wilberforce entitled: Amazing Grace).  Josiah was responsible for the design of the Anti-Slavery Medal cast in 1787.  He used a considerable amount of his own money to distribute it.  Charles older sisters and Wedgewood aunts were also strong abolitionists, who directly connected to the international and American abolitionist movements.

Charles first significant encounter with a person of African descent was with John Edmonstone.  He learned to prepare bird specimens from lessons he received from Edmonstone in Edinburgh (Feb. – Apr. 1826). Edmonstone had traveled through the South American rain forest with noted celebrity Charles Waterston. Desmond and Moore argue that this experience was pivotal in changing Charles’ view on non-Europeans as well as predisposing him to accept the opportunity to travel the world aboard HMS Beagle.  Unlike many Europeans, Charles observed the brutality of chattel slavery directly while on the voyage of HMS Beagle (1831 – 1836.)  His condemnations of slavery and specifically his run-ins with the pro-slavery Tory, Captain FitzRoy are important themes in his Voyages of the Beagle first published in 1839.

The species question and the races of man

By 1836 Darwin was convinced that the transmutation of species had occurred.  Many of the questions he formulated while aboard the Beagle and later in his transmutation notebooks addressed questions about how this transmutation explained human varieties.  He knew that these ideas were heretical and that they place him in violent opposition to his mentors.  The prevailing view was that species were fixed special creations revealing God’s divine plan.  For example, in 1735 Carolus Linnaeus had described four sub-species of humans at the same time that he introduced binomial classification system for all organisms.  His four sub-species of humans were: Homo sapiens americanus, the Amerindians; Homo sapiens europaeus, Europeans; Homo sapiens asiaticus, Asians; and Homo sapiens afer, Africans. His explanation of how or why these groups were different was creationist.  His classification relied on morphological and behavioral features.  He found that Europeans were gentle, optimistic and inventive, while Asians were stiff and greedy.  Africans were cruel and cunning.  Linnaeus never traveled the world to make observations of these groups of humans and relied on the travel literature of his day to draw his conclusions. Yet his classification scheme was clearly hierarchical with Europeans representing the apex of humanity and Africans the abyss.

In contrast to Linnaeus the minor evolutionists of 18th century France, such as Jean Baptiste Lamarck’s were transformationists.  They believed that God had imbued all species with an intrinsic drive to improve.  Thus species and racial lineages (15 human racial lineages) were therefore distinct, going back to protozoa.  Their mechanism for the improvement of species was the inheritance of acquired characteristics.  Jean Baptiste Bory de Saint Vincent felt that today’s chimpanzees would be tomorrow’s humans, thus the two species did not share a common ancestor.  In the same way, human races did not share common ancestry and had arrived on different pinnacles of development at different rates.

In England, Platonic thinking contributed to the core of Paley’s Natural theology.  To Plato (429 – 347 B.C.E) all things were mere shadows of perfect eternal ideas.  Thus any variation observed in nature was an illusion, and all living things were fixed in their eternal characteristics.  Thus Platonic ideas were consistent with Christian creationist thinking about the origin of human beings and their races.  At this time the dominant theological position was still Monogenism.  In this scheme there had been one act of creation (one Adam & Eve.) Therefore any observable racial differences had to be due to the influence of environment or degeneration from the perfection of creation.  This view was articulated fully and the features of human races fully described in James Cowles Prichard’s  Researches Into the Physical History of Mankind, 1826. Prichard was fiercely anti-slavery and he finished this work at just about the time Britain was outlawing the slave trade.  Darwin read Prichard while he was at Cambridge4.  The monogenist view was still dominant going into the 3rd decade of the 19th century, as shown in table 1 below.  Naturalists of this period were unsure about how much of human variation was inherited and how much was environmentally influenced, but they were in general agreement that the races of mankind belonged to one human species.

Table 1: Selected 18th Century Naturalists on the Racial Traits of the Negroes (Relative to Europeans)


Name Country/Year Traits Relative Heritable? Environment? Separate Species?
Francois Bernier France1684 General Neutral ? ? No
Gottfried Wilhelm Von Leibniz Germany1690 General Neutral No Yes No
Henry Home, Lord Kames United Kingdom1774 Skin color, hair, lips, smell Inferior Yes No No
Johann Friedrich Blumenbach Germany1775 Skin color, hair, lips, smell Neutral, no objective ranking Yes Yes No
Samuel Thomas Summering Germany1784 General Not always inferior Yes No No
Petrus Camper Netherlands1786 Skull angle Inferior Yes No No
Georges Buffon France1789 Skin color, intellect Inferior Yes No No
Christopher Meiners Germany1790 General Inferior Yes No No


From pg. 39, Graves 2005.

Yet, at the same time, polygenism, the notion that the races of human were separate and distinct species was beginning to gain more attention.  The inferior races some theologians argued were descended from the Pre-Adamite races.  This view was favored by those in opposition with traditional religion, especially hoping to claim the scientific high ground, against the monogenists.  More importantly for the spread of polygenism, it was entirely consistent with the political aspirations of the pro-slavery forces across the world.

By the mid-1850’s as Darwin began to realize that his descent modification idea required the common descent of all existing humans, he realized that he would be coming into direct opposition with leading naturalists who might have significant impacts on the acceptance of his entire theory.  Most prominent amongst these was Louis Agassiz, the Swiss born naturalist and Harvard professor.  Agassiz had developed his adherence to the theory of polygeny in the mid-1840’s when he immigrated to America and came into contact with African American slaves.  Agassiz was so offended from his experience with these slaves that he concluded that it was impossible that these individuals could be members of the same species as Europeans.  This view would draw him into the circle of the American polygenists.  These were specifically, Samuel Morton, Professor of Anatomy, Pennsylvania Medical College, Josiah Nott, a Southern gentleman and physician, and  George R. Gliddon, the United States Counsel, Cairo.  Morton was the chief experimentalist supporting the theory of polygeny, especially through his measurements on human skulls (Crania Americana 1839 and Crania Aegyptica 1844).  Nott and Gliddon popularized polygeny via craniometry, indeed Nott was renowned throughout the slave holding south for his lectures on “niggerology.”

Agassiz supported polygeny through his theory that all animals and plants existed in zones of creation.  Agassiz was a catastrophist who thought that the fossil record of the earth was best explained by great catastrophes that destroyed all life and that life was replaced by a new creation.  This view allowed for the notion of separate “Adams” who had been created in specific regions of the world with divinely designed adaptations that made life there possible.  Thus he opposed slavery arguing that it took Africans away from tropical zones.  Josiah Nott further argued that because Africans could not adapt to North America, that slavery was a benign institution.  He cited dating claiming that the survival of slaves was actually higher than that of free blacks in the north.  This argument was prominently displayed in Nott and Gliddon’s Types of Mankind, published in 1854.  In 1856 Josiah Nott and Henry Hortze (another Swiss racialist) translated The Moral and Intellectual Diversity of Races, by Count de Gobineau into English.  This work claimed that all of human civilization could be understood by its racial characters.  Great European nations rose due to their racial purity, others could never rise because of their racial deficiency.  Gobineau claimed that Africa had never produced a great civilization.  Later Hortze would be a paid Confederate agent inside of the Anthropological Society of London, an organization that broke away from the Ethnological Society of London (of which Darwin was a member.)  It was clear that by the mid-19th century, in conjunction with the rise of the political power of the slave holders that polygeny had become the dominant view of naturalists who studied race.

Table 2: Selected 19th Century Naturalists on the Racial Traits of the Negroes (Relative to Europeans)


Name Country/Year Traits Relative Heritable? Environment? Separate Species?
CharlesWhite United Kingdom1799 Skulls, sex organs, sexuality Inferior Yes No Yes
Samuel Stanhope Smith United States1810 Skin Color, general Inferior No Yes No
James Prichard United Kingdom1813 Skin color, civilization Inferior Yes Yes No
Sir William Lawrence United Kingdom1823 General, civilization Inferior Yes No Yes
GeorgesCuvier France1831 General Inferior Yes No Yes
Samuel Morton United States1849 Skull volume Inferior Yes No Yes
LouisAgassiz United States1850 Skin color, smell, intellect Inferior Yes No Yes
John Bachman United States1855 Fertility of the hybrids Equal Yes No No
Josiah Nott United States1857 General Inferior Yes No Yes
George Gliddon United Kingdom1857 General Inferior Yes No Yes
Paul Broca France1862 Skeletalfeatures Inferior Yes No Yes

 From pg. 44, Graves 2005.

 Darwin’s anti-slavery connections

 Throughout the 1850’s as Darwin was compiling the final evidence and arguments for the Origin, the crisis in the United States over slavery deepened.  Harriet Martineau was a feminist, abolitionist, who was also the lover and confidant of Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s older brother.)  She was a friend to the anti-slavery senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner.  In response to Dred Scott decision Martineau wrote: “…the whole course of American politics is determined by the slavery question5.”  Martineau wrote anti-slavery articles for the Edinburgh Review, which was widely read by English Whigs (including the Darwin and Wedgewood families.)  Charles views against slavery were so well known such that in 1858 he was approached by his colleague and friend W.R. Greg to write an anti-slavery piece for the Review, but refused due to his commitment to finishing the Origin6.

 Why no humans in the Origin?

 The elephant in the living room in the Origin of Species was its absence of discussion of human evolution.  Specifically Darwin felt that his theory would make the realization of shared common human ancestry unavoidable.  He wrote to Alfred Russell Wallace:

 I think I shall avoid [the] whole subject’, as it was too ‘surrounded  with prejudices’ even if humans do pose ‘the highest & most interesting problem for the naturalist7.’

 However, his chapter on hybrids was partially directed at the polygenist claims of Nott and Gliddon, but not explicitly so.  In the conclusion he states that:

 “In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches.  Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation.  Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history8.

 Despite Darwin’s careful avoidance of the topic, many of the post publication reviews of the Origin focused on its meaning for humans.  In addition the events of the American civil war had stimulated an Anglo-Saxonist backlash in England  including the birth of the Anthropological Society of London9.  Specifically in 1865 the actions of Governor Eyre against free blacks in Jamaica, which included a massacre of over 439 people, 600 floggings, and 1000 homes burned influenced Darwin to finally openly publish his views concerning human races.  This situation was made even more emotionally challenging for him due to a dispute with his own son William over Eyre.

 Another reason that Darwin now felt that he could address human evolution was that he had discovered a mechanism which he felt accounted for the observed differences, that is sexual selection.   By 1871, Darwin had completed his work devoted to human evolution entitled: The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex10.  Chapter VII of this work, On the Races of Man, was specifically directed at polygenism, as understood in the United States as well as within the ASL.  Throughout it Darwin emphasized that the likenesses of all humans in physical and behavioral categories were far greater than their differences.  He explains that utilizing the criteria that naturalists apply to other species, one could doubt whether human races were real. In this he means that naturalists have not applied any consistent criteria by which one could classify human races.  This is the racial multiplication problem, and he showed that at his time naturalists named between 2 – 63 races.  In my work I have pointed out that even in modern genetic approaches to race, this problem remains11.  In this chapter he called human races, protean or polymorphic.  He further argued that most of the physical differences noticed by naturalists could not have any significance, if so they would have been removed by natural selection. 

One of the means by which creationist attempt to link Darwin to the genocides of the 20th century appears in this chapter.  Darwin rationalized the “extinction of less civilized races” within the context of natural selection.  In this model, Darwin felt that based on Malthusian competition that the technology of more civilized races might have an advantage when then came into contact with less civilized races.  His reasoning for this was based on his own observations of what was happening to indigenous populations, such as the Australian aborigines as displaced Englishmen began to take over Australia.  However, he did not believe that natural selection always favored the “more civilized races.”  He also observed that in climates where disease resistance was important, migrants from the more civilized races might not fare better than the indigenous populations who maintained resistance to disease in that climate.  What must be recognized here is that Darwin did not claim that these actions were morally justified, but simply the result of competition.

Did Darwin get the mechanism of racial variation correct?

The Descent of Man outlines how sexual selection could account for the protean or polymorphic features of modern humans.  Sexual selection involves the traits that males and females of a species utilize to determine whom is a suitable mate. At this time, Darwin saw sexual selection mainly as resulting from male choice (and this is a clear legacy of his Victorian upbringing.)  Darwin showed that within a group of related species, NS tended to explain the features the group shares in common, while SS tends to explain those traits the group differ in.  He extended this reasoning to human racial features.  While he was generally correct about the existence of sexual selection in nature, he was not correct on is application to human geographically based biological variation.

This error resulted from the fact that no one in this time period understood the relationship between heredity and natural selection.  Ironically, Mendel’s seminal paper explaining the basic rules of genetics was published in 1866, but due to the fact in was in the German language its significance was not appreciated until well into the 20th century.  Thus the Neo-Darwinian synthesis isn’t accomplished until the middle of the 20th century.  This theory is necessary to understand the distribution of human genetic variability.

For example, Darwin wrote in the Descent:

“Of all the differences between the races of man, colour of skin is the most conspicuous and one of the best marked…Differences of this kind …could be accounted for by long exposure under different climates…this view has been rejected chiefly because the distribution of the variously colored races…does not coincide with corresponding differences in climate12.”

Darwin’s mistake here resides in his yet being completely free from Lamarckian notions of inheritance.  At this time it was thought by many that if climate (solar intensity) was responsible for skin color, that Europeans living in the tropics would change their skin color.  Or conversely, Africans living in the northern climates would lose their pigmentation.  Since the time of Bernier, naturalists concerned with skin color had pointed out that this had not occurred.  Thus because Darwin didn’t have the tools of Mendelian genetics, he saw this fact as more important than it actually was. 

Natural selection easily explains the differences in skin color that we see in populations associated with solar intensity.  For example, we can show that there is a continuous change in allele 1 at the Vitamin D binding locus going from populations that inhibit the tropics to the arctic (r = 0.78; p < 0.0001.)  Vitamin D synthesis is impacted by solar intensity and skin color.  Another trait that Darwin was concerned with that is also clearly influenced by natural selection is disease resistance.  For example, high frequencies of the sickle cell anemia allele are associated with high prevalence of malaria.  However, so that no one is confused about this, neither of these traits are “racial.”  Genes that control skin color are not consistently linked to others that influence aspects of physical appearance, such as those that determine skull shape or body proportions. Thus physical variation does not define races because different portions of the genome are  selected by different factors in any given environment. For example, solar intensity may change consistently along an N – S gradient, this may impact some genetic systems, but not others. Meanwhile, other portions of the genome may be impacted by the presence of a specific parasitic disease, different diets, different rain fall, or altitude.  However, what is clear is that Darwin did not understand that natural selection was the major factor determining human geographically based genetic variation, not sexual selection.

Was Charles Darwin the Father of Scientific Racism?

In the Emperor’s New Clothes (2005) I outlined the development of subsequent scientific/social movements that claimed the imprimatur of Darwin.  For example, the Eugenics movement was pioneered by Sir Francis Galton (Charles Darwin’s first cousin.)  Social Darwinism was the development of Herbert Spencer (a man Darwin felt was an intellectual mediocrity and bore.)  Clearly, Darwin held some views in common with these individuals, but on balance, Darwin was a social progressive (as measured by the standards of the 19th century.)  He made errors of theory and fact, not errors that were the result of deep fallacies in moral and ethical reasoning.

Indeed, I further argued that without Darwin, a proper understanding of human biological variation is impossible.  This understanding is essential to survival of the human species in the modern world. Yet, like all scientific theories, evolutionary biology can be applied for evil or good. However this is not the fault of Charles Darwin.  Scientific racism was alive and well in European derived society from the 17th century forward.  In this time period, Darwin was one of the voices of reason opposing the exploitation and enslavement of his fellow human beings.  One of his least known quotations comes from the Voyages of HMS Beagle, when in commenting on the treatment of slaves in South America he stated:

“If the misery of our poor be not caused by nature, but by our social institutions…then great is our sin.”

Notes and References

1. Meikle, E., Louisiana HCR 74 Amended and Adopted, National Center for Science Education,

2. Graves, J.L., The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press), 2005.

3. Desmond, A. and Moore, J, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.

4. Ibid, pg. 54.

5. Harriet Martineau’s letters xxiii 143, 156-7.

6. Desmond and Moore 2009, pg. 301.

7. Correspondence of Charles Darwin 6: 515, 527. On Darwin and Wallace’s differing collecting techniques: Fagan, ‘Wallace’.

8. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859, pg.  488.

9. Desmond, A. and Moore, J, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, Norton, 1991.

10.  Darwin, C., The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, Princeton University Press, 1981, original date of publication 1871.

11.  Graves, J.L., The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America, Dutton Books, 2005.

12.  Darwin, C., The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex; pg. 241.

Joseph Graves

About Joseph Graves

Dr. Joseph Graves, Jr. received his Ph.D. in Environmental, Evolutionary and Systematic Biology from Wayne State University in 1988. In 1994 he was elected a Fellow of the Council of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS.) In April 2002, he received the ASU-West award for Scholarly Research and Creative Activity. His research concerns the evolutionary genetics of postponed aging and biological concepts of race in humans, with over sixty papers and book chapters published, and had appeared in six documentary films and numerous television interviews on these general topics. He has been a Principal Investigator on grants from the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and the Arizona Disease Research Commission. His books on the biology of race are entitled: The Emperor's New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium, Rutgers University Press, 2001, 2005 and The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America, Dutton Press, 2004, 2005. A summary of Dr. Graves’s research career can be found on Wikipedia, and he is also featured in the ABC-CLIO volume on Outstanding African American scientists. In November 2007, he was featured in the CNN Anderson Cooper 360 program on Dr. James Watson. He has served as a member of the external advisory board for the National Human Genome Center at Howard University. In January 2006, he became a member of the “New Genetics and the African Slave Trade” working group of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute of Harvard University, chaired by professors Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Hammonds. He is currently serving on the Senior Advisory Board for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) at Duke University. He has been an active participant in the struggle to protect and improve the teaching of science, particularly evolutionary biology in the public schools. In 2007, he became a member of the inaugural editorial board of Evolution: Education and Outreach, published by Springer-Verlag. He has been a leader in addressing the under representation of minorities in science careers, having directed successful programs in California and Arizona. He currently serves as a member of the board of the Guilford Education Alliance. From 2005 – 2009, he has been a leading force in aiding underserved youth in Greensboro via the YMCA chess program.
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5 Responses to Charles Darwin on the Races of Man

  1. LJM says:

    Thanks for this article, it was very enlightening.

    You mentioned Herbert Spencer, and I remembered reading this essay about him and Social Darwinism and how, contrary to his reputation, Spencer, in fact, supported aid for the less fortunate, along with trade unions. He was also an early feminist and an anti-imperialist. He was, ultimately, a compassionate individualist.

    Thanks again for the article.

  2. Dear Olaf, Reading On the Races of Man, without knowing the context in which Darwin wrote it would be very confusing for HS students. I also recommend that they read parts of my:
    Graves, J.L., The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press), 2005. Thanks for your comments.

  3. Olaf Kirsten says:

    Very interesting argument. I just had my HS seniors read Darwin’s essay “On the Races of Man” as a preface to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. We had a lively discussion about whether Darwin is a racist based on his evolutionary beliefs. It was interesting that some students felt that just by using the term “negro” and pointing out physical, linguistic, and behavioral difference he was expressing racist beliefs. It is interesting, however, that he does point towards Europeans’ intellectual superiority. We’ll also read Achebe’s “An Image of Africa” in which he argues that Conrad imperialistic image of Africa is inherently racist. Thanks for the piece. I think I’ll have my students read your blog.

  4. Dear Rosemarie, Thanks for the kind comments. I was beginning to wonder if anyone ever read my blogs!

  5. Rosemarie Sokol Chang Rosemarie Sokol Chang says:

    Great post Joseph! So often as a psychologist I encounter, from lay people, students, AND other scientists, the view that factors we consider psychological cannot be tested – that there is a strong element of opinion in anything pertaining to psychological factors. You’ve shown here a way to scientifically back up the assertion that Darwin was not racist, nor the generator of scientific racism (history). But as a psychologist, I really appreciate your distinction between “racial traits” and traits that are found in a group of people but not connected genetically to aspects determining skin color or other “racial” features. Sickle cell anemia is a geographic association, not a racial. Really changes the way you think about differences between groups – and how we frame theories behind individual differences.

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