Saturday, July 02, 2005


Fact Check: Answers in Genesis

Here's an oldie but a goodie.

Q: What’s wrong with the word “races”?

A: At the time of Thomas Jefferson, 200 years ago, when people used the term “races,” they’d think of the Irish race or English race and so on. But Charles Darwin changed all that when he published his book The Origin of the Species. The title actually included the words “the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.”

Darwin was a racist. He believed that different groups of people evolved at different times, and so some societies were more like apes than others. Sadly, this fueled racist attitudes toward different people groups.

Because of this, the word “races” today still conjures up evolutionary ideas. Many people think of Darwinian evolution when they hear that word.

Hard to know where to start.

First, the title of the book is On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life

You may read the book at the URL referenced above.

Second, the book is about natural selection, not human evolution. So AIG is misrepresenting the content of the book. This is a common misrepresentation. Darwin later wrote Descent of Man, which discussed human evolution. As to the evolution of different groups of people at different times, and some groups of people being closer to apes, read the book. I don't find this concept, implied or otherwise.

You will also find that Darwin's attitudes toward the Irish and the Scots are more negative than his attitude towards people of color -- this does not exactly track to modern standards of racism, in which Irish and Scots are considered "white". The accusation that Darwin was a racist involves a projection of our own societal standards on a past culture. I should mention that Darwin was an abolitionist, he came from a stauchly abolitionist family at a time when many people still defended slavery. He had remarkably open attitudes toward people of color for the time. He was much more concerned with urbanization and poverty than with race. Read Descent and his other writings and form your own opinion. Don't take Ken Ham's word on it.

That said, whether or not he was a racist is completely irrelevant to whether or not he was correct, just as Konrad Lorenz's association with the Nazi party did not make his research on imprinting wrong.

No discussion of evolution and racism is complete without discussion of pre-Darwinian
racial ideas, and take particular notice of the succession of slave laws that established racial hereditary slavery. Additionally, here's a nice discussion of polygenesis. There were some rabidly racist promoters of creationist theories of polygenesis, one the most notable of whom was Louis Agassiz. Ron Numbers' book The Creationists also details racist attitudes on the part of anti-evolutionists. And, I should not have to mention, but some people are unaware of the Curse of Ham. (This is passing out of use, I think, but I have had a personal exposure to it: a few years back I had a gentleman in his seventies comment that this Biblical story might explain why Africans can't govern themselves.)

Here's the short story.

Racist attitudes are complex. They derive from a myriad of factors and life experiences, and there is nothing to stop a creationist from being a racist or anti-racist, nor an evolutionist from being a racist or anti-racist. That is an opinion that is formed in childhood, long before a person even begins to get exposure to science. It is therefore an illegitimate critique of evolution, or any other scientific theory for that matter. It is furthermore manipulative, misleading, unethical, and immoral to critique evolution in this manner.

If anything, a knowledge of evolution and the genetic background of humans provides a scientific basis that enhances the moral critique of racism: There is more genetic diversity within a given "race" than between them, and we are all decended from common ancestors in Africa. Given that information it is foolish and wrong to maintain that there are immutable distinguishing differences between the "races". Once we can begin to understand race as a cultural and historical phenomenum, rather than a biological one, we can begin to talk about how to change these cultural views and move toward an anti-racist community.

Ian White Miner is doing excellent work in this regard with the Race Museum. Ian spoke at the UUA General Assembly and also brought a moving exhibit that provides an opportunity to re-think racial ideas. Right now, there is just a page on the website, however, if you get a chance to hear him speak: do so. If you have a chance to see the exhibit: do so. At some point, there should be more content, so bookmark the page and check back from time to time. Another resource, the
White Privilege Conference.

Let's take racism seriously. Let's not use it as a stick to beat others with.
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