Was Darwin a racist?

The short answer

Darwin probably was a racist, but

  1. Racism was not unusual for Darwin’s time (when nearly everyone was a creationist).
  2. His views on race were actually somewhat progressive for his time, as demonstrated by his opposition to slavery.
  3. It is not as though creationism makes people less racist.

The longer answer

I. Racism was par for the course in Darwin’s time

As far as I can tell, Darwin was indeed somewhat racist. However, this hardly differentiates Darwin from mainstream society in Victorian England, which was thoroughly racist despite being comprised almost entirely of Christian creationists.

Since racism already found such support from creationism, it could not have been belief in evolution that made Darwin a racist, nor could it have been racism that made Darwin propose his theory of evolution by natural selection. Therefore, it is difficult to understand what devastating point against the truth of evolution creationists are trying to make when they accuse Darwin of racism.

Then again, creationists often indulge in character assassination in lieu of logic and evidence. Sometimes this has outright laughable results, as when Bergman (2005) takes Darwin’s enthusiasm for hunting to indicate an “almost pathological drive to kill,” and his meticulous sporting ledger to reveal “an obsession similar to a murderer who notches his gun after each killing.”

But I digress.

Returning to the specific charge of racism, one certainly regrets that Darwin did not stand above Victorian culture in all respects, but one can hardly blame him for absorbing the popular prejudices of the time, much less blame those popular prejudices on the idea of evolution.

II. Darwin was somewhat progressive for his time in being anti-slavery

Darwin’s racism had limits that were not to be found in others, as shown by an incident he recounts between him and that creationist gentleman, Captain FitzRoy of the Beagle:

We had several quarrels; for when out of temper he was utterly unreasonable. For instance, early in the voyage at Bahia in Brazil he defended and praised slavery, which I abominated, and told me that he had just visited a slave-owner, who had called up many of his slaves and asked them whether they were happy, and whether they wished to be free, and all answered “No.” I then asked him, perhaps with a sneer, whether he thought that the answers of slaves in the presence of their master was worth anything. This made him excessively angry, and he said that as I doubted his word, we could not live any longer together. (Darwin 1876: 73-74)

FitzRoy later apologized (for losing his temper, not for supporting slavery), and Darwin was able to continue on his epoch-making journey.

III. Creationist doctrine has been invoked in support of racism.

As noted, the prevalence of creationism in Darwin’s time and earlier did nothing to prevent people from being racist or even pro-slavery. If we are to make “guilt by association” arguments with respect to racism, then even modern creationism is in deep trouble, since creationists have not been free of racist statements (see www.talkorigins.org/faqs/racism.html). Even the biblical literalism cherished by so many creationists in the West would fall to the charge of racism, with such proponents as Charles Lee, Grand Dragon of the White Kamelia Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Texas, who declares, “My racial beliefs are based on Scriptural teachings…Without them, how could I possibly justify [white] supremacy?” (as quoted in Bushart et al. 1998:40).  Or consider these sentiments from the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan:

What do we believe in our Church? We believe in the Bible before liberals translated it. We of the White Race came from Adam and Eve, not monkeys. The Bible clearly shows we are of one lineage, and makes reference to Beasts who walked on two legs. It also spoke of the wrongs of sleeping with these beasts. So we believe that blacks are not our Brothers and Sisters, but are beasts of burden. To accept evolution fully, is to say that we are equal with these animals, which history shows that we are not equal to, and in fact are superior to. While the Supreme Court has accepted animals to Vote and Marry with our race, we have not and never will accept this.1


1 The web site for the above organization seems to have disappeared, but the quote (which is fairly well-known), is repeated at the website of the Kentucky branch of the organization. I have saved a screenshot of it, for reference.


Bergmann J. 2005. Darwin’s passion for hunting and killing. Impact 383.

Bushart HL, Craig JR, Barnes M. 1998. Soldiers of God: White Supremacists and their Holy War for America. New York: Pinnacle.

Darwin C. 1876. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. Edited by Nora Barlow, 1958, New York: W. W. Norton.