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Darwin Question

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What position would Darwin take with respect to the validity and usefulness of the concept of race?


I agree that Darwin would acknowledge variations among humans for adaptational benefits, but I strongly doubt that he would put a value judgement on the concept of race. What I mean by this is that Darwin would recognize similarities in humans based on environmental factors, etc. In this way people who share these attributes overall share the same race. Darwin would probably take issue with the ideation that one race is better or worse off than another. All races have equally effective attributes leading to higher quality and success in their particular environment. I don't think there was a stigma associated with race and comparisons among humans of superiority or inferiority. In this way, Darwin would take no issue with the use of the term--as long as it were not skewed into social darwinism. Social Darwinism occured later on than during Darwin's times. Therefore, the issue of superiority / inferiority / and 'survival of the fittest' to justify colonialism and slavery was not an issue when Darwin first proposed his ideas. (survival of the fittest was not Darwin's term--a phrase that is commonly misinterpreted) Today, Darwin would be torn by how the idea of race has been utilised. But, at that point in time, 'race' was not a problem that was salient and needed to be dealt with.


~Mark Smith



I definitely agree with Mark. I think that while Darwin would not be opposed to acknowledging races, he would take issue with its use in a negative fashion. I feel as though Darwin would see races as different variations on the same human race- that is that these different races were merely adapting to their own environments and restrictions. Darwin would recognize that there was a wide variation amongst humans, as there is amongst animals. He would not have believed that these distinctions would somehow make one race more advanced than the next. Race would not be a ranking system to Darwin, but would simply be an example of the variety of nature.

~Alexandra Gagne



I think Darwin would argue that humans are one species with many variations that came about as a result of geographical and climate conditions. On page 17 he says "I cannot doubt that during millions of generations individuals of a species will be occasionally born with some slight variation, profitable to some part of their economy." Basically, differences among humans are not a result of "race" but of adaptations over time that helped specific communities to survive. People living in extreme cold climates, for instance, tend to have stockier, shorter bodies that work to keep body temperature up (or something like that) while people in very warm climates tend to have longer limbs and leaner bodies. To answer the question, I think Darwin would not see the concept of race as terribly valid or useful.


-Allison Moss


I agree with Allison and I also believe that Darwin would not think of the concept of race as valid or useful. In the article that we read, Darwin did not mention specifically about “human” race but my impression is that he takes "race" positively and equally as a "progress." He believes that survival is the main common interest of all organisms and he argues that the “race” or variation is created in order to survive longer. He mentions that the more one adapts into the environment or changes, there is a better chance and tendency to live longer and to have more productivity. For example, he says "those races having colours best adapted to concealment from their enemies would inevitably survive the longest" (p.22). He believe that the different race is purely due to the tendency of nature to improve in order to survive longer thus, he would not rank human by race nor would discriminate as the variation (race) is the way each human is progressing in their environment.




I believe that Darwin would find the concept of race limiting and question its validity as a useful concept due to his assertion that adaptations are the result of even the most minute environmental changes and natural selection. Differing environmental factors exist even within the same clines and as populations adapt to their own region, variations occur within races. Therefore, race is neither useful nor valid; rather an examination of the environmental factors is needed to distinguish evolutionary changes in the population. Darwin uses the allusion of a tree trunk with branches and sub branches to demonstrate how changes come to be over time. Each new adaptation has the opportunity to be successful, which is in turn demonstrated in its ability to produce additional new adaptations (p.18). An important element of this description is the acknowledgement that all variations stem from the same basic building blocks. Race is simply another of many adaptations. I believe that to Darwin, the concept of race would be quite limiting, particularly when used as a defining feature.


-Erin Neill


I think Darwin would explain the concept of race as adaptations to different environments throughout time. Darwin's theories centered around the idea of variation within a species and ones survival based on desirable traits due to genotypical variation. Although I would not go so far to say that his thinking fell in line with the later Social Darwinists, I believe that, especially when taking into consideration the time in which Darwin was living and the accepted frame of thinking behind the concept of race, Darwin would find the concept of race very useful explaining different human populations' abilities to adapt and thrive in their respective environments. However, I am hesitant to say that he would explain or justify cultural dominance or colonization based solely on race.


-Emma Roberts


I would suppose that Darwin would question the validity of 'race' but would nevertheless affirm the concept's usefulness to his discussion on the variations of species. In this week's reading Darwin explains how certain "checks" such as evironment, climate, and predation will exert force on individuals in a population, and the individuals with slightly favorable genetic variation (even to the smallest degree) are more likely to survive and reproduce individuals with that same favorable genetic make up. He provides several examples of plants, animals, and humans, affirming that it would be impossible to ignore this degree of variation and the way external forces (checks) 'select' for certain attributes. The concept of groups of human individuals with shared genetic and phenotypal attributes--namely races---fits into this paradigm. Over extremely long periods of time, in accordance with Darwin's discussion of gradualism, 'checks' such as climate have selected for humans with certain characteristics, who over time have reproduced and reproduced to eventually become a more homogenous group sharing those original traits that were selected for. Several enclaves around the world could be considered races by definition of these shared traits. However, trying to identify a set number of races or somehow apply Social Darwinism to some kind of racial hierarchy would seem to be a misapplication of Darwin's work. The more these isolated 'racial' enclaves traveled, reproduced with individuals of other groups, and increased genetic diversity (in effect introducing more genes to be selected for or 'checked'), the original ideas of race became blurred. Today it would be nearly impossible to racially categorize people because of the wide genetic spectrum that has come to exist across a spectrum of environments. Furthermore, it would be nearly impossible to categorize or rank 'races' due to this blurring and due to the explained randomness of the selection process (unlike Spencer's assertions that government aid to the poor simply slows nature's process of weeding out the weak poor population.)


-Jill Coen


I think Darwin would find the concept very interesting. He talks, in the excerpt, about each species’ tendency to pursue diversity and heterogeneity so that it may be adaptable to multiple forms of environmental pressure. The human race, being one of the most prolific biological species in the world, would therefore be very likely to have distinct differences within the species for the sake of localized adaptation. Since Darwin would have had no access to the now publicized genetic information questioning the biological differences between races I imagine he would have predicted that, provided the human races remain segregated, each would eventually adapt and evolve into its own species, distinct from the parent. Being a well-traveled man, however, it is also my guess that Darwin would decide that societies are too interconnected and that there is simply not enough population pressure on the human species to spur such a change and force survival competition in the modern world. He may even have taken the position that interracial breeding should be encouraged because it disperses a wider variety of traits to the population.


-Chelsey Megli


Darwin's view on the concept of race would stem from his theory of descent with modification. He recognized that there are heritable variations in different populations and that some of those variations are better suited than others to a particular environment. Because organisms tend to produce many more offspring than the environment can support, there is competition for resources and those that are better suited to the environment tend to have greater success in surviving and reproducing. Thus, these better-suited individuals leave more offspring than other individuals. Over time, this process of natural selection can reuslt in adaptations of organisms to their environment. Although he never specifically addresses the human race, I believe he would carry this concept of descent with modification to human race to address the issue of race and how there are differences between different human populations due to adaptations to differing environments. However he never included the human population as his theories were a radical departure from the prevailing views of Western culture and addressing the human species would create an even greater resistance to his ideas on evolution.


-Estelle Charlu


“Any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species… will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will have a better chance of surviving… We see nothing of these slow changes in progress, until the hand of time has marked the long lapses of ages, and then so imperfect is our view into long past geological ages, that we only see that the forms of life are now different...” Need I say more? Darwin clearly would not endorse the concept of race, only inter-species variation caused by a combination of genetics and environmental influences that assist species’ chances of survival. Particularly since humans exist in such differing and extreme environmental conditions, the variation would come expected. Darwin might suggest that enough variation might cause the same species to branch off from one another, but this tends to only happen if the groups are geographically isolated; considering humans most definitely are not isolated from one another that would be a moot point. Might I also add that it has been proven there are greater genetic differences within each individual “race” then there are between two different “races”? Regarding the terminology, I suppose he would consider it profitable with regards to dialogue in speaking about interactions and distinctions between groups of people.

-Joey Perry


I agree with Mark in that he probably observed it but didn't see it as a particularly relevant concept in terms of a value judgement. Especially in that many of his contemporaries used race as a mechanism to put down groups of people, I feel like Darwin probably observed and took note of it but didn't use it to make any value judgement about a particular group of people. I do think that Darwin would think race is a particulary interesting phenomenon though and would have liked to study it a lot. It's an interesting variation of people and its one in which you can see the gradual changes and gradient that he essentially bases his theory on.


~~ Sara Ray




I agree with Sara that Darwin would truly be fascinated by the concept of race.  I was recently thinking, though, that most of Darwin's early work focused on smaller species such as Darwin's finches.  I feel that the idea of race may have stemmed from the concept of variation in species.  Although humans are all one species, this is somewhat confounded by the introduction of the term 'race.'  Race appears to be a term replacing species.  In social darwinism, if it is not politically / religiously correct to consider certain humans to be of different species--this could be bypassed through the utilization of the term race.  People do vary in physical appearance, etc., but Darwin would have conflicting emotions over the use of this evidence for politics and national expansion (by unjustly separating one 'race' from another).


Mark Smith




The concept of race was acknowledged by Charles Darwin, but whether he felt it was particularly valid or useful is up for debate. Race has become quite a heated topic in society, delineating between peoples and in turn ranking some against others. When discussing the topic, Darwin would most likely come to question, where one draws the line between races. As he states, there are slight changes and progressions in each successive generation, and no offspring is identical to a parent. How can we make a clear distinction between people who are constantly changing? I think that Darwin would feel that race was not extremely valid – being based on more arbitrary distinguishers but may feel that race, as it has been used today, may be useful. As Darwin states, “I am convinced that intentional and occasional selection has been the main agent in the production of our domestic races”. According to Darwin, people have made a conscience effort to produce a more fit and superior offspring. Today, race has added another level of competition to our society. The concept of “survival of the fittest” can be extrapolated to fit within the confines of social Darwinism – people are fighting to survive in society, to be the most successful, to live more comfortably, to be subjected to less discrimination. With race often putting people against one another, the competition gets fiercer, and only the strong survive. With this being said though, Darwin also acknowledges that although this intentional selection has probably helped us evolve, he also continues by saying, “But however this may be, its great power of modification has been indisputably shown in later times.” It is scientific evolution, which has no regards for subjective categories and value judgments that has actually produced the changes.

- Anne Cleary



If you look at the time period in which Darwin was writing, there is a good reason as to why he opted not to openly discuss the topic of racism or really apply evolution to human development. His work on evolution was incredibly progressive for the time and created quite a disruption when applied to the plant and animal kingdoms alone. When anthropological thinkers such as Tylor and Morgan came forward in the later half of the nineteenth century, they relied upon Darwin’s ideas of evolution to validate the concept of unilinear evolution applying to societies. While Tylor and Morgan were clearly racist by today’s standards, classifying European societies as the epitome of civilization and relegating African and other “simpler” societies to a status of savagery or barbarism, I would have to agree with those who believe that Darwin did not feel the same way. He did not look to the various species of finches from the Galapagos in a hierarchical nature, placing more value on those that came from one island. Instead, he saw their differences as adaptations which accrued over time as a means for survival. If we carry Darwin’s thought over into the anthropological realm, I would have to agree with Emma in believing that he would label racial and cultural differences as human adaptations made in an attempt to acclimate to a specific environment.

- Savannah Fetterolf



In response to Mark's comment:

I agree that Darwin would not distinguish one race from another in terms of value. Darwin understood and valued evolutionary distinctions. As each distinction represents a valuable advantage for a population, the term race can be used to help distinguish populations with similar traits but does not allow one to make value judgements. Darwin would probably have no problem using the term for descriptive purposes, but as Mark says, not to distinguish superiority of populations in one region over those in another. Darwin's research and writings show that he saw value in each evolutionary change and he probably would be disappointed in the way that the idea of race is used today.

- Erin Neill


In response to Savannah's comment:

I would disagree that Tylor approached the issue of race in a particularly racist standpoint for the standards of his time. On page 45 (I'm using the third edition) of our reader, Tylor specifically says, "For the present purpose it appears both possible and desirable to eliminate considerations of hereditary varieties or races of man, and to treat mankind as homogeneous in nature, though placed in different grades of civilization." Although he is clearly approaching this in a way unpallatable by our standards, the notes to this passage state that he was progressive compared to his contemporary scholars, who advocated a theory called polygenisis, basically postulating that people of different races were of different physical evolutions. Tylor stands in opposition of this so-called 'scientific' justification, instead arguing a theory of monogenisis. Tylor was advocating the viewpoint of human cultural evolution -- not scientific.

That being said, I think it's interesting to examine just how Tylor (as well as Morgan and other later scholars) adopted Darwin's concepts of natural selection and evolution, innately a biological trend, to human history.

-- Abigail Parker




I wanted to expound on the side comment made by Joey at the end of his statement. I really doubt Darwin would support the concept of ‘race’ in its monstrous form of using slight ostensible variations within the human species to segregate and oppress. I think Darwin would agree that the concept of ‘race’ –if he did acknowledge it at all- should be restricted to being an indicator or description of the slight variations within modern humans. I’m sure that if he took into consideration the fairly recent findings that over 90 percent of human variation is found within species, and only 10 percent between them (as with brain size- go bio anth 01!), then it would be clear that the concept of ‘race’ should be used as nothing more than a way to indicate slight physical variations within the larger species. And I further think, he would not find the concept useful at all, especially not in anyway to delineate large physical differences between groups of humans, and as grounds to separate them based on their evolutionary ‘fitness.’ It takes the focus off of us humans as a species with slight variations, and places it on the separate ‘races,’ which aren’t really that different. Would you call the same species of butterfly two different ‘races’ it some had blue spots and some had pink?


- Heddy Waters





I am writing in response to Anne's comment regarding the extrapolation of the concept of "survival of the fittest" within the confines of social Darwinism. Usually people think of Survival of the Fittest as kill-or-be-killed within the confines of the wild; only the strongest and fastest of us, the best warriors and hunters survive while the weak die out. It is fascinating to think of this concept at work in contemporary day. Now it is the idle rich who are considered the fittest while everyone else is clamoring to try and live the same life of luxury. It has become a socioeconomic heirarchy instead of a heirarchy of race, using GDPs of countries to rank them on a global scale. (Which is true in a way: wealth leads to infrastructure- increased standards of living, edcuation, businesses, etc which allows countries to compete in the global arena and increases their potential to enact change.) For some people to be on the top of this heirarchy, others must be at the bottom; it is natural human condition to act in accordance for their own personal interests. This means those on the top monopolise the power so those at the bottom cannot overthrow them nor threaten their position. These acts have perhaps aided the continued stereotyping and discriminations against "races," sometimes through oppression and subjugation.


-Joey Perry





I am responding to several comments regarding Darwin's personal viewpoint on the topic of race. I did a little research outside of the reading and found that Darwin hints both to acknowledgment of race and ignorance of race as a valid reference of study. There are many quotes from his writings that reveal a distinctly race-recognizing tone. He refers to some groups of humans as savages, and this indicates a marked difference among members of the entire human race. As many have said, Darwin does say that there are differences among the divided nations of men, but he claims some of them go beyond the scope of being of the same species. We must remember that this was before the time of several species concepts, ways of discerning one species from another. It is important to note that many readers of his work sense a racist tone to the principle of natural selection. If one species or population is competing with another, let's say, then the one that eventually "wins" is implicitly more advantageous. This is not my personal opinion, but rather some arguments I have found of Darwin's racism in his texts.


-Dave Schatz




I agree with Allison Moss that Darwin would not have found race a particularly useful or intriguing concept. I think he would have summarily dismissed the idea that human beings of different races are somehow descendent from different species. The genetic commonalities between humans of different races far exceeds their differences. I think Darwin would have explained the minor physical variations between people of different races as the result of adaptations to the external envoirnment as well as the result of probable limitations regarding the selection of a mate in most early communities.


-Tyson Johnson




In response to Sara's comment: Can we really be sure that Darwin would have had no bias against a certain race? Certainly the language of his books is not laced with notions of superiority, but he deliberately avoided talking about human origins. I think it is possible that Darwin could have possessed a racial bias despite his theory of evolution. He lived in a time where the various "races" were aware of and in contact with each other. Being a European, Darwin most likely had encountered many legitimized claims of racial superiority. Isn't it possible that he could have believed in these claims and the superiority of one race over another, much like the triumph of one species over another? Keep in mind the biological and genetic findings about the reality of "race" had not yet been discovered.


- Chelsey Megli





I am branching off of several ideas that have been already been expressed by several students about what Darwin would say in relation to the validity and function of human "race." Firstly, it should be noted on page 4 of the PDF article in the footnotes that Darwins's basic principles of natural selection are as follows:


a. There is physical variation within species. b.Populations grow geometrically but only a few offspring suvive into adulthood.

c. Organisms compete for survival


With these qualifications, I think Darwin was indeed discussing, in his mind, the "races" of animal species. I think there is room for argument of where and how the term "species" transferred from the animal realm of nature to the human realm and became called "race." The term "race" was a solid explanation for "survival of the fittest" so commonly attributed with the Social Darwinism school of though that evolved after Darwin was already deceased. The term "race," however, was not used by Darwin himself as an explanation for human "species." I think Social Darwinists jumped on his idea of natural selection during a critical time in history when colonialism could be justified by this concept of better, more intelligent, "races," which was a direct borrowing of the original context of the term that Darwin used to explain plants and animals, not humans! It seems kind of crazy that people jumped on this idea of "survival of the fittest" that was taken from Darwin's explanation for variation and adaptation of plant and animal species, and applied the concept to claim superiority over other peoples who were not European. I think Darwin today would view race as an invalid concept toward the genus Homo, but he would advocate the "competition for survival" to explain disease epidemics when colonists came to the Americas and killed off the natives who had previously never been exposed to such diseases. In summary, race is a historical term, not a scientific one, and I think Darwin would agree if he knew the progression of history after his time.


~Sara Coburn



In response to Chelsey's response to Sara, yes I agree with you Chelsey that, as I stated before, Darwin lived in a time when well-respected people made every argument to rationalize colonialism and its effects the non-European races.Even thought he was open-minded enough to explore the ideas of evolution, he knew nothing of genetics like we know about them today. He had no idea about genetic variation of people within a race or throughout the races. I believe that because of this he would have naturally thought that race was a useful concept and probably used it to categorize people (although not necessarily hierarchically) Furthermore, I think Darwin avoided talking about human origins because he did not want to be too controversial or to be completely outcast from the scientific community or the greater religious society.


-Emma Roberts


I agree with Emma. Darwin's views on evolution only pertained to non-human evolution since he did not have evidence of human genetics. Ironically, Gregor Mendel's work on genetics was published in 1866 but had little impact on the science of the day. It was only after his paper was rediscovered in 1900 that that scientific community was able to apply Darwin's theories to humans.

-Estelle Charlu





I agree with Mark at the very beginning of this list of comments. "Survival of the fittest" is not even a Darwinian term, and I think that he would not be happy if he knew that someone else used his name to justify superiority over other cultures. I think that Mark made a valid point that Darwin might see adaptational differences and variation, but not "races." I.e. skin color near the equator and increasingly lighter skin patterns toward the northern most latitudes. It is logical that every group of people are well adapted to their native environment, and this is something that I strongly agree with Mark about, that Darwin would see these adaptations as necessary for that particular environment. I.e. shorter limbs bodies in cold climates and longer limbs and bodies in warmer climates.


~Sara Coburn


After rethinking what I said earlier, I have come to agree with Sara and Mark.  “Survival of the Fittest” was a term coined by Herbert Spencer, although he advocated Lamarckism and not Social Darwinism.  Both of these scholars were probably aware that this concept could be applied to human beings, but did not actively pursue it.  Darwin probably say variation within the human species as a product of evolution, but did not focus on the concept of a 'race,' or overarching branch within the human species. 


But if what Dave wrote is true, in that there are several examples of him using words like ‘race’ and ‘primitive’ in reference to others, than I would say he was just another product of his time where that was the dominant notion.  The idea that culture could overcome Social Darwinism did not appear until later.  Although he might have been of the opinion that Darwinism exists within human species as well, he probably would have refrained from dwelling on it, especially considering the tempestuous nature of the claims he had already made (based on birds!).      


 ~Heddy Waters

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