No, Ken Ham, Darwin Was Not A Racist

I was fortunate enough to be able to post this response to one of Ken Ham’s claims during his debate with Bill Nye on God of Evolution. It’s an excellent blog that everyone interested in the science/religion conversation should read regularly. 

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The pottery medallion created by Darwin’s grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, for his anti-slavery campaign.

The debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye the other day surprised me in a number of different ways. I wasn’t expecting much at all and I was bracing for a train wreck. But the debate turned out to be quite civilized and the interactions between the two interlocutors were respectful and well-mannered. In regards to content, they both did quite well presenting their cases. Ken Ham was kind of all over the place, especially towards the end, and in contrast to Bill Nye’s factual and pragmatic case for the scientific superiority of evolution, attempted to build his argument as much on theology and ethics as on science. But while The Science Guy’s easy to understand presentation of science was strong, his comments on religion, especially the Bible, were woefully ignorant. Also, Ken Ham had better PowerPoint.

I doubt any minds were changed by the debate. If you thought any one of the debaters won, you were probably rooting for the guy to begin with.

One thing I’d like to acknowledge, though, was the generally positive nature of Ken Ham’s presentation. Those familiar with creationist arguments — perhaps especially those on the receiving end of said arguments — know well how negative, fear-mongering and demonizing they can be. Ken Ham could easily have resorted to such tactics and scored culture war points with his audience. But he didn’t.

Mostly.

As Ken Ham went through the scientific predictions he argued creationism could make, he claimed that creationism predicted that human beings are all one race (a point related to the “kinds”-argument and microevolution made just before). Since we all can trace our ancestry back to one set of gardening parents, we are all the same race. Which is fair. What was not so fair was his characterization of evolutionary theory as essentially racist.

Some 46 minutes into the debate, Ken Ham makes this claim: Evolution, as expressed by Darwin in his book“The Descent of Man” and later taught to unsuspecting American school children, supplies the logic required to segregate human races according to higher and lower worth. It was only after Craig Venter’s alternativehuman genome project, Ham claims, that secular science found out what biblical creationists had always known: There is only one race — the human race. Ken Ham presents this as going against evolution as expressed by Darwin.

This is wrong.

Darwin was certainly a man of his time: A Victorian gentleman with views about “savages” that would be less than politically correct these days. But despite his ignorance and privilege, Darwin was no racist. He did not teach that there were lower races and higher races, as Ham claims. In fact, the idea that humanity consisted of higher and lower races was precisely what he set out to refute in “The Descent of Man” — the very book Ken Ham mentions! For Darwin, the logic and evidence of the evolutionary process was that all human beings came from a common ancestor. Mankind could be intelligibly classified into different races, groups belonging to the same species having adapted to life in different environments. But all were part of the same species, deserving of the same basic dignity and worth. Darwin dryly observed:

“Now when naturalists observe a close agreement in numerous small details of habits, tastes, and dispositions between two or more domestic races, or between nearly-allied natural forms, they use this fact as an argument that they are descended from a common progenitor who was thus endowed; and consequently that all should be classed under the same species. The same argument may be applied with much force to the races of man.” (Descent, 179)

This was more than a century before Venter.

Furthermore, in their 2009 book, “Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution,” Darwin biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore argue that for Darwin, the essential equality of the races was not just a scientific conclusion reached through observation. Rather, it was a moral imperative for him. For all of his life, Darwin was a fierce opponent of the institution of slavery and the cruelty that came with it. Both of his grandfathers — Erasmus Darwinand Josiah Wedgwood — were prominent abolitionists and Charles imbibed their righteous fervor against slavery from an early age. A potter by trade, Wedgwood is remembered for mass producing his “slave medallion,” a cameo depicting a shackled and pleading black slave, with the famous inscription underneath:“Am I not a Man and a Brother?”

Darwin brought this moral indignation with him as a young explorer on his voyage on the Beagle. There he witness the horrible mistreatment and torture faced by slaves in South America. Desmond and Moore argue, somewhat controversially, that it was Darwin’s passion against slavery that lay behind his writing “On the Origin of Species,” and later “The Descent of Man.” Convincingly arguing for and publicizing the theory of evolution was, for him, not merely a scientific pursuit, but a moral and social one as well. In the face of evolution, no one could claim that certain races could lay claim to the title and associated benefits of “humanity” over against another, who they then could enslave.

No matter differences in appearance, common descent unites us all and is the foundation of basic human equality. For Darwin, evolution made slavery impossible.

Christians would want to say more and root human equality, dignity and rights not in common descent, but in the Imago Dei. But we should recognize and celebrate how Darwin viewed his theory and encourage such a helpful interpretation of it.

Obviously, a cursory familiarity with history demonstrates that things haven’t been as simple as Darwin hoped. Evolution was subsequently used by eugenicists and others to support their racist ideas — just as Ken Ham mentioned with his reference to a 1914 biology text book. But such sentiments weren’t based on, as Ham said, “Darwin’s ideas, which were wrong.” Rather, they represented the twisting of Darwin’s ideas. Which is wrong. To project them back unto Darwin himself would be to deeply disrespect the moral character of the gentleman abolitionist. It would be just as unfair as chucking out the Bible because it has been similarly misused by slavery apologists and other racists throughout the centuries.

Ken Ham is absolutely correct in pointing out that creationism is anti-racist. But his insinuation that evolution is racist is a grave misunderstanding of both the theory and its implications, in addition to being a defamation of Darwin himself — who fought actively against slavery all of his life and argued that, fundamentally, all men are equal.

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2 thoughts on “No, Ken Ham, Darwin Was Not A Racist

  1. Pingback: Young-Earth Creationism vs. Love

  2. David Morris says:

    Hey Arni, have you read “Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders” by David Livingstone? He develops this argument, including how abolitionist Christians like BB Warfield and Asa Gray picked up on common descent as an argument against scientific racists such as Louis Agassiz.

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