Darwin: “between the negro or Australian and the gorilla”

I was astonished, just now, to come across this incredible passage from Darwin’s The Descent of Man:

At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.  At the same time the anthropomorphous apes … will no doubt be exterminated.  The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.

This passage clearly establishes the following hierarchy from most superior down to least superior:

  • an advanced, post-Caucasian “civilised race of man” (presumably with women attached to it for the purposes of breeding)
  • the current (19th century) Caucasian “civilised race of man”
  • intermediate races of man (presumably including Jews, gypsies, Asians and Arabs)
  • the “savage” negro and Australian races of man
  • the “anthropomorphous” (or man-like) apes such as the gorilla
  • the “low” (not so man-like) apes such as the baboon

Here is a scan of the actual page of the 1874 edition from which comes this passage (at the bottom of the page):


I was very profoundly struck by this. Darwin’s underlying thesis is that man’s superiority (his consciousness and his culture) rises up from a natural state of animality, in fact, from the material world. Spirit (later called God) arises from matter. And the more matter and the less spirit you have in you (animal, negro, woman, child) the more you are exterminable (for example, in Nazi gas chambers), exploitable (for example, as slaves or unpaid domestic workers), and subject to abuse (for example, by paedophilic priests).

I don’t know what more to say except that this is sobering …

4 thoughts on “Darwin: “between the negro or Australian and the gorilla”

  1. The ‘natural hierarchy’ you mention was not invented by Darwin but is rather nothing more than a slightly modified “Great Chain of Being”. Charles Darwin’s views were the result of his society and times. The idea Europeans could exterminate or enslave all other human beings was similarly around back then and proceeded well 20th century with the idea only becoming unpopular after the Nazis treated other Europeans the same way one was suppose to treat ‘inferior beings’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shape_of_Things_to_Come).

  2. Thanks for the comment, Liam. Yes, I do realize that Darwin was simply expressing the current (19th century) view. It’s just that he did it so blithely in this passage. He manages, in just three sentences, to sum up so much of the superiority fantasies of British people of the time.


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