Darkness in Darwin

Exploring the uglier side of human nature

by Phoebe Parker-Shames, editor; illustrations by Laura Turner, staff artist

Last year, a long-time idol of mine visited CC. David Quammen, a writer of harrowing field biology tales and musings on human nature, delivered a lecture that explained in no uncertain terms that Charles Darwin’s work was the origin of modern scientific endeavors. He explained that any self-respecting student who was even tacitly interested in biology should make haste to pick up a copy of On the Origins of Species in case he or she, god forbid, hadn’t read it before.

This summer, I followed my idol’s instructions and tried to find a decent, free version of the audiobook online. As I listened, I came to a depressing conclusion: On the Origin of Species isn’t nearly as earth-shattering as it was 151 years ago. The “amazing and controversial” findings don’t seem so impressive when you’ve been learning about them since high school biology.

It’s hard to go up to your friends and say, “Hey, did you know that if you breed two pigeons with unnaturally long beaks together, and keep doing that for a whole bunch of generations, you end up with a long-beaked breed of pigeons?” It’s just not that momentous, no matter how many people didn’t believe Darwin at the time (or still don’t).

What did catch my eye did not endear me much more to the 200-year-old naturalist:

“No country can be named in which all the native inhabitants are now so perfectly adapted to each other and to the physical conditions under which they live, that none of them could anyhow be improved; for in all countries the natives have been so far conquered by naturalized productions, that they have allowed foreigners to take firm possession of the land. And as foreigners have thus everywhere beaten some of the natives, we may safely conclude that the natives might have been modified with advantage, so as to have better resisted such intruders”  (Chapter IV, “Natural Selection”).

Wait a minute. Stop, rewind. What did he just say? Did Darwin just support his own country’s brutal colonization and enslavement of other nations by saying that the natives weren’t “evolved” enough? Yes, yes he did. What of his own arguments about evolving to better adapt to the environment around you (an environment which, in all likelihood, did not include large Englishmen with guns carrying smallpox)? Apparently, in this case, a different concept prevailed.

It felt like I’d discovered a dirty little secret about Darwin. David Quammen mentioned many facts about the famous naturalist in his writings: his forty year fascination with earthworms, his original pursuit of a career as a country clergyman, and his reliance on other scientist friends back home in England to help him interpret what he had seen on his journeys. But Quammen never mentioned this or other unsettling passages.

The worst things I’d ever heard about Darwin concerned the so called “Wallace affair.” The story usually goes that while Darwin was sitting on his hands, trying to put off publishing his book, another scientist, George Wallace, independently developed similar ideas. When Darwin found out, he purportedly whipped out his On the Origin of Species and sent it to press to rob Wallace of any glory.

The truth to that story is less ugly and less dramatic. It is true that Darwin was urged to publish his book once Wallace came to a very similar conclusion, but the process was much more collaborative than it was competitive. Wallace’s article was actually published first, with excerpts from Darwin’s book. Darwin also gives credit where credit is due, and mentions Wallace in the introduction of his own book. Why would people make such a big deal of this nonexistent controversy when another is easily accessible?

It’s not really surprising that this “originator of modern science” would be racist (considering the time period and culture in which he grew up), nor do his racist statements change the validity of the core concepts he published. Still, they do taint my image of the lovable old naturalist challenging his society’s religious principles in the name of objectivity and science.

What is troubling beyond the face value of this racist statement and other similar hints and suggestions throughout the book is that they clearly show Darwin using his theories in an act of justification (eerily similar to arguments for eugenics, for example). While this justification appears to be backed by science, it is in fact very subjective. In the realm of science, we are taught from a very young age that objectivity is one of the most important parts of an experiment, yet here is the progenitor of modern scientific thought tossing empiricism to the wind. Did Darwin believe in the importance of objectivity? Did he believe he was being objective when he wrote the aforementioned paragraph?

Not even Darwin, one of the most controversial men in history, could escape his own time period. And his culture has greatly influenced our own, whether we like it or not. That brings up a disturbing thought: How much of these dark and disturbing characteristics are simply human nature?

From the very roots of our species, human nature has contained elements of brutality and violence towards the “other.” Last August, National Geographic published an article online about an exciting new anthropological excavation of early Europeans. It’s an amazing discovery that changes our understanding of where we come from as a species. It also reveals some interesting behavioral practices of early humans. The story is entitled “Human Meat Just Another Meal for Early Europeans?” Meet Darwin’s ancestors: “For some European cavemen, human meat wasn’t a ritual delicacy or a food of last resort but an everyday meal, according to a new study of fossil bones found in Spain.” It’s another unsettling glimpse into who we were, and what influenced who we now are.

In its July 2010 issue, National Geographic published the story “Evolutionary Road” about new human remains discovered in Ethiopia. This new skeleton, named “Ardi,” is older than the famous Lucy by about a million years, and it too holds keys to less glamorous early human traits.

The article explains, “Several days after the discovery of the adult skulls, Berhane Asfaw uncovered another [skeleton]: that of a child, judged to be around six or seven years old. Cut marks on the skull (as well as on the less complete adult cranium) showed that it had been carefully defleshed while the bone was still fresh, in a way that suggested a ritual practice rather than simply cannibalism.”

How comforting to know that once upon a time our ancestors practiced ritual cannibalism of children, rather than simply cannibalism.

Even in this statement, there is a hint of subjectivity, of defense. “At least it was a ritual, so we can’t be all that bad,” it seems to say. We want to include these addenda to comfort ourselves, perhaps in a gesture similar to that which Darwin made trying to comfort himself and others that the inhumane treatment of other people was not something to feel guilty about, but a triumph of survival of the fittest.

Reading Darwin leaves me with so many questions. Can there ever be such a thing as objectivity, even in science? What does it mean that when we dig back to our origins, whether they be of science, or of our shared ancestry, we find unappetizing signals of disrespect and violence? What will future anthropologists examine in our current society that will give them the same gut reaction of disgust?

Darkness in Darwin

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