I have a penchant for reading original texts. Sometimes the take-home lesson impresses me as quite different from the lesson presented in textbooks and in anthologies compiled to bolster a particular point of view. For example, reading the original, unabridged versions of 19th-century texts on evolutionary biology exposes a dark underbelly of racism and euro-centrism which gets glossed over in secondary literature. Conversely, the humanism of the conservative, creationist Robert Fitzroy disappears altogether from the narrative, and his actual contributions get discounted by referencing his battles with bipolar disorder and his tragic end.
Darwin’s theory of evolution drew heavily on the mindset of the early Industrial revolution and produced a model of nature that justified the most aggressive phases of British colonial expansion. The extreme racism of Victorian-era science is something that tends to get swept under the rug. I came across the quote (below) from Huxley as part of a long review in the generally liberal Edinburgh Review of Man’s Place in Nature, a work which is often cited, alongside Origin of Species, as a seminal text in modern evolutionary theory.
The first quote is from Robert Fitzroy, captain of the HMS Beagle, whose observations, and his interpretations of those observations, get overlooked or dismissed when they contradict those of the iconic Charles Darwin. Darwin does not go so far as Huxley, but his lines of reasoning in Descent of Man leave little doubt that he considered that the human race was evolving and that northern Europeans were more highly evolved than Africans or Australian aborigines.
First, the Fitzroy quote: “In the course of many years spent in various quarters of the world, I have had opportunities of leisurely considering people from all the principal countries and the conclusion I have been obliged to is that there is far less difference between most nations or tribes (selecting any two for comparison) than exists between two individuals who might be chosen out of either one of those nations or tribes, colour and hair alone excepted. The more I sought, the more evidence has appeared to demonstrate the probability, nay certainty, that all men are of one blood.” Robert Fitzroy, Voyage of the Beagle and Adventure Vol. 2, 1839.
Fitzroy was captain of the HMS Beagle, an ardent creationist, and in later years one of Darwin’s opponents. He was also a scientist in his own right (he is the father of modern meteorology), and the only European to make systematic observations of the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego and Tasmania before they were wiped out by disease in the mid 19th century.
“At the Antipodes, where the human race has reached its lowest level, whether by elevation or degradation, and where the besotted Australian savage grovels on, unconscious of most of those mental processes which have been thought to be distinctive of humanity, and where man’s physical structure approaches nearest that of inferior mammals, no monkeys exist, either in a recent or fossil state.” Thomas Huxley, Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature, 1863 p. 571, quoted in the Edinburgh Review, which had a dim view of Huxley. I do not find this in recent editions of this book, all of which are abridged. Huxley spent some time in Australia studying invertebrates.
Of the three (Darwin, Fitzroy and Huxley), Fitzroy (1805-1865) had the most direct experience with non-European cultures at the time of writing, having been at sea since the age of 14, in a capacity which brought him into considerable interaction with native populations. The second volume of Voyage of the Beagle, the one Fitzroy wrote, contains a lot of ethnographic information.
“Mr. Darwin and the Defrauded Gorilla.” Cartoon originally appearing in Harper’s Weekly in 1871. Public domain.