Todd Wood: Is Evolution Racist?

Concerning the supposed brevity of scientific racism, let me point out that it has a long, pre-Darwinian history unrelated to evolution, such that prior to Darwin there were various theories of racism supposedly based on “science” and/or “reason.” David Hume would be just one important example. He felt that there was no evidence of civilization among sub-Saharan Africans, who were inferior to whites. The “sciences” here were mainly anthropology and history. Hume wrote a lot about history. Enlightenment philosophers thought their version of history was much more “rational” or “scientific” than that of their predecessors.

Let me underscore a very significant fact about the evolution controversy in the Scopes era. I think I pointed this out elsewhere once, but I’ll repeat it. Bryan began his anti-evolution crusade in the winter of 1922. The AAAS responded by appointing a 3-man committee to deal with the threat to science education. All 3 were biologists who supported eugenics and scientific racism, though not all were equally outspoken on the latter. Who where they?

Charles Davenport, head of the Cold Spring Harbor eugenics lab
Edwin Grant Conklin, a leading public intellectual who had been hired at Princeton by Woodrow Wilson
Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History

I don’t meant to imply that Bryan opposed scientific racism, or any other type of racism for that matter. I am not aware of any evidence that he did–please chime in if anyone can add something pertinent here. But, he absolutely opposed eugenics, though it wasn’t a major theme in his involvement with the Scopes trial. What he mostly opposed was social Darwinism of other types, especially (he believed) the connections between Darwinism and unfettered capitalism and German militarism. Several leading American scientists during and after The Great War were very concerned about the latter, including William Patten of Dartmouth, who taught the first required course on evolution in America. Opposing that alleged connection, he said, was “why I teach evolution.”


My question was this.

Is there a comparable work written by a creationist that deals with the history of racism within Christian creationism as Gould does so thoroughly from the perceptive of evolution in Mismeasure of Man.

I don’t recall ever reading a creationist book that deals with racism within creationism beyond at best a passing mention and have no recollection of a creationist book where this is the sole topic of the book. But in terms of science I don’t think I’ve ever read any broad treatment of the history of genetics/evolutionary biology that doesn’t explicitly deal critically with racial prejudice in science (see recent books by Siddhartha Mukherjee, Carl Zimmer, and for race in biomedical science Rebecca Skloot).

So no one is denying the history of racism within science. I’m only asking whether scientists or creationists have done a better job at acknowledging that history.

I think it likely that racism was behind the resistance to putting human origins in Africa (contrary to Darwin’s opinion). That’s why Osborn was so happy to discover “Nebraska Man”, why Roy Chapman Andrews led an expedition to Mongolia, and why Piltdown was initially accepted and the Taung child was initially ignored.


I would say that more than the scientific evidence, it was the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis that relegated scientific racism to the dustbin of history. Let us only hope that it remains there forever…


This is absolutely the case. There is a fractal pattern of xenophobia and prejudice at work in this however. In the case of Piltdown the British didn’t want human origins traced to Germany or France, let alone Africa!

I would say however that creationists have never been to keen to have their origins in Sub-Saharan Africa either. My point is I can read ad nauseum works by evolutionists criticizing the racism of their predecessors but where is a comparable voice among creationists? (Todd Wood’s PowerPoint presentation being perhaps a notable exception).

Except, geneticists were already starting to question the logic of eugenics well before Hitler.

The same could arguably be said of Darwin

Or Abraham Lincoln, or virtually ANY 19th century person.


No, I am not aware of a “creationist book that deals with racism” in a broad-brush historical manner, comparable to Gould’s book. I called attention to the excellent book by Monte Hampton as an example of a work that is historical in perspective (like Gould), comprehensive within an historical period and region (narrower than Gould, but every bit as well researched), and partly (not entirely) focused on questions of “race,” including the debate about slavery in the Old South. The author is probably not a “creationist” of the YE variety, but I think your insistence on that might be more “political” than academic–in other words, you’re calling for a creationist author to lay out the dirty laundry and confess their sins, as you appear to think Gould was doing.

You seem to think science was self-correcting on this, but I don’t think so. Eugenics ceased to be a credentialed part of science (a field in which one could publish and earn academic credentials) only once it became clear to Americans that Hitler was eugenics writ large–a factor entirely outside of science, not within science, that pretty much forced people to disown it. To the best of my knowledge, it wasn’t the case that scientists themselves debunked it on their own–rather, they jumped ship because they started to notice the stench.


I don’t doubt it. But isn’t the case that they were a minority and that the scientific consensus before WW2 in the US was pro eugenics?

This source says eugenics was already on it’s way out before WWII, but no references.

I think we need to keep in mind that WWII was a wake-up call to the need for scientific ethics, and atrocities were committed on all sides.


That would require ignoring degrees of racism. Darwin was comparatively mild, while Agassiz was virulent. Darwin thought that white Europeans, especially the English, were the best people, while Agassiz doubted that Africans were people at all.

Comparing Darwin to Abraham Lincoln is instructive. They had very similar views – both were opponents of slavery, and yes, both can be found expressing racist views in various parts of their writings. If the Discovery Institute argues that Darwin was the leading racist of the 19th century, then one must wonder why they don’t say the same thing about Lincoln. They don’t say this about Lincoln because the very idea is absurd, and they know it. Their view of Darwin is equally absurd.


Concerning Ken Ham’s writings on creationism, evolution, and “race,” one thing I credit him for is directly confronting racist views in his own camp. And this isn’t a recent development. I wrote about this briefly in a book review pertinent to the Creation Museum, which can be downloaded as part of a package of reviews here: ASA Database Search: Results

My comments on Ham and “race” are on p. 7.


Certainly the atrocities of the Holocaust served as a stark reminder of where eugenic policies guided by xenophobia, homophobia, and racial and ethnic prejudices could lead but the fact remains there was no insignificant amount of push back on the science of eugenics by scientists well before the extent of the Holocaust was fully realized.

Henry Goddard’s book The Kallikack Family, which served as a rallying cry for so many American eugenicists, was already out of print by 1939 when the psychologist Knight Dunlap in 1940 published a complete rebuke of Goddard’s work. Thomas Hunt Morgan’s response to the idea that we may improve the human condition through eugenics said, “The student of human heredity will do well to recommend more enlightenment on the social causes of deficiencies”. Morgan’s vociferous critique of the science of eugenics began in the 1920’s. The psychologist George Stoddard in the 1930’s showed that intelligence was not a fixed genetic character in the way eugenicists believed it to be but instead was enormously plastic and contingent on environment. Founding fathers of the modern synthesis, Haldane and Fisher, were pushing back on the scientific claims of eugencists in the 1910’s and 1920s’.

Now would it surprise me at all if any of these men (Morgan, Haldane, Fisher, Stoddard, etc.) were themselves prone to racial prejudice. No. Just as I would not be surprised if they, or any white early 20th century man, by today’s standards were misogynists and classists. The point is that there was no small amount of resistance and debunking of the scientific claims made by early 20th century eugenicists. So of course the horrors of the Holocaust showed that the misrepresentation of science to serve nationalist, racist, xenophobic, sexist, and homophobic bigotry was a clear danger but it’s easy to forget about the decades of scientific challenges that were presented against the science of eugenics.

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I am no expert on this piece of history, despite possible appearances to the contrary here. I don’t work on the history of eugenics and scientific racism myself, and only pick up what I need from genuine experts. The exception is that I am under contract with Johns Hopkins for a book about liberal Protestants and science in the 1920s, and in that research I found the information shared here about the AAAS committee. All 3 of those men were liberal Protestants, though by the 1920s Conklin (a former Methodist) had largely or entirely ceased attending church as far as I know–though he was a fan of Harry Emerson Fosdick, listening to his radio sermons and perhaps visiting Riverside Church now and then.

Concerning pre-war anthropology, let me quote a leading anthropologist who has written on the history of his field, though I lack the expertise to assess its accuracy. This is from Matt Cartmill’s book, A View to a Death in the Morning (1993), pp. 199-200, with some deletions.

“From Darwin’s time down to the beginning of World War II, most scientists who studied human evolution were shocking racists by today’s standards. Most of them firmly believed that some living human races are closer to the apes than others. … The leading German Darwinian, Ernst Haeckel, classified living human beings into twelve different species and concluded that the most primitive of them are psycologically closer to dogs and baboons than they are to white people. Haeckel’s ideas had a profound influence on Nazi ideology, and German anthropologists trained in the Haeckelian tradition collaborated eagerly with the SS program of ‘race hygiene’ in the 1930s. Physical anthropology in the English-speaking countries, though not so actively genocidal, was almost equally racist prior to World War II. … Such [racist] assertions did not abruptly cease after World War II, but in the shadow of Auschwitz they were no longer intellectually respectable. … [The holocaust and collapse of European empires led to the demise of notions of racial hierarchy, which] had become an abomination, and it had to be extirpated.”

And that extirpation, Cartmill argues, “went against one important aspect of the Darwinian tradition,” namely, a minimal “gulf between man and ape.”

For me, it seems completely misguided to try and attach racism to any one position. Racism seems to be a very basic human flaw that seeks out the weakest justifications where it can. It makes no sense to blame good science or an entire religion for the lack of reasoning and logic that went into the justifications for racism. We might as well blame the rules of golf because some racists played golf.

I think moral philosophies cut through much of the bovine excrement that was thrown around in many communities in the past. A lot of issues can be solved by simply realizing that morality is about how we want the world to be, not how the world is according to science. It is the Is/Ought problem that Hume spoke about, and the error that lies at the heart of the Naturalistic fallacy.


And I don’t mean to question your efforts either. There certainly were egregious examples that should never be forgotten.

And this was the crux of my original point.

I think the bar is set so low for creationists that any honest account of their movement as it relates to race, sex, gender and social justice no matter how cursory (Wood’s online PowerPoint as case in point) is elevated in importance and conversely the bar is set so high for evolution that anything short of unanimous and unambiguous calls for full racial, ethnic, and gender equality from the inception of the field is viewed as a dereliction of duty by scientists.

I would like to see a creationist version comparable of Gould’s Mismeasure of Man or for a biomedical science analogue Rebecca Skloot’s Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or balanced treatments of the history of creationism like what Zimmer or Mukherjee have done for genetics but to date that has not happened and I’m not holding my breath.


“Ham” is an ironic name for a creationist non-racist.