On the Biological and Social Division of Human Races

In The Descent of Man, Darwin's stated project was strictly to examine, from a classificatory point of view, the relevance of the debate between “polygenists”, who believed man to be derived from several origins, and “monogenists”, who claimed that “all the races of man are descended from a single primitive stock.” To settle this debate, Darwin was eager to apply standards of classification of animals to human subjects. He wished to abolish the stark differentiation between humans and animals preferred by his contemporaries and many today, and which he associates with an unbecoming sense of pride. It seems almost inevitable that Darwin’s conclusions on the matter of race within biology would contribute to social and political attitudes towards race in the centuries to come.

Our similarities outweigh our differences. This was the conclusion reached by Charles Darwin upon identifying arguments both in favor and against the biological classification of humans as originating from a single race as opposed to many. The term “sub-species” offers greater propriety for distinguishing groups of humans, but Darwin confesses that force of habit prevents naturalists and laymen alike from eliminating the use of the term “race.” Since the 1800’s, evolutionary biology has been identified as a culprit for justifying the practice of slavery and notions of white supremacy including the inferiority of “less civilized” races. While references to Darwin’s perspective on race have gone out of vogue, the conversation about race itself has not. Accounts of racially charged conflicts occupy a prominent place in today’s public discourse. From police killings of unarmed Black men to mass shootings and evidence of a recent surge in violence against Asian Americans, racial relations amount to a powerful force at the center of human migratory patterns, public health trends, and political decision-making. As contemporary society grapples with these issues, a new “anti-racist” vernacular has emerged. Activists seek to adapt our language to reflect the identities of racial and ethnic groups with greater accuracy and sensitivity. Amidst these valiant attempts to dismantle racism through conscious word choice, one term seems intent on staying the course: race. Pesky and poorly defined, why can’t we stop using this word?

Darwin’s interest in refining the language used for discussing race had less to do with his drive for cultural sensitivity than with his aspiration for scientific accuracy. But one cannot neglect to note that when the Darwin released his tome on Natural Selection, he did so against the backdrop of racist and abolitionist turmoil in America. From a scientific standpoint, Darwin believed humans of all “races” and animals alike derive from a common primeval ancestor. Measures applied for determining the significance of physical and intellectual distinctions among humans derive from Darwin’s study of animals. He cites the criteria employed by naturalists when attempting to distinguish one race or sub-species from another. These include: the amount of difference between so-called races, the structural or physiological importance of these differences, and the consistency or lack of consistency of a certain character.

Individual characteristics like intellectual capacity, hair texture, body proportions, or skin color can prompt observers to draw quick conclusions about what unifies and what distinguishes groups of people. However, the careful observer must take pains to identify the nuance and gradation that is present within these traits. One must summon the spirit of the naturalist in order to refine his observations. Darwin notes that to the untrained eye belonging to a member of one race, significant variations in the physical form of another race can initially go unperceived. He writes: “[…] although a newly-arrived European cannot at first distinguish the various native races, yet they soon appear to him extremely dissimilar; and the Hindoo cannot at first perceive any difference between the several European nations.” (The Descent of Man, Penguin Classics edition, page 195).

Beyond physical traits, the most important factor to be considered is the fertility and sterility of the races when given the opportunity to reproduce, or, in Darwin’s terminology, to “intercross” (Descent, page 202). Even a slight degree of sterility is said to determine the specific distinctiveness between one race and another. The reproductive compatibility of one race with another is not immediately predictable. The naturalist might hypothesize that, due to common characteristics, races within a specific area demonstrate greater fertility when combined than when combined with a race inhabiting a distant land and bearing other distinct characteristics. However, traits such as hair texture or lung capacity are entirely insufficient for making deductions about fertility. Studies from Darwin’s era proved that members of races that are geographically far apart are capable of demonstrating greater fertility when combined than with members of races in their immediate vicinity. Today, advanced research has demonstrated that genetic diversity is critical for an individual’s ability to adapt to varying conditions. The capacity for different so-called races to “fuse” or “intercross” is one of the weightiest arguments against the theory of distinct races of man.

In addition to researching sterility and fertility, Darwin investigates the strength and resilience of different human groups in response to changes in environment and challenges to health. He cites studies demonstrating that races from certain geographical regions tend to fall prey to certain parasites, while other races are prone to other parasites. Darwin generally accepts the notion that some human races are physically weaker and less amenable to adaptation than others. He declares: “[…] diseases often cause much death until those who are most susceptible to its destructive influence are gradually weeded out; and so it may be with the evil effects from spirituous liquors, as well as with the unconquerably strong taste for them shewn by so many savages. It further appears mysterious, as is the fact that the first meeting of distinct and separated people generates disease” (Descent, page 198). In this passage, Darwin makes three observations that continue to crop up in our contemporary discourse over the accuracy and moral implications of distinguishing one race from another. First, that natural selection kills off weaker entities while the stronger remain. Second, that “savages” show a greater propensity towards alcoholism. Third, that the encounters of people from different environments can compromise the human immune system.

As for the first point, many of us have recently become acquainted with this line of thought under the heading of “herd immunity”, or the possibility that a community can, over time, become immune to a disease through vaccination or antibodies from prior contraction of an illness. Countries like Sweden which, during the early stages of the pandemic, hoped to rely on this possibility, were assailed by a host of practical and moral concerns. Natural selection presents the death of weaker animals and the survival of the stronger as an inevitable fact of life. Because today we have political and institutional structures in place, we are led to expect that because every human life matters, no human life should be sacrificed for the advancement of the herd.

As for the second point, much controversy exists around the claim that some groups of people have increased tendencies for addiction. While studies of genetic predispositions to addiction among different “races” are being conducted, conclusions about the genetic strength and weakness of different races is difficult to articulate while using racially sensitive language. Statistics show that alcohol use and alcohol-related diseases are significantly higher among Native Americans than any other ethnic group. In this debate, there is a genetic and an arguably more important historic component to be considered. Loss of community lands, trans-generational trauma, and stress associated with acculturation have contributed to increases in alcoholism in the indigenous population today.

Darwin and many of his contemporaries used observations of high rates of alcoholism in indigenous communities to perpetuate myths of biological and intellectual inferiority. Darwin writes of native populations in the Pacific Islands: “Owing, however, to their passion for imitating Europeans, they altered their manner of dressing at an early period and the use of alcoholic drinks became very general” (Descent, page 217). Darwin attributes these actions on the part of the native population to their excessive passion. Their response to pressure to assimilate is written off as envy of Europeans. Ignored is the fact that colonization generated immense pressure for other cultures to reject their own traditions and customs in favor of those of their oppressors. Also overlooked by Darwin is a darker historical reality: that European settlers often intentionally supplied excessive means of intoxication to indigenous communities, since it limited their awareness and increased their susceptibility to manipulation and subjugation. Further examples of this behavior include the Opium Wars and more recently the War on Drugs.

Darwin’s third point, that the meeting of distinct and separate people generates disease is today commonly accepted. This is why individuals are typically vaccinated before travelling to foreign countries, in anticipation of an onslaught of foreign microbes for which the immune system is otherwise unprepared. Acceptance of Darwin’s principle lies at the heart of the “smallpox blanket” phenomenon of biological warfare that permeates both history and legend. Once again, while there is an important place for research into the genetic predispositions of human groups to contract certain illnesses, Darwin’s enthusiasm for ranking groups of humans as stronger and weaker from a biological standpoint necessarily leaves out the social dynamics which complicate our human expression of natural selection.

Within the public discourse of today it seems reasonable to place greater emphasis on the historical factors that have contributed to the propensity of certain groups towards underlying health conditions, sicknesses, and death. Darwin writes: “The grade of their civilization seems to be a most important element in the success of competing nations” (Descent, page 212). Today, “grade of civility” is regarded less as a natural disposition than as the result of social opportunities or lack thereof. The pandemic has highlighted the grave health consequences of generations of resource inequality and accumulative disadvantages within minority groups. Studies show that Indigenous, Black, and Asian Pacific Islanders have experienced the highest death tolls from COVID-19. Individuals from these ethnic groups are less likely than employed people in general to work in professional and business services which are more amenable to telecommuting. These disadvantages, whether or not they are genetically reflected, point to the many systemic disparities, which result from unequal social treatment of different so-called races.

In The Descent of Man, Darwin makes no suggestion that different human sub-species or races should be treated differently. His stated project was strictly to examine, from a classificatory point of view, the relevance of the debate between “polygenists”, who believed man to be derived from several origins, and “monogenists”, who claimed that “all the races of man are descended from a single primitive stock” (Descent, page 205). To settle this debate, Darwin is eager to apply standards of classification of animals to human subjects. He wishes to abolish the stark differentiation between humans and animals preferred by his contemporaries and many today, and which he associates with an unbecoming sense of pride. Be that as it may, statements like: “it is established that the difference between the largest and the smallest healthy human brain is greater than the difference between the smallest healthy brain and the largest chimpanzee’s or orang’s brain,” are bound to attract those who seek to dehumanize others for their own political or social gain. It seems almost inevitable that Darwin’s conclusions on the matter of race within biology would contribute to social and political attitudes towards race in the centuries to come.

When observing the way different sub-species of humanity interact, it can be a challenge to distinguish which actions are the product of natural selection and which are the product of calculated social decisions. Darwin touches on the possibility of extinction in a battle over land or resources on a primitive human level, saying “Extinction follows chiefly from the competition of tribe with tribe, and race with race” (Descent, page 211). In a global society which no longer functions on the basis of tribal interactions, the naturalist cannot easily make declarations about race solely from a classificatory point of view. Considerations of the social order seem inextricable from the project and the conversation. While the interconnectedness of human groups is a critical element of modernity, the socio-political aspect of the biological investigation into race is not a wholly new emergence.

Upon inspection of the Darwinian corpus, one can hardly shake the suspicion that political instinct is a primordial element of the biological world. From the slave-making instinct of the tyrannicalalbeit self-destructive—formica sanguinea to the principle of natural selection itself, the quest for survival and power are integral to Darwin’s theory. On one hand, Darwin’s approach to evolution emphasizes the lack of distinction between human and animal. He reminds us of our innate connection to the natural order. Resistance to being classified and considered among animals reflects an unbecoming sense of pride.

On the other hand, human commonalities suggest that racial distinctions are somewhat superficial and that there is, after all, a remarkable distinction between humans and animals. Darwin is impressed by the “close similarity between the men of all races in tastes, dispositions and habits. This is shewn by the pleasure which they all take in dancing, rude music, acting, painting, tattooing, and otherwise decorating themselves; in their mutual comprehension of gesture-language, by the same expression in their features, and by the same inarticulate cries, when excited by the same emotions. This similarity, or rather identity, is striking, when contrasted by distinct species of monkeys.” (Descent, p. 208) Tastes, dispositions, and habits are what unify men. Other animals use gestures and signs to communicate, but none obsess as we do over the accuracy and impact of words. While Aristotle, a stranger neither to naturalism nor to politics, dubbed man the political animal, distinguished by logos, speech and reason. For all of Darwin’s classificatory concerns, the speech we use—including the term race, no matter how imprecise—is here to stay. To Darwin, we are the political animal. Emphasis on the animal.