Charles Darwin’s Complicated Legacy

Charles Darwin, the revolutionary biologist behind the theory of natural selection, left behind a legacy soaked in triumph and sin. To this day, Darwinism is being continually revisited and shaped, informing nascent discoveries in fields as diverse as anthropology, biology and economics. However, no good deed goes unpunished. While Darwin’s work undoubtedly furthered mankind’s understanding of evolution, it additionally played a fundamental role in the founding of eugenics. Literally meaning ‘good in birth’ eugenics is the set of beliefs that orbits around genetic engineering a superior species, arguing some races should be favoured, while others destroyed. In face of this dichotomy, this article aims to interrogate Darwin’s past and how this figure should be addressed hereafter.

Darwin’s academic reputation is predominantly built from his two most notable works: On The Origin of Species (1859) and Descent of Man (1871). In Origin, Darwin presented his theory of natural selection, the principle by which each slight variation [of a trait], if useful, is preserved’. Meaning, species with advantageous traits that are desirable for survival, are passed on to the next generation, whereas those without die out. In Descent of Man, Darwin turned his evolutionary gaze to humans, presenting for the first time the idea that humans are descended from apes. Scholars have since expanded on his work, encompassing not only the biological, but also the social and cultural evolution of humans to better understand how civilisation has developed into what it is today.

Darwin’s influential ideas are frequently set in stark opposition to the immoral theory of eugenics. Where the former is heralded as pure science, above material and political considerations, the latter is scorned. Nevertheless, the binary between the two fields: eugenics and Darwinism, in reality is of degree.

The founding father of eugenics, Victorian polymath Francis Galton, was in fact Darwin’s cousin. In life, the two men were close and borrowed heavily from each other’s work. A letter from Galton to Darwin proves such adoration, as confirmed by the endearing tone in which Galton addresses ‘my dear Darwin’ and the fact there are one of over 40 letters of correspondence between the them in the UCL Archives. Seeking critiques for his new book, Hereditary Genius, Galton claims there is no other ‘approbation I prize more highly’, owing to how Darwin deeply inspired Galton’s work. Before Origin, Galton felt ‘wretched under the weight of old-fashioned arguments from design’, yet Origin gifted Galton with the ‘first freedom of thought’.

Hereditary Genius applied Darwin’s hereditary study of animals to humans; arguing superior people can be bred. Galton believed a person’s rank in society was determined by what he deemed hereditary characteristics such as, race, talent, and character. On the basis of this, he called for state intervention, arguing only those who are worthy should have children, thus, founding the selective theory of eugenics. Considering the ‘geographies of reading’, whereby the meaning of any new work has been shaped by other texts, theories and practices in which the writer has engaged, it is clear Origin influenced Galton’s work.

In 1904, Galton established the first laboratory for research into eugenics at UCL. When he died, Galton endowed a host of individual and academic objects to the university, giving rise to The Galton Papers, his own personal archive, where the letter was found. Including Darwinian objects in this collection immediately evokes Darwin’s involvement with eugenics. This taints his legacy, owing to how people used the archives for immoral means. Consider the numerous the horrific war crimes delivered in the name of eugenics, such as the ethnic cleansing schemes delivered by the Nazis during the Holocaust in World War II, which ultimately have their foundation in Galton’s and beneath this Darwin’s work.

Although Darwin frequently quoted Galton in Descent of Man and praised his ‘genius’ ‘admirable labours’ in Hereditary Genius, he did not share Galton’s elitist attitude towards the races of men. Darwin believed all human races were one species and starkly opposed racial essentialism. This puts cultural geographers in an interesting position as to how Darwin legacy in the UCL archives should be addressed; due to his partial entanglement with the history of eugenics.

This is by no means a call to ‘cancel’ Darwinism; referring to the mass withdrawal and disproval of a figure from history, having committed actions that are not socially acceptable today. Rather, it is important to be open and critical towards Galton and Darwin’s eugenicist legacy; challenging organisational attitudes as well as offensive collections, to learn from what has passed.

This seems to echo work decolonising the archives; referring to the process of challenging racism within museums and being more transparent towards Britain’s imperialist legacy. UCL’s Inquiry into the History of Eugenics (2020) has attempted to make amends; renaming buildings and redistributing funds. However, it has been criticised as being too little too late. Furthermore, it did not acknowledge Darwin’s legacy within this, leaving me to question what else is excluded.

When addressing Darwin’s complicated legacy, one must remember that no one is perfect. While some sins weigh heavier than others, Darwin was fundamentally a man like no other. ‘Cancelling’ him from history would be naïve, as his contributions were noteworthy and are continually being reborn in new disciplinary fields today. However, education is imperative. To address his complicated legacy, one must be aware of the fundamentally colonialist narrative through which Western history is told, and the implications behind this. In the context of Darwin, this means being aware of his immoral involvement with the history eugenics, remembering him beyond the sculpted, white bearded, bushy eyebrowed beacon of wisdom. To recall a man who swooned for Francis Galton, whose work fell into racist hands, informing brutal ethnic cleansing schemes, yet who personally viewed all races of men to be one and the same.

Written by Stephanie Frank

Stephanie Frank is a columnist at DecipherGrey.