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Paper presented by Tony Barta, La Trobe University
Darwin symposium, National Museum of Australia, 26 February 2009

Dr LIBBY ROBIN: Our third speaker in this session is Tony Barta, who is known for a lovely paper called ‘Mr Darwin’s shooters: on natural selection and the naturalising of genocide’. He comes to Darwin from German history and Australian history and he’s going to speak to us today on ‘Darwin and Social Darwinism: the political use and abuse of natural selection’.

TONY BARTA: I have drawn the short straw, I am afraid. It falls to me to look at this great man, so kindly, thoughtful and considerate of others, and to suggest there were elements in his writing, not least in the Origin, that stored up terrible trouble for mankind. A book that changed the world, but not always for the better.

Speaking of short, it has come up a few times already today how extraordinary it is that here we are commemorating 150 or 200 years of the work of a man who thought in millennia, in eons, in huge spans of time. [FN 1] I am going to suggest it is in this tiny blink, and in the incredible speeding up, that the trouble occurred, because it then became a question of superseding natural selection by adaptation and making unnatural selection much more important and much more dangerous.

Darwin was born into this world in which everything was speeding up, in which human capacities were increasing so that a relatively small section of humanity, that residing in Europe, could claim global authority and global spread. That is what this bucket full of men on the Beagle was all about. It was about man’s ability to dominate nature: that Ascent of Man which you might remember Bronowski told us about was revolutionary stuff: the scientific revolution, the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and the revolution of imposing a European view on the world. That is what Darwin came out of and that is how, I am suggesting - and I am not the only one by a long way - that Social Darwinism wasn’t added on after Darwin and the Origin; it is right there in Darwin. He didn’t invent it but it helped invent him.

Australia played an important part here. We have had a couple of suggestions of this already. Barry Butcher dealt with this very well in an article of his some years ago. I would even suggest that there are elements in this Australian encounter which are just about as important as those Galapagos Islands and those finches. Darwin didn’t spend all his time getting seasick; he spent a lot of time on the South American continent. It was there that he encountered a man who called himself General de Rosas. He was a cattle rancher but he served as Governor of Buenos Aires. He was engaged in what Darwin recognised at the time as a mission to exterminate the Indians. This is Darwin:

Some 112 women and children and men were nearly all taken or killed, very few escaped. The soldiers pursue and sabre every man. Like wild animals however they fight to the last instant. . . This is a dark picture; but how much more shocking is the unquestionable fact that all the women who appear above twenty years old are massacred in cold blood. I ventured to hint that this appeared rather inhuman. He answered me. ‘What can be done, they breed so.’

As I have said elsewhere, it’s the sadly familiar language of genocide. To the perpetrators, Darwin noticed, the killing was reasonable and even moral in the larger scheme of things. Civilisation decreed the sacrifice of barbarians who stood in its way.

In Australia it wasn’t very different. Darwin pondered over the specific causes of the Aborigines’ disappearance: disease, drink, a sharp decline in births. He commented (I think you can find the full quotation in Frank Nicholas’s book):

… some mysterious agency generally at work. Wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the Aboriginal.

And a further reflection:

The varieties of man seem to act on each other in the same way as different species of animals - the stronger always extirpating the weaker.

The language is important, not least because it reinforces our recognition that Darwin didn’t draw his theory only from beetles and finches. The survival of the fittest - the phrase was invented not by Darwin but by Herbert Spencer - was already there. Human history was there at the birth of the theory. It was there in this unprecedented onslaught of colonisation, and that became a key concept in the Origin. In fact, only on the radio this morning I heard about the colonisation of magpies in Canberra and how it might follow Melbourne where we see very few little fairy wrens in the gardens because the magpies have taken over. This analogy appealed to Darwin. He also noticed that where varieties are similar then the competition is at its most intense and most ruthless.

When in Australia hunting grounds were taken over by sheep and cattle - species carried around the world by no natural process at all - Darwin understood that this was all part of farming, investment, the movement of capital, civilisation in short, and he couldn’t see how the Aborigines he saw around Sydney could survive this kind of onslaught. He thought that uncivilised Indigenous peoples would probably have to go. There had been a ‘necessity’ - Darwin’s word - to round up the Indigenous people of Tasmania who, as we have heard, could not feel pride and satisfaction about this grand centre of civilisation arising in the Southern Hemisphere. I will return to civilisation a little later.

Another development was taking place and gathered much more pace after the Origin. It won’t have escaped anyone here, and we have had references to it, that the first chapters of the Origin aren’t about natural selection at all. In them Darwin talked about ‘Variation under Domestication’. It’s a good ploy to get in his audience. They weren’t only interested in pigeons (as he was) but in sheep, dogs and more productive plants. Later he came to ‘modification in nature’. But the beginning of the book is on ‘Man’s power of Selection’. There it is right at the start - unnatural selection.

Am I making too much of this? For gooseberries, dogs or pigeons - three of Darwin’s favourites - it mattered a lot. But for humans? It certainly led away from evolution towards intervention. And there it was that Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton invented something he called ‘eugenics’, the science of breeding better humans. It was widely embraced as a benign outgrowth of the progressive environment but it didn’t stay benign. This should hardly have surprised Darwin, the researcher into mutation. Darwin’s most adventurous foray into social policy is in his later book The Descent of Man. There he makes this reflection:

We civilised men … do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. [Well, thank goodness] … Thus the weak members of society propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. [FN 2]

Darwin must have known that eugenics was against his fundamental beliefs. One of these was the old saying, ‘Nature does not make leaps’ - everything happens in small increments. Eugenics was some distance from what Darwin called the ‘one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die’. There is no principle in Darwin that you kill off what was later called ‘life unworthy of life’, no so-called ‘euthanasia’. The furthest he would go, not wanting to betray what was very important to him, ‘the noblest part of our nature’, was a hope that the weaker and inferior members of society, and the poor, perhaps not marry so freely.

However, when Galton’s obsession with inherited characteristics swept the world, it would inspire some tragic interventions. There would be much citing of Galton’s dictum: ‘What nature does blindly, slowly and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly.’ [FN 3] In Australia, as we have had occasion to reflect in the last year, ruthlessness and kindness were hard to separate. For a short, sad account of what eugenics meant in this country, I would recommend Henry Reynolds’ newer book called Nowhere People, with the subtitle How international race thinking shaped Australia’s identity. It tells the sorry story of the human abuse we have only just said sorry for. The last section is on stolen children. The earlier parts of the book trace how Darwinian ideas from white, progressive England coalesced with home-grown settler attitudes to black people considered the least progressed of all humanity.

As for our own humanity, the record is clear. Australians generally supported a prejudice that black or mixed race children were inferior but that paler ones might be assimilated into white society. Important officials made statements that could have been uttered in Nazi Germany, and the statements justified cruel actions. It was early in the removal policy, after a 1905 law in Western Australia, that James Isdell said:

I would not hesitate for a moment to separate any half-caste from its aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic her grief might be at the time. They soon forget their offspring. [FN 4]

But the statement making the whole rationale and the mad ambition of the policy clear was made by AO Neville, a long-serving protector in Western Australia, at a Canberra conference in 1937:

Are we going to have a population of 1,000,000 blacks in the Commonwealth, or are we going to merge them in our white community and eventually forget that there were any Aborigines in Australia. [FN 5]

This was 1937, two years after the Nuremberg laws. The Nazi policy was biological separation; here it was biological absorption. Both policies were travesties of Darwin, though not perhaps of Galton.

What about America? Eugenics was very big there, perhaps bigger than anywhere else. As in Germany, racial mixing was seen as a threat allied with mental feebleness and the threat of the poor to civilised society. But American optimism was also irrepressible - we have been hearing more about it this week. Surely the triumphs of capital, the amazing of wealth by a few, the rising living standard of many - these were all proofs of Social Darwinism in action. So America became the home of rugged individualism, freedom in everything - I think Don Watson is very good on this - and reading Darwin in a way that seemed to militate against the welfare state. Herbert Spencer was huge, so was a man called William Graham Sumner. A glowing disciple of his was Andrew Carnegie.

It has been argued that Darwin himself was never as hard-hearted as some of his remarks implied, or as set on ruthless struggle. Certainly he did talk about animals aiding each other and cooperation, not selfishness, often being the key to survival. These suggestions were taken up by socialists, and most notably by Kropotkin in a book called Mutual Aid.

As we ruefully keep recalling, capitalist competition won out and so did imperialist competition. Decades after Darwin was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey there was a great war amongst the European powers. One casualty of that war was Adolf Hitler. It made him ‘hard’, as Himmler also liked to say – ‘hart wie Kruppstahl’, hard as steel. Nature was merciless, and he had seen with his own eyes what happened in a test where ruthless will was required to win out. It was a principle that Hitler reiterated throughout his own terrible carnage. Germans had not proved themselves, he said right at the end, and didn’t deserve even the most primitive further existence. Hitler may never have read Darwin directly - I am pretty sure he didn’t - but here, we should face up to it, was the original Darwinism:

When two races of men meet, they act precisely like two species of animals - they fight, eat each other, bring diseases to each other, but then comes the most deadly struggle, namely which have the best fittest organisation, or instincts (i.e. intellect in man) to gain the day. [FN 6]

Darwin was already writing that in his notebook in 1838. There are many similar passages in his later book The Descent of Man and we have just seen the subtitle of the Origin: The preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. The words stored up much tragedy. But I don’t think such potential slogans were the problem. It was a kind of intellectual lapse on Darwin’s part, perhaps against his own better judgment, because he repeatedly said he wasn’t especially qualified to comment on human affairs, politics and the like. It was recognised in his time and all the time later that humanity now had enormous capacities to do great violence and to make great changes in a very short time. If Hitler was the most catastrophic it was in part because he felt so strongly he had such a very short time to undertake his great colonising work for that Aryan race which I learn today was celebrated in Australia.

The biological premises of Nazi racism are notorious, but still struggling for recognition is the depth to which that planting and supplanting ideology of colonisation figured in Nazism. Hitler was very clear about it all in his mealtime conversations during the war. You can read this in a book called Hitler’s Table Talk. It is about the Russians:

By instinct, the Russian does not incline towards a higher form of society ... If anyone asks us where we obtain the right to extend the Germanic space to the east, we reply that, for a nation, the awareness of what she represents carries this right with it … There’s only one duty: to Germanise this country by the immigration of Germans, and to look upon the natives as Redskins. … It should be a matter of complete indifference to us how this bread is grown that was won by the sword. When we eat wheat from Canada, we don’t think about the despoiled Indians.’ [FN 7]

It is this kind of hardness which seems to connect all too readily with those original Darwinian principles.

In the end I come back to this being not even a minute on Darwin’s natural history scale. But adaptation still sits there and now we are also left with the question as to how we are going to respond in a very short time and adapt to the changes that mankind has itself wrought. It is an urgent matter of learning from history as well as nature. We alone among the evolved species will have to decide if nature, as we now know it, survives. Thank you.


1 See, for instance, the powerful passages in chapter 9 of Origin.

2 Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1874 edition, pp 151-2.

3 Galton, Essays in Eugenics, Eugenics Education Society, London, 1909, p. 42, quoted in Kevles, Daniel J, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1986, p. 12.

4 Reynolds, H, Nowhere People, Viking, 2005, p. 151.

5 Reynolds, H, Nowhere People, Viking, 2005, p. 186.

6 Darwin, Notebook E, December 1838.

7 Trevor-Roper (ed.), Hitler’s Table Talk 1941-1944, Oxford University Press 1988, Oxford, 3, 37-8, 69. See also Mein Kampf, chapter XI, ‘Nation and Race’. For the many lineages of the Nazi imperial project, Enzo Traverso, The Origins of Nazi Violence, The New Press, New York, 2003, chapter 2, ‘Conquest’.

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Date published: 01 January 2018

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