Darwin’s Narrow View of Foreign People

In my Global Africa class we have recently been discussing the worldwide slave trade which, in the mid to late 19th century, morphed into colonialism on the African continent.  Our professor has been very thorough in outlining all of the factors which contributed to the subjugation of Africans.  Many of the ideas about Africans which led to their eventual enslavement and domination comes from long-held ideas about Africans as sub-human, “other” creatures.

After doing readings and watching films for that class, I find I have an intensely negative view of Darwin and the excerpts from The Voyage of the Beagle.  European civilizations turned to early explorers to help understand the world which was inaccessible to the average person, and it is from these accounts from early explorers where the roots of racism for darker skinned people comes.  Africans were described in much the same fashion as Darwin describes the slaves and indigenous peoples he encounters: primitive savages with no structure to their society and no mental capacity.  After generations of language describing them as such, this language becomes commonplace and its repeated use served only to perpetuate ideas that that Africans and indeed all non-European people were better off being conquered and enslaved then remain in their primitive states.

While certainly revolutionary in the field of natural science, Darwin’s journals utilize and promote language which perpetuated misconceptions and ideas that led to European mistreatment of peoples worldwide.  He makes no attempt at a true anthropological reading of the societies or even a humanitarian one.  Darwin sought to confirm European stereotypes of “other” people, and his self fulling prophecy no doubt furthered the average person’s opinion of non-Europeans upon reading his popular journals.

-Peter Linck

~ by peterlinck on February 17, 2014.

2 Responses to “Darwin’s Narrow View of Foreign People”

  1. I think you’re definitely right about the effect of the sort of language that Darwin uses at perpetuating cultural superiority. I wonder, however, how conscious of an effort Darwin made to bolster Eurocentric views of other cultures. I think that his language may have in part been a result of the sort of perpetuation you describe, rather than a concerted attempt to continue this perpetuation. Compared to others in the society of the time, I thought that Darwin was at least trying to give something of an objective, scientific view of the Fuegians. I’m not saying that that should let him off the hook, but I do think his intentions were not 100% negative, especially given the historical context.

  2. I find it much too easy to judge people from the past on issues such as these. It is important to remember, like Ethan pointed out, the relative attitudes of Darwin’s society at large when you’re analyzing his treatment of the Fuegians or slaves.

    If we spend all of our time criticizing someone for the limitations of their time period, we can never truly look at what they contributed to the development of the period we now live in.

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