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Charles Darwin was a naturalist that proposed the theory of natural selection and the theory of evolution still studied and widely accepted as true today. He wrote many books during his life, but the two most well-known books, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life (commonly referred to as Origin of Species) and The Descent of Man, and the Selection in Relation to Sex (commonly referred to as The Descent) presented his essential theory of natural selection to the scientific world as well as to the world at large. Within a few years of his first publication, Darwin’s theory of natural selection began to be popularized and interpreted by many in ways that departed from Darwin’s essential theory. One of the most famous of his misappropriators was the Englishman Herbert Spencer, who became famous for coining the phrase “survival of the fittest,” and who became the spokesman for what has become called “Social Darwinism.” But there were many others as well. In Germany, for example, German academics applied their own twist to Darwin’s theory to support the idea that there was a natural racial hierarchy that had evolved in the past, and that the German race was naturally superior to all other races. However, an examination of Darwin’s own words through his works demonstrates that Darwin did not advocate for racial superiority at all, and that those who tried to get that from his theory were simply misapplying his theory and drawing conclusions from it that was unsupported in the biological evidence.

Born on 12 February 1809, Charles Robert Darwin was raised with the high expectations that his grandfather and father placed upon him to succeed in life.1 Darwin had the fortune to be born into a wealthy, well educated family. His father and grandfather had been doctors and expected Darwin, who was always interested in science, to follow the same path. His mother was a member of the Wedgewood family, still known for their fine china.2 Darwin attended college in Edinburgh, then transferred to Cambridge to complete his studies. A self-professed agnostic, Darwin had a strong moral compass and a respect for all living things, which was reinforced during his time at Cambridge.3

Upon graduating from Cambridge, Darwin took the opportunity to serve as a naturalist for a scientific expedition through the Pacific Ocean. The HMS Beagle would serve as his home from December 1831 to October 1836.4 Darwin spent his time on the expedition cataloging species throughout the region, making important scientific conclusions from the observations he made that would later be published in his books. Darwin would eventually write that his voyage on the HMS Beagle was the most important event of his life, having a profound effect on his future.5

Voyage of the HMS Beagle | Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Upon returning to England in 1836, Darwin settled in London where he married, had children, and settled into life as a professor and writer. Darwin began an in depth study of his observations from his voyage, which became the basis for his theory of natural selection. Darwin had seen that it applied to animals and plants but was not sure if he could apply it to humans and have it be accepted by the scientific community, which still held to the larger Christian values of the time.6 Darwin believed that such proof would be in the explanations of the various human races, and he began to look for a way to explain that all the races had one ancient primitive common ancestor.7 By 1840, Darwin had put aside his search for the origin of man and his theory of evolution out of fear of prejudice. He knew his idea would be controversial and he abhorred being in the spotlight.8

Darwin was convinced by his friends to publish his theory of natural selection before his ideas were published by another scientist. The Origin of Species was published on 24 November 1859, a day known as the day modern biology began.9 The Origin of Species put forth Darwin’s theory of natural selection by discussing variation and the struggle to survive in the plant and animal world.10 Fearing this was enough to generate a negative reception of his theory of natural selection, Darwin decided to remove any discussion of man from his book.11

Cover page of Darwin’s first and most well-known book | Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Darwin’s The Origin of Species describes how plants and animals evolved using natural selection, limiting factors of nature, and variations which science would later know as genetics. He believed that the struggle to survive is a natural byproduct of reproduction; if too many organisms try to occupy the same area, some will have to die.12  This struggle is affected by three limiting factors: enemies, available food, and climate.13 Darwin also believed that this struggle for life was worst among organisms of the same species, resulting in the ones with the most advantages to survive and reproduce.14 It was through reproduction that organisms passed on traits that increased chances of survival. Darwin believed that natural selection increased diversity.15

Darwin spent the next years of his life writing other books and collecting facts to support his ideas about the evolution of man. The Descent of Man was published on 24 February 1871, with the purpose of considering the evolution of man from one common ancestor and to address the differences between the races of man.16 Darwin believed that man was a social creature and this led man to evolve to enjoy company, to feel for others, and to perform acts of charity. He believed that man would do what was best for the common good.17 Darwin wrote that slavery was a great crime, but was not viewed that way because it was usually one race exerting control of another race. He called this savage behavior because it showed indifference to the suffering of strangers.18

Cover page of Darwin’s second most well-known book | Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In The Descent of Man, Darwin directly addressed Francis Galton, the father of the eugenics movement. Darwin wrote to Galton that savages eliminate the weak people quickly, leaving only the healthy to survive. Darwin stressed to Galton that civilized men do the best they can to stop the elimination of their fellow man by building asylums for the ill, creating welfare programs, and using medicine to save life. Darwin went on to say that it is evil for man to intentionally neglect the weak and helpless. It is a requirement of a civilized nation that man must endure the weak, allow them to survive and reproduce, knowing that they do not often marry or reproduce. Darwin called this a limiting factor.19 Darwin did not say for certain if all the races of man are different species or sub-species because, in Darwin’s opinion, the definition of species was not yet settled. He equated it to determining how many houses it would take to make a village, a town, or a city. Darwin was certain that man did descend from one single primitive ancestor and, although the races were different, they had more similarities than differences.20 Darwin wrote that the climate had an impact on man. He gave the example of the physical changes to appearance when Europeans moved to America. Darwin used this example to show that all the various races might be one race affected by variations in climate and environment.21

The Origin of Species was so well accepted by prominent scientists that it soon made its way to Germany where prominent German paleontologist, Heinrich Georg Bronn, upon reading the book, wrote to Darwin and offered to translate the book into German.22 Bronn believed that Darwin was attempting to establish one fundamental law of becoming and being that would govern all biology, which Bronn called the law of development by natural selection. Bronn believed that this law would explain all of organic nature, including man, through all of time. In this regard, Bronn believed that Darwin was too vague in stating the requirement for physical, mental, and emotional fitness in natural selection and in the struggle to survive. By thinking Darwin had made a mistake, Bronn took it upon himself to add his ideas to his translation of The Origin of Species. Bronn altered the theory of natural selection to say that the process moved animals, including man, to progress towards perfection. When Darwin learned of Bronn’s action in altering his theory, Darwin wrote a letter to Bronn requesting he remove that part from the next edition.23

HG Bronn | Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

After the publication of the incorrect German translation of The Origin of Species, many German academics began to advocate that the struggle to survive was a natural part of human existence. Wilhelm Preyer argued that for one group to rise up another must fail. Friedrich von Hellwald wrote the struggle to survive was the basic drive of human history and the cause of wars and violence between the nations and the races. Ludwig Gumplowicz wrote that all races compete for survival and the subjugation and elimination of ethnic groups was the foundation of civilization.24 These professors were instrumental in turning Darwin’s theory into German Darwinism in late nineteenth-century Germany by stating inequality of the races as fact. After their defeat in World War I, many Germans were radicalized by the professional classes that were seeking a strong Germany based on purity and strength. German scientists and other academics had advanced a theory of heredity that combined racism with nationalism to create a political ideology that would be adapted by the Nazi party.25

While some would argue that Darwin was an advocate of racial superiority, it is clear from reading the words Darwin left behind that he did not support eugenics or racial hygiene. Darwin was a peaceful scientist that wanted to avoid the spotlight to study evolution and variations within species. Darwin viewed racial differences as skin-deep, external, and a matter of personal preference.26 Darwin passed away in his home on 19 April 1882 and was buried in Westminster Abbey in honor of his contributions to modern biology.

  1. Andrew Noman, Charles Darwin Destroyer of Myths (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2014), 1-2.
  2. Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), 12.
  3.  Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), 57-59.
  4.  Andrew Noman, Charles Darwin Destroyer of Myths (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2014), 29.
  5.  Andrew Noman, Charles Darwin Destroyer of Myths (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2014), 52.
  6.  Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), 139.
  7.  Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), 125-126.
  8.  Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), 177.
  9. Tim M. Berra, Charles Darwin: The Concise Story of an Extraordinary Man (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2009), 62-66.
  10.  Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), 291-292.
  11.  Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), 311.
  12.  Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life,Volume 1 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896), 79.
  13.  Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life,Volume 1 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896), 83-84.
  14. Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life,Volume 1 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896), 93-96.
  15.  Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life,Volume 1 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896), 160-161.
  16.  Andrew Noman, Charles Darwin Destroyer of Myths (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2014), 132.
  17.  Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896), 98-99.
  18.  Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896), 117.
  19.  Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896), 133-134.
  20.  Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896), 176-178.
  21.  Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1896), 196.
  22. Sander Gliboff, H.G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel, and the Origins of German Darwinism: A Study in Translation and Transformation (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008), 1.
  23.  Sander Gliboff, H.G. Bronn, Ernst Haeckel, and the Origins of German Darwinism: A Study in Translation and Transformation (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008), 122-129.
  24. Richard Weikart, “The Origins of Social Darwinism in Germany, 1859-1895,” Journal of the History of Ideas 54, no. 3 (July 1993): 476-484.
  25. Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide, From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 1-12.
  26.  Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), 373.

Tags from the story

Charles Darwin

Natural Selection

Origins of Species

Social Darwinism

Theory of Evolution

Recent Comments

Vianne Beltran

Hi Tyler, I never considered how Darwin would have felt about his theory being twisted to fit a racist agenda. Your article brought some interesting things to think about to my attention. I have heard so many things about his scientific ideas but none about his personal views. Whenever social darwinism is mentioned in textbooks I think it might be relevant to mention how Darwin addressed eugenics. Your article did a great job of bringing attention to a subject many people might think they know a lot about already.

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16/04/2022

8:18 am

Grace Malacara

This was a fascinating essay to read. I was always taught about the scientific contributions of Charles Darwin’s observations, but never about how his theories were confused and influenced scientific racism. This was clearly a well-researched article, and I feel like I learned something new and significant from it. It was also fascinating to discover more about his past and how he saw his involvement in the expedition as something very significant to him and his life. Great job!

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18/04/2022

8:18 am

Veronica Lopez

Excellent article! I knew about Charles Darwin prior to reading this article but you’ve brought him into a different light for me. I found it interesting how he wrote about slavery being savage behavior. I never knew he thought it was a great crime. I was and still utterly surprised by this. By the way, I loved the picture you used of him. It really gave the article a meaningful side to it.

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01/05/2022

8:18 am

Nicholas Quintero

This article was very well written and was easily the best and most interesting read that I have completed so far. The paragraphs were broken up nicely so that the information was not hard to follow and had no issues with being repetitive. It described Darwin’s theory very well and also his position on how his theory was misconstrued by the Germans.I think this is what a model article should look like.

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07/05/2022

8:18 am

Laurel Cox

This was a really well told article, not just in the detail, but also the in-depth analysis of Darwin’s theory. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but notice how sad it is that all of Darwin’s work was reduced to superficial racism and nationalism, despite that being the opposite of what Darwin wanted. It’s interesting though simply how many times groups of people and scientists twisted and misconstrued Darwin’s theory to fit their own narratives.

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29/01/2023

8:18 am

Danielle Rangel

The author did a great job of explaining how Darwin came to his famous theory Social Darwinism. In reading this article I thought it was interesting how many different people had used Darwin’s theory in order to justify their own beliefs. I also thought it was interesting how Darwin himself tried to discourage other people from adding on false pretenses in order to keep the theory to its original meaning.

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29/01/2023

8:18 am

Vanessa Rodriguez

This article was so interesting and very informative. Although I had learned about natural selection and his theory of evolution, I definitely had not interpreted or understood his other works. Reading this article made me look into the “Origin of species” and really dig deep into his theories. Amazing article, very well put together and loved all the details put into it.

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29/01/2023

8:18 am

Carolina Wieman

The author introduced a new subject I had not yet known prior to reading this article. This article was written very unopinionated but filled with solid-backed facts. Learning how the incorrect translation of darwins book began an uprising of violence and was the political idealogy of Nazi groups. I also enjoyed how the author not only showed evidence supporting the miswritten translation but also the argument of the other side. Letting the reader get a full 360 of the situation.

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30/01/2023

8:18 am

Abbey Stiffler

I have experience with people either twisting my words or other people’s words and it just completely construes their point and gets misinterpreted. Darwin did not want the racism or nationalism that came in the future of his theories even though many thought he did. He did not even write his theories to be about race. I wonder if he realized his true impact on society as a whole.

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30/01/2023

8:18 am

Tabitha Babcock

Your introduction really drew me in, and I really liked that you included a map of his voyage! It really helped me to visualize his journey. In my history class, we were talking about how people misconstrued his idea by justifying cruel working conditions and monopolies as being “survival of the fittest” but I was unaware that his thoughts were misappropriated to the extent of racism, especially since he wrote that racism is “savage behavior” in his book and was very vocal about his opposition to slavery.

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31/01/2023

8:18 am

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