Did Darwin Promote Genocide?

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/did-darwin-promote-genocide

Thank you for this masterful and detailed review. It frightens me how easy it is to denigrate people by picking certain phrases. I took A Beka Book, “History of the World From the Christian Perspective,” in my elementary school from Pensacola Christian Correspondence School, and got some odd ideas about the past that, thankfully, were shot down kindly by my acquaintances as I grew up and expanded my contacts. It does make me wonder how to make sure my own readings are accurate. Do you purposely try to read more than 2 opposing sources for any given position, so as to get a balanced viewpoint?

Randy, I’m glad this was helpful. Yes, I do try intentionally to read multiple points of view (among historians and other scholars) before coming to my own view–and sometimes I just don’t form my own view, but pass on the one that seems best supported. In this case, an exchange of emails with Michael Ruse (one of the top Darwin experts, whom I credit at the end) was more than a little helpful to me. He knows far more about Darwin’s social and moral attitudes than I will ever know from my own reading. It would be unfair to him, or to me, to say that I merely parrot his conclusions. I read large parts of Darwin in a graduate seminar devoted to his work; I’ve taught Darwin (including sections of Descent of Man and Voyage of the Beagle) for decades; I know and have read many Darwin experts. So, I do own the overall perspective here. However, I’m not confident enough of that perspective just to throw it out there, without first talking to people like Michael Ruse. Above all, Michael helped me see the great complexity of Darwin’s own attitudes, which absolutely cannot be reduced to soundbites.

This doesn’t mean that Ruse has it exactly right, let alone that I do. The experts often differ on interpreting important passages in Darwin’s work and events in his life. It wouldn’t be too hard to find an expert who would differ substantially with what I wrote here–and, as an expert, would be able to make a stronger case. On the other hand, I could then name other experts who would mainly, perhaps entirely, agree with this column. Doing history is often like that.

Nevertheless, the history presented in the piece I responded to is just awful. I think all experts would agree on that much. It did not give a remotely accurate picture of what Darwin, a tormented soul, actually thought about his fellow human beings–and, he always considered other people his fellow human beings, whether or not they belonged to “races” of people whose cultures were as “civilized” as those of Victorian Britain.

Thanks. “A tormented soul”–yes, that’s a good description of what I have read of his excerpts. He’s certainly an admirable character, in contrast to the vilification I have seen. The trailer for Genesis: Paradise Lost shows a bust of Darwin falling to pieces–unnecessarily unkind, I think (I’ve not seen the movie).

Michael Ruse sounds like a great resource and a good thinker. It seems that folks like him (and even Dawkins) are absolutely necessarily to help us see the other side of belief.

Thank you for your honesty and hard work.

Thank you Ted for your informative piece on Darwin. While it is true context is critical, nonetheless, this man set into motion forces and movements that he would never have imagined. Opening the door to heresy opens the floodgates for all kinds of evils. All of which run rampant today - specifically the culture of death.

We also need to remember that the science of evolution does not depend on Darwin’s character or his views on genocide. Even if Darwin had promoted genocide, that still doesn’t mean that the theory of evolution calls for genocide, or that genocide is justified. There are a lot of theories we celebrate today that were conceived and discovered by people who also held what we would view as deplorable beliefs. I am sure that Newton held some rather despicable views, but we still see him as one of the most important scientists of the last 400 years.

Well he didn’t believe in the Trinity, which could have had him killed in those days. He also experimented in alchemy. So there’s that. But even going by his private diary, he was remarkably free of vices. In fact some of his friends considered him rather prudish.

Hi Chuck,

Welcome to the Forum! (This is just an unofficial but warm welcome from one of the regulars with no authority or official ties to BioLogos.) Haven’t seen you on here before, but I might have missed it.

First, just a PSA: You can use the @ symbol to get somebody’s attention, like this: @TedDavis. You wrote your comment as if talking to Ted, but your comment was technically addressed to Randy instead.

Second, an honest question: Is there any actual evidence that ties the scientific theory of evolution to Roe v. Wade and the shift in societal attitudes and legal statutes toward abortion? I’m not a historian and haven’t studied these things, so it really is an honest question, but to me this seems like something that often all gets lumped together, without any real evidence showing that these strands of thoughts are linked in any real, traceable historical development. I’d be interested to hear any evidence you might have to share. (Evidence is more than, “Well, of course, evolution is all about death, and so is abortion!” and “Evolution teaches that we’re just monkeys, so it doesn’t matter if you abort a baby!” To me these are just armchair speculation.)

For instance, as an evolutionary creationist, I believe that humanity’s physical form evolved from great ape ancestors, but that along the way, God endowed that form with something very special, new and sacred, namely His own image. Because of that endowment — which cannot be scientifically proven or disproven to exist — I believe every human life is precious. With the historic church, I declare that abortion is morally wrong. So clearly it is possible to foster a culture of life while also embracing the scientific consensus about human origins.

Third… this is a contentious issue, and off-topic, and the moderators are likely to shut it down. Just warning you. But I was honestly curious if there is evidence out there, and thought I’d politely ask.

Have a great day!

Actually, a good question and so long as the discussion does not deteriorate into a debate over abortion, seems relevant to the the posting. We just try to stick with one divisive issue at a time, and the one we are charged with is evolution.

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No, not in Newton’s day. For example, Newton’s protege William Whiston, who succeeded Newton as Lucasian professor at Cambridge, was likewise a non-Trinitarian. When his heretical views were discovered, he lost his job, but hardly his life or his personal freedom.


There’s a great deal of that, actually. Newton wrote far more about alchemy than he ever did about physics. Perhaps it was from alchemy that he took the idea of gravitation as an “attraction,” amounting to action at a distance (to the extent that he held that view, which wasn’t always). Alchemy went far beyond the famous idea of changing base metals into gold; it was essentially matter theory before modern chemistry.


I agree that certain wrong beliefs can lead to certain evils–in certain cases. But, one needs to be very careful not to draw unwarranted generalizations. Darwin entirely aside, I’m more than a little reluctant as an historian to see _ necessary_ connections between various ideas over time. It’s rarely, if ever, the case that idea A necessarily implies consequence B. One needs to connect the specific dots convincingly, and not just gloss over any counterexamples one may find. It’s far too easy–and wrong, IMO–simply to say that heresy leads to all kinds of evils.

In fact, Christian truth in some instances has lead to evils. For example, zeal for doctrinal purity can lead to religious persecution, even to the execution of people who don’t conform to some specific version of that truth. In the celebrated case of American Christians in the Antebellum period, leading Reformed clergy defended slavery from the Bible, using what many took as evident Christian truths to oppose the abolitionists. https://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/slavery-science-and-southern-presbyterians-before-the-civil-war/

As the author of that selection notes, “The Messy Particularities of History” often get in the way of otherwise appealing generalizations. If we’re going to use forms of social Darwinism as reasons to oppose evolution, then we might as well use slavery as a reason to oppose Christianity or the Bible. IMO, it’s more appropriate to use forms of social Darwinism to oppose basing one’s ethics or social policy on evolution.


Bartholomew Legate and Edward Wightman were burned at the stake in 1612 for denying the Trinity. Although that was before Newton was born, the ‘Ordinance for the punishing of blasphemies and heresies’ was enacted in 1648, when Newton was five years old, so he grew up knowing that denial of the Trinity could, under that act, result in “`the pains of death… without benefit of Clergy”. In 1646 Paul Best was sentenced to hang due to his denial of the Trinity, and only escaped death with the help of friends from the army.

John Biddle was imprisoned repeatedly for his Unitarian beliefs, once suffered exile, and eventually died in prison in 1662 after being re-committed. The Toleration Act of 1698 relaxed penalties for a range of heresies and blasphemies, but specifically excluded non-Trinitarianism from toleration; it was still punishable by death.

The Ordinance of 1648 was enforced during Newton’s lifetime. Thomas Aikenhead was executed in 1697 in England, for denying the Trinity. Newton was 54 years old at the time, so execution for denying the Trinity literally happened during his lifetime.

Yes Whiston was a non-Trinitarian, and he and Newton were two of a small number of socially high placed heretics (including Samuel Clarke, Hopton Haynes), who shared their beliefs between each other. But they did so largely in secret. During Newton’s lifetime, laws against blasphemy, heresy, and in particular denying the Trinity, became more strict, not less. The ‘Act for the more effectual suppressing of blasphemy and profaneness’ of 1698 was aimed specifically against “by Writings, Printing, Teaching, or advised Speaking, deny any one of the Persons in the Holy Trinity to be God”.

Even though enforcement of these acts and ordinances was increasingly relaxed, the fact is that Newton did have “some rather despicable views” by the standards of his own society, and we know that he deliberately kept his anti-Trinitarian views a secret. We know from his correspondence with Whiston that he didn’t want people knowing about his beliefs.

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I’ll have a second, more general comment separately, Jon. Here I reply only to this.

Aikenhead, the last person to be executed for blasphemy in the British Isles, was executed in Edinburgh, not in England, after being convicted of violating two Scottish laws, one from 1661 and the other from 1695. No one, flat no one, was executed in England for denying the Trinity as late as this, during Newton’s adult life, regardless of what English laws said. This isn’t a mere technicality; it underlies what I briefly wrote about Newton.

Furthermore, Aikenhead was understood to be an actual atheist, not merely an anti-Trinitarian. Yes, he denied the Trinity. Of course he did, since he also affirmed the eternity of the world, denied the divine authority of the Bible, denied the existence of a spiritual realm, the reality of eternal life, and absolute moral standards. In other words, he was (from the point of view of the blasphemy laws) the complete package, the ultimate blasphemer. Even so, it’s not immediately clear why he was hanged and others weren’t. Certainly there were others, including the authors of books that were known to have influenced his thinking. Why single out Aikenhead? According to Michael Hunter (with whom I edited Boyle’s works), a leading historian of atheism (and an atheist himself) who wrote a detailed article about Aikenhead’s execution, Aikenhead was probably executed not so much for what he said and believed, as for how he said it. He eagerly dissed everything Christians believed, not in the sober language of an academic argument (which had already been done safely by others), but in vulgar name-calling and close equivalents, such as the claim that Moses and Jesus were just magicians and the Bible just a bunch of fancies. That’s what got him hanged.

Recommended: M Hunter, “‘Aikenhead the Atheist’: The Context and Consequences of Articulate Irreligion in the Late Seventeenth Century.” In this book: http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198227366.001.0001/acprof-9780198227366

Disclaimer: I’m not thrilled to make these historical points, b/c I have no sympathy whatsoever for blasphemy laws of any type, anywhere in the world, at any point in history. Like Robert Boyle and John Locke, I don’t believe that belief can or should be compelled. I agree with those Scottish ministers who sought to have Aikenhead’s sentence set aside, in the name of mercy if not also of justice. Nuff said. This isn’t a topic we should pursue further here, since it’s highly peripheral to our mission at BioLogos. I will still comment further on Newton, simply to affirm Jon’s statements about him.


I agree, Jon, that Newton held theological views that many of his contemporaries would have regarded as “despicable,” and that he carefully kept quiet about them b/c his views would have made him a pariah and he would have lost his job at Cambridge (or later, his position as a member of Parliament and even later as director of the Royal Mint). He was a hypocrite in this regard, since it was he above all who kept James II from forcing the university to accept a Catholic graduate student. James ordered Cambridge not to enforce (Anglican Protestant) theological orthodoxy on that student–a profound and offensive irony, is it not, given Newton’s personal story of evading the same religious test earlier in his career.

Yes it is ironic, and yes Newton was hypocritical. Stephen Snobelen’s paper “Isaac Newton, heretic: the strategies of a Nicodemite” explores several dimensions of Newton’s secrecy. Whiston himself challenged Newton over the fact that he kept his beliefs a secret. Whiston undoubtedly felt it particularly keenly since he did not conceal his own beliefs, and was thus in direct danger of prosecution.

Nevertheless, although Whiston largely kept Newton’s beliefs a secret, he did expend a lot of effort to expose Newton’s lack of orthodoxy through various indirect means. In Stephen Snobelen’s “William Whiston, Isaac Newton and the crisis of publicity”, the final break between Whiston and Newton is attributed to the tension which this issue created.

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