How Charles Darwin Spawned So Much Pseudo-Scientific Racism

The iconic "On the Origin of Species" has a tragic legacy of being misinterpreted to justify bigotry.

February 11, 2019 5:00 am
Detail of a portrait of Charles Darwin with selective focus on the eyes. (Getty)
Detail of a portrait of Charles Darwin with selective focus on the eyes. (Getty)
Getty Images

“In my mind, Darwin was the most important person who ever lived on earth.” That’s what 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine winner James Watson announced during a 2005 discussion of Charles Darwin with fellow biologist E.O. Wilson and interviewer Charlie Rose. Watson more often receives praise than gives it. (And when he does dole it out, Watson often reserves it for Watson, once referring to himself as “the most accomplished person living on earth.”) Many others hold both Darwin and Watson in similarly lofty esteem. During that Darwin discussion, Wilson made a point of announcing: “500 years from now, 1,000 years now, there will be two landmarks on the origin of modern biology.” One: [Darwin’s] “The Origin of Species in 1859.” Two: The “1953 paper showing the structure of DNA by Watson and [Francis] Crick.” Cambridge University highlights the link between Darwin and Watson and the general importance of their work in the video below:

So Watson is on record as a big fan of Darwin’s and is a major figure in his own right. This is something else Watson said on the record: “There’s a difference on the average between blacks and whites in IQ tests. I would say the difference is genetic.” Watson uttered those remarks in the 2019 PBS documentary American Masters: Decoding Watson. This statement is wrong in many ways, including scientifically. Yet it’s consistent with many troubling theories and discriminatory practices that claim to be based on the science behind On the Origin of Species. “Darwinism” is often invoked to provide scientific cover to policies both racist and plain monstrous. This is how Darwin’s ideas become bastardized and why they would be so disturbing to him were he alive today.

The Journey That Changed Everything 

Darwin was born on February 12, 1809 in Shrewsbury, England. He had just graduated from Christ’s College in Cambridge when the HMS Beagle invited him to serve as the naturalist on a voyage around the world. In 1831, he began a five-year trek that changed him and then the rest of humanity. Much of it was spent along the coast of South America, notably the Galápagos Islands. This led to Darwin observing animals that shared many qualities, yet still had differences. He wrote:

“The distribution of tenants of this archipelago would not be nearly so wonderful, if for instance, one island has a mocking-thrush and a second island some other quite distinct species… But it is the circumstance that several of the islands possess their own species of tortoise, mocking-thrush, finches, and numerous plants, these species having the same general habits, occupying analogous situations, and obviously filling the same place in the natural economy of this archipelago, that strikes me with wonder.”

Thus Darwin developed the theory of evolution, which occurs through the process of natural selection. All of this became known as “Darwinism.” Creatures could have a common ancestor, but different environments might  require them to adapt radically different attributes to survive. Generally, it had been believed that living things basically stayed as they were. Now this belief was shattered. It was a huge development for biologists, but its significance went well beyond science.

Religious and Racial Implications

It was particularly jarring for Creationists, who held that modern life was still in the form that God had created. (Though in another way, Darwin’s theories could be seen as extremely consistent with religious dogma—he was asserting we all sprang from a common ancestor, much as the bible says humanity emerged from Adam and Eve.) Darwin’s theories also were a blow against many of the beliefs used to justify slavery. By asserting each human racial type was created separately, slavery supporters could argue that only whites could be traced back to Adam and Eve. Thus these other races were not created in God’s image and subjugating them was acceptable, even expected.

Now Darwin showed that all humanity was linked. Either all of us connected to Adam and Eve or none of us did. He had deftly exposed the absurdity of the excuses used to justify enslaving other human beings.

Darwin’s own family was opposed to slavery. His grandfather, the potter Josiah Wedgwood, mass-produced images of a chained black slave with the caption, “Am I not a man and a brother?” The time on the HMS Beagle only confirmed Darwin’s personal beliefs as he witnessed firsthand the brutality of the “peculiar institution.” He was horrified to witness thumbscrews used as punishments and unnerved when a slave instinctively recoiled from him, expecting to be beaten. 

This is not to say that Darwin always displayed the enlightened attitudes of modern times. For instance, he noted that “the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.” But he was a man troubled by slavery who ultimately provided a scientific argument for its abolition. Making it all the more ironic that his ideas would be twisted to fuel brutal new forms of racism.


Daniel Kevles, a professor of the history of science and medicine at Yale, wrote an essay titled “In the Name of Darwin.” In it, he observes: “The word ‘eugenics’ was coined in 1883 by the English scientist Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, to promote the ideal of perfecting the human race by, as he put it, getting rid of its ‘undesirables’ while multiplying its ‘desirables.’” Essentially, humanity could give natural selection a hand by getting rid of those who (in the eyes of “desirables”) should just fade away eventually anyway. 

The Nazis embraced eugenics. As Smithsonian Magazine reported in 2018: “Nazi Germany’s ‘euthanasia program,’ which began approximately two years before the genocide of European Jews, targeted people with psychiatric, neurological or physical disabilities who were said to be a genetic and financial drain on the German state, and therefore ‘unworthy of life,’ according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It has been estimated that 200,000 adults and children were murdered in the name of this policy.”

Eugenics and its barbaric logic has been scientifically discredited, hopefully forever. Yet Darwinism continues to breed bigotry, less explicitly murderous but still deeply troubling.

Race “Science”

To this day, there are periodic attempts to rank races by intelligence. The most famous effort remains Charles Murray’s 1994 book The Bell Curve, which became notorious for reporting black IQ scores were lower than white ones. (A far less reported bit of data noted that whites scored lower than Asians.) Critics have argued the book gives the impression this is due primarily to genetics while downplaying the role environment plays in shaping this data.

This obviously has huge implications from a public policy standpoint. If IQ is just plain genetics, what’s the point in spending money to attempt to help people elevate their scores? But if IQ can be shaped by everything from quality of education to proper nutrition, the data becomes a damning indictment of how society continues to fail minority members while providing whites built-in advantages.

So which is it: Nature or nurture? At this point, let’s switch to football.

What Apparent Racial Trends Actually Mean

In 2016, Robert Klemko wrote an article for Sports Illustrated titled “How Quarterbacks Are Made.” A record 15 quarterbacks were drafted that year: Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Paxton Lynch, Christian Hackenberg, Jacoby Brissett, Cody Kessler, Connor Cook, Dak Prescott, Cardale Jones, Kevin Hogan, Nate Sudfeld, Jake Rudock, Brandon Allen, Jeff Driskel, and Brandon Doughty. 

Not counting the biracial Prescott, 12 of these quarterbacks are white. This is true of less than 30 percent of NFL players overall—the players who compete at pro football’s highest level are over two-thirds black.

So what does the fact that most NFL players are black yet most NFL quarterback selections are white prove in terms of race?

Not necessarily anything. Klemko found a crucial bit of common ground between the picks wasn’t their racial background—it was the special training they received. He reported that, before high school graduation, “12 of the 15 received varying degrees of individual instruction from a QB coach who was not a parent or a team-affiliated coach.” He noted many members of this group engaged in paying “significant fees or traveling great distances to do so.”

What does that suggest? For one, extensive preparation is at least as vital as raw talent. For another, if you’re going to be drafted as a quarterback by the NFL, it’s good to have the money, parental support, and connections necessary to make elite training possible. In 2016, at least, white quarterback prospects seemed to have more access to special instruction, which in turn made them more appealing to top college programs and eventually NFL general managers.

(Incidentally, time hasn’t reflected tremendously well on the judgement of NFL GMs. Of those 15, Goff and Wentz were drafted #1 and 2 overall and have thus far lived up to billing, Prescott has proven an unexpected fixture with the Cowboys, and the rest of the list are largely dim memories.) 

Of course, the NFL Draft is nothing like an IQ test. NFL picks ultimately get proven successes or failures. IQ tests, however, stay meaningless.

Don’t Insult Our Intelligence

TruTV’s Adam Ruins Everything is known for debunking accepted wisdom. It took less than two minutes to demolish IQ tests: 


At best, IQ tests are a simplistic approach to establishing how smart a person is. A 2012 study found they need to be matched with at least two other tests before the data is vaguely useful. (At minimum, there should be separate tests of short-term memory, reasoning, and verbal skills.) 

Meaning the very foundation on which The Bell Curve and similar works are built is rotten. A rigorous scientist would have found a reputable form of testing before they even attempted to form any conclusions about intelligence, much less asserting they had a worked out a racial hierarchy.

So why do these theories persist? Well, The Bell Curve became a publishing sensation, proving yet again that controversy can be turned into cash. And if you’re simply convinced that the races are different, why wouldn’t you embrace a chance to dress up your bigotry in a veneer of science?

Which leaves only one lingering question: How the hell did James Watson get caught up in this mess?

When Great Minds Go Wrong

Decoding Watson offers a portrait of Watson as a brilliant biologist… but also an incorrigible noodge.


Quite simply, this is a man who enjoys getting others’ goats. One of Watson’s books is titled Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science. His most famous publication is The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of DNA. First published in 1968, it both documents vital scientific work and teases his associates. Thus, he described a female colleague’s plain appearance before concluding she could be “the product of an unsatisfied mother who unduly stressed the desirability of professional careers that could save bright girls from marriages to dull men.”

(Watson also includes a much kinder reference, noting he realized “years too late the struggles that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world which often regards women as mere diversions from serious thinking.”)

Darwin was a deeply reserved man. When he wrote his Autobiography, it was intended purely for his family. He didn’t publish On the Origin of the Species until over two decades after he ended that voyage on the HMS Beagle—even then, he did so only because a scientist was publishing papers with similar ideas. Watson, on the other hand, has always been free of a filter. His openness can be charming. It’s hard not to be tickled by a Nobel Prize winner who will bluntly dismiss a project he disagrees with as “all crap.”

It should be also noted that Watson was born in 1928. This is not to suggest the era he was raised excuses all his views, just to note that he is old, with his 91st birthday drawing near. With age, sometimes come allowances.

But there are limits. Watson declared during a 2000 lecture: “Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you’re not going to hire them.” (Apparently, he reasoned being thin and hungry leaves you unhappy, and hence a harder worker.) The San Francisco Chronicle reported during this same lecture he mused that sun exposure/dark skin lead to improved sexual prowess: “That’s why you have Latin Lovers. You’ve never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient.”

On another occasion, Watson talked about finding a gay gene and giving women the right to abort those children if they’re uncomfortable with raising a homosexual.

And, of course, there are the quotes on race and IQ. 

In Decoding Watson, colleagues appalled by his remarks still note his personal consideration with them. (RCL contacted one longtime acquaintance of Watson’s. While declining to be interviewed on the record, this individual hoped people would keep in mind Watson’s generosity as a mentor and other good works—these include tirelessly raising money for research into cancer genetics. ) 

What may be saddest about Watson’s comments is how they demonstrate the way even a great intellect can abandon scientific rigor. Watson’s essential work on DNA structure was done in collaboration with the late Francis Crick. Without Crick (but with plenty of people reminding him of his genius), it’s easy to see how Watson could get lazy. His wildest opinions can be cruel. They’re also unscientific—he has written no papers backing up his assertion that the thin are miserable yet industrious, but simply presents it as fact.

Like all of us, Watson holds personal biases. In general, he asserts DNA matters over environment or any other factor. This may be correct—time has proven Watson right about a lot. But this is also what he wants to be true. After all, DNA is his claim to immortality, the subject to which he has devoted his life. Anything that reduces the importance of DNA is, in a way, a critique of him, much as a bigot feels anything elevating another race drags down their own. Thus he is prone to making bold assertions, yet feels no need to support them with proof. For all his admiration of Charles Darwin, Watson failed to heed Darwin’s timeless words of caution: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

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