Despite the vast literature devoted to Charles Darwin's life and thought, scholarship devoted to his views of race tends to hit only a limited number of notes. On one hand, because Darwin cleaved to abolitionist views, seeing slavery as the blight on human existence that it was (and is), he has earned admirers. But in making his case for homo sapiens as merely one hominid among others, Darwin fell back on a hierarchical habit of mind that relied on racialized considerations of higher and lower human intelligences, and inferior and superior forms of human life. Certainly Darwin was concerned with nature and, as the cliché goes, “man's place” in it. Was Darwin a humanitarian or a racist? Charles De Paolo, a professor of English at Manhattan Community College, might say that the question was badly posed. His concern, in The Ethnography of Charles Darwin, is to show how Darwin grappled ambivalently with race throughout his career, in the context of his developing ideas on natural selection.

The book proceeds in three movements. The first, “Precursors and Analogues,” carefully paints the intellectual backdrop for what is to come. De Paolo shows how Darwin's ethnographical research derived from several sources: the “theological demography,” to use De Paolo's resonant phrase, of Thomas Robert Malthus; the explorer Alexander von Humboldt's holistic, data-intensive approach to natural science; and popular narratives of maritime exploration. Malthus justified, in theological terms, obvious natural limits on material resources. Populations could not grow without pushing their available sources of sustenance to exhaustion; competition for these scarce resources was the order of the day. Against this bleak vision, Humboldt framed his observations of the inhabitants of the equinoctial Americas in what we might now call “ecological” terms, attending in particular to the ways in which these peoples affected and were in turn affected by environmental changes, including the arrival of Europeans. A third influence was popular maritime history, especially the Beagle Narrative (1826-1830) by Captain Philip Parker King. Despite its surface variety and adventurousness, texts in this genre ultimately “reinforced ethnic assumptions about Native South Americans as being helpless barbarians, disposed to cannibalism, and reclaimable to humanity only if converted to Christianity and only if educated.” (7) Reconciling all three of these orientiations would prove impossible; but, as De Paolo shows, at different times and under different pressures, Darwin drew variously on all three in order to scaffold his developing line of argument on this question, until he hit on a workable synthesis in The Descent of Man.

Significantly, all three influences recurred to scientific or pseudoscientific to support their ethnographic claims. This was important because the unquestioned assumption of European intellectual superiority provided the foundation for so much that could be said, or even thought, about other civilizations. Even the popular maritime histories that de Paolo sees as so influential relied on phrenological evidence as a way to make claims about aboriginals. Darwin's readers would have been familiar with this literature and his own ethnographic writings emerged against this background. In contrast, Humboldt and Malthus each provided direct scientific authority, rather than borrowing that authority from others. And unlike the writers of popular travelogues, both Malthus and Humboldt offered original -- if opposed --- ways of understanding why some groups of people dominated others.

While the evidence for Humboldt's influence is indirect and piecemeal, nonetheless, certain links are suggestive, and De Paolo marshalls them in the service of making an interesting and convincing case for Humboldt as one of Darwin's long-term intellectual touchstones. As De Paolo reminds us, not only did Darwin read Humboldt's Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America during the Years 1799-1804 while in his final Cambridge year, but he also recommended the work to friends and family and even transcribed passages that he found especially appealing (18). Years later, Darwin again found Humboldt's Narrative useful, this time as a source of ethnological data. In the 1871 edition of the Descent of Man, Darwin “alluded intermittently to [Humboldt's] views on the languages of lost tribes, on the cosmetic arts of savages, on the exaggeration of natural characters by man, and on the body painting of the American Indians” (18), deferring in each instance to Humboldt's authority as an ethnographic observer.

While de Paolo is surely right to count Humboldt among Darwin's major influences, de Paolo's characterization of Humboldt suffers from an excess of idealization that may have been avoided, had de Paolo reckoned with the scholarship on Humboldt and so-called "Humboldtian science" (of which Susan Faye Cannon provided the classic, and arguably still unsurpassed, account in 1978). Opposing Humboldlt to Malthus, de Paolo veers toward caricature of both figures. In contrast to the seemingly heartless Malthus, de Paolo's Humboldt comes across admirably open-minded and humanitarian, “sensitive to human suffering, [a person who] held human beings of all races in high regard, and was able to balance this humane and moral perspective on native society with an analytical one that, without prejudgment, took into account the material and cultural traditions, as well as the ethnic character, of indigenes” (18-19). While Humboldt's liberal, self-critical outlook is attractive, this is probably going too far. As historians of Humboldtian science since Cannon have shown, Humboldt carried a good deal of intellectual and cultural baggage with him to the Americas. Like many scientists of his generation who also trained at the university at Goettingen at the close of the eighteenth century, Humboldt owed a considerable intellectual debt to comparative anatomists such as Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, who based his influential system of racial classification on measurements of human skulls (Walls 174-175). While Blumenbach does get a nod toward the end of De Paolo's study (149-150), the link to Humboldt goes unmade. Ironically, it was a short step from Blumenbach to the popular preoccupation with phrenology which, as de Paolo points out, informs a great deal of Fitzroy's Beagle Narrative. Despite the missed connection between Humboldt and Blumenbach, De Paolo's narrative comes nicely full circle just here, permitting the reader to appreciate just how tiny Darwin's pre-Beagle world was. His formation as an ethnographer occurred in a finite and consistent intellectual universe, a little province of ethnographic ideas against whose boundaries Darwin would struggle, ambivalently, for the rest of his career.

Having set the stage, de Paolo devotes the second part of The Ethnography of Charles Darwin to a close study of the development of Darwin's ethnological thought. Perhaps the strongest section describes Darwin's earliest ethnological ideas, from his musings on the Beagle to the 1830s. In this context, the influences of Malthus and Humboldt, not to mention those of the popular maritime chroniclers, are most evident, and de Paolo does a fine job linking them with Darwin's unfolding experiences as a young naturalist aboard the Beagle. As recorded in his Beagle Diary and later in his Autobigraphy, Darwin's experiences, onshore and off, were a source of enormous discovery. He was moreover engaged in a long debate over slavery with Captain Fitzroy, and, as de Paolo shows, the trip offered both men opportunities to hash out their positions in conversation with, for, and against a number of real individuals whose dealings with Darwin at times -- but not always -- gave rise to important recognitions of shared humanity. Throughout this section, De Paolo frames Darwin's observations as part of a developing ethical stance. Taking Darwin's position on slavery as a proxy for his ethnological ethics more generally, de Paolo shows how Darwin's abolitionist views developed in connection with the abuses he witnessed in Brazil and elsewhere.

While this section is densely argued, de Paolo's generous descriptions of sights, sounds and interactions lend color and interest. His discussion of the Brazilian plantation system is particularly vivid and clearly linked to an insight about first-hand knowledge as the source of Darwin's ethnological ethics. In Rio, Darwin, “had lived opposite to an old lady who used thumb screws to crush the fingers of female slaves” and had “helplessly witnessed the daily mistreatment of a young mulatto who,” as Darwin put it, “was 'reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal.'” (78; Darwin qtd. on 78) Darwin's outrage, so evident here, was neither immediately nor universally shared. This non-response perplexed Darwin; he didn't understand how others could fail to recognize slavery's immorality. Though de Paolo doesn't quite make the point explicitly, it seems that Darwin's experiences had changed him in a fundamental way that significantly distanced him, moreover, from his contemporaries who were still at home. “The idea that slavery was a tolerable evil was a fallacy,” de Paolo observes, “but few people had a true and comprehensive understanding of its ugliness.” (78) As de Paolo shows, Darwin was among them.

At other moments, however, Darwin proved less admirable, and it is here that De Paolo's argument falters. In Tierra del Fuego, while Fitzroy complacently claimed to be meeting “primitive human beings in a remediable condition” (82; this is de Paolo's gloss), Darwin struggled to find evidence that would subvert this view. He continued to worry the question in subsequent decades, trying in different ways to reconcile his observations with rumors, other research, and the testimony of native informants such as “Jemmy,” whose contradictory behaviors frustrated Darwin but did not seem to surprise Fitzroy, who had made up his mind in advance about Jemmy anyway -- a prejudgment that led in one instance to a thoroughly avoidable misunderstanding with Jemmy's people (85-90). What emerges from this section is a picture of Darwin struggling both to understand what he saw around him while trying to fit those observations into a durable ethical framework. Perhaps it is too much to ask, as de Paolo does, that this framework be consistent with Darwin's abolitionist views. At times, the struggle got the best of Darwin, as when he and several others dug up a cairn on Guanaco Island, ruining the site in pursuit of a deeper understanding of local burial practices. While de Paolo claims that “it would be unfair” (109) to compare this act with the tomb-raider Giovanni Belzoni's systematic plunder of Egypt, de Paolo just does make the comparison, with strained results. The strain seems to come from the fact that de Paolo feels he must do something with this inconvenient side of Darwin. This move is better than nothing, but Darwin was no Belzoni; and Belzoni was not the only person at this time making a fortune on the removal of Egyptian antiquities to European collections (Fagan 1975) so it is unclear why de Paolo has singled him out. In his haste to make sense of Darwin's lapse at Gaunaco Island, moreover, de Paolo leaves to one side several interesting questions: To what extent was Darwin's ambivalence shared by his contemporaries? To what extent did they even recognize it as ambivalence? And what in the world permitted them to hold such apparently contradictory views for so long?

The book's final section, "The Post-Voyage Ethnology," deals with Darwin's re-workings of his experiences in the tropics in his later work on natural selection, human intelligence, and interracial conflicts. According to de Paolo, these issues took on increasing salience for Darwin, moving from isolated musings in his 1830s notebooks to sustained arguments, some two decades later, in his major published works as well as in his correspondence with Lyell, Kingsley, and his closest rival, the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. “While Darwin accepted racial equality as an unassailable truth,” de Paolo notes that “in select instances he still found it difficult to accept, and this was as true of his thinking in the 1860s as it was in the 1870s” (166). During these years, Darwin often resolved ambiguities surrounding race and natural selection by recurring to intelligence as the factor that allowed one group to dominate another. De Paolo's recapitulation of Darwin's reasoning here will be familiar. It was a short step from ideas about superior intelligence in general, to the supremacy of European intelligence in particular, especially when it came to scientific and technological matters. On this view, European imperialist and industrial projects were not only evolutionarily advantageous but their success was also, for that reason, a “biological certainty” (173).

Related Material


Cannon, Susan Faye. Science in Culture: The Early Victorian Period. New York: Science History Publications, 1978.

De Paolo, Charles. The Ethnography of Charles Darwin: A Study of His Writings on Aboriginal Peoples. Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: MacFarland, 2010.

Fagan, Brian M. The Rape of the Nile: Tomb Robbers, Tourists, and Archaeologists in Egypt. New York: Scribner's, 1975.

Walls, Laura Dassow. The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

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Last modified 11 August 2013