December 18, 1832 (a Tuesday)

HMS Beagle off Tierra del Fuego
(from an original by Raymond A Massey)

On this date, after passing through the straight of Le Maire at Tierra del Fuego, HMS Beagle anchored at Good Success Bay. Here Charles Darwin had his first encounter with savages. He was shocked by the primitive way of life they led but was also fascinated by them. A group of four male Fuegians (Yamana) met the landing party. After an attempt to communicate with the Fuegians the party presented them with some bright red cloth and the Fuegians immediately became friendly with them. The natives initiated a dialog by patting the crewmen on their chests. Apparently they had the most amazing ability to mimic the crew’s gestures and even the words they spoke, often repeating whole English sentences back to them. Darwin was bewildered by all this, and it left a lasting impression on him.

In chapter 21 entitled “General Summary and Conclusion” of his Descent of Man published years later in 1871, Darwin wrote:

We thus learn that man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped probably arboreal in its habits and an inhabitant of the Old World.

(…)

I am aware that the conclusions arrived at in this work will be denounced by some as highly irreligious; but he who denounces them is bound to shew why it is more irreligious to explain the origin of man as a distinct species by descent from some lower form, through the laws of variation and natural selection, than to explain the birth of the individual through the laws of ordinary reproduction. The birth both of the species and of the individual are equally parts of that grand sequence of events, which our minds refuse to accept as the result of blind chance. The understanding revolts at such a conclusion, whether or not we are able to believe that every slight variation of structure,– the union of each pair in marriage, the dissemination of each seed,– and other such events, have all been ordained for some special purpose.

(…)

The main conclusion arrived at in this work, namely that man is descended from some lowly organized form, will, I regret to say, be highly distasteful to many. But there can hardly be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians.

Darwin then reiterated his assessment of the Fuegians:

The astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into my mind – such were our ancestors. These men were absolutely naked and bedaubed with paint, their long hair was tangled, their mouths frothed with excitement, and their expression was wild, startled, and distrustful. They possessed hardly any arts, and like wild animals lived on what they could catch; they had no government, and were merciless to every one not of their own small tribe. He who has seen a savage in his native land will not feel much shame, if forced to acknowledge that the blood of some more humble creature flows in his veins. For my own part I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper, or from that old baboon, who descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs – as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.

Yamana Family Group, photo by Martin Gusinde (early 20th century)

Yamana Family Group, photo by Martin Gusinde (early 20th century)

It is often pointed out that Darwin frequently used the term “savages” when discussing the tribal people whom he wrote about. In his use of the term savages, however, Darwin was simply using the standard lexicon of his time; it was a term that everyone, from Popes to Presidents, used. Also, Darwin was hardly alone in his attitude towards tribal people, and his observations of “savages” are indeed accurate. The cultures that he came into contact with did engage in these practices, and it can hardly be surprising that he felt displeasure towards these qualities. Virtually everyone in Western civilization was repulsed by these traits in other cultures, as they should have been.

But in contrast to the existing views on race, Darwin showed that:

  • People cannot be classified as different species.
  • All races are related and have a common ancestry.
  • All people come from “savage” origins.
  • The different races have much more in common than was widely believed. [He also freely admitted to having had sexual relations with a black woman, something else unheard of in his time. (Darwin, 1874, p. 178)]
  • The mental capabilities of all races are virtually the same and there is greater variation within races than between races.
  • Different races of people can interbreed and there is no concern for ill effects.
  • Culture, not biology, accounted for the greatest differences between the races.
  • Races are not distinct, but rather they blend together.

The language of some of Darwin’s work on race was crude by today’s standard, but it was revolutionary in its opposition to the established ideas of the day, which held that the “savages” were inferior and had no hope of ever living in a state of equality with whites. Instead of being criticized as a racist, Darwin should rightfully be honored as one of the leaders of opposition to racism. He showed through his careful study and through his theory of evolution that we are indeed all related and that the key to social success as a species lies in extending our cooperation, sympathy, and assistance to people of all races and all nations. If Darwin had any social message, that, certainly, was it. In chapter 4 in Descent of Man, Darwin wrote:

As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. If, indeed, such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance or habits, experience unfortunately shews us how long it is, before we look at them as our fellow-creatures. … This virtue, one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings. As soon as this virtue is honoured and practised by some few men, it spreads through instruction and example to the young, and eventually becomes incorporated in public opinion.

The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognise that we ought to control our thoughts, and “not even in inmost thought to think again the sins that made the past so pleasant to us.” Whatever makes any bad action familiar to the mind, renders its performance by so much the easier. As Marcus Aurelius long ago said, “Such as are thy habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of thy mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.”

References:

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One response to “December 18, 1832 (a Tuesday)

  1. Pingback: This Thing of Darkness [Harry Thompson] | brewandbook

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