Tag Archives: Racism

November 12, 1900 (a Monday)

Edward Alsworth Ross

On this date, the economist and sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross was forced to resign from Stanford University as Professor of Sociology. This intrusion on academic freedom, which partly led to the founding of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), clearly mixed not only intramural and extramural speech but also disciplinary and non-disciplinary speech.

In 1896, Ross endorsed the idea of free silver in a pamphlet and spoke in public on behalf of the Democratic presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan. Leland Stanford, the university’s founder, had died and left control of the institution to his widow Jane. She was offended at Ross’ break with Republican orthodoxy and demanded that he be fired. The university president managed to secure a delay and a sabbatical for Ross to provide a cooling off period.

On his return in 1900, however, Ross extended his public persona to include a condemnation of Chinese immigration which mixed labor issues with issues of race. In his words:

I tried to show that owing to its high Malthusian birth rate the Orient is the land of “cheap men,” and that the [Chinese immigrant worker], though he cannot outdo the American, can underlive him [in other words, because Chinese immigrants are racially disposed to work for lower wages, they are able to displace the native workers]. I took the ground that the high standard of living that restrains multiplication in America will be imperiled if Orientals are allowed to pour into this country in great numbers before they have raised their standard of living and lowered their birth-rate. I argued that the Pacific is the natural frontier of East and West, and that California might easily experience the same terrible famines as India and China if it teemed with the same kind of men. In thus scientifically co-ordinating the birth-rate with the intensity of the struggle for existence I struck a new note in the discussion of Oriental immigration, which, to quote one of the newspapers, “made a profound impression.”

I quote Ross at length to show that Ross, although his racism and his deplorable and misguided defense of it were not peculiar to him and were actually quite common among influential “progressives” of the time, was no angel. Somewhat obsessed with race, Ross was of course convinced that “the blood now being injected into the veins of our people is sub-human”; the newer immigrants were “morally below the races of northern Europe”; and that it all would end in “Race Suicide”.

Jane Lothrop Stanford was outraged, not because of Ross’s racism but because the Stanford fortune had been built on Chinese labor. Now he was out of a job.

Professional economists and some of the future founders of the AAUP came to Ross’s defense, despite the fact that while the 1896 comments were partly within his area of expertise, at least insofar as an economist was qualified to comment on the gold standard, the 1900 remarks were clearly not, since they went beyond commenting on Chinese labor to include a plea for Anglo-Saxon racial purity. Of course the 1896 statements included not only economic analysis but also a political endorsement. One would like to think that at least some of Ross’s defenders found his racism objectionable, but that they defended his right to speak nonetheless.

From 1900 to the 1920s, Ross supported the temperance (alcohol prohibition) movement as well as eugenics and immigration restriction. To his credit, by 1930 Ross had shed these notions and spent the greater part of his efforts promoting the New Deal reform and the freedoms of the individual. In fact, he became national chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1940, serving until 1950.


June 7, 1893 (a Wednesday)

Mohandas Gandhi (right) with his brother Laxmidas in 1886.

On this date, Mohandas K. Gandhi, a young Indian lawyer working in South Africa, refused to comply with racial segregation rules on a South African train and was forcibly ejected at Pietermaritzburg.

Gandhi was born in Porbandar in the present state of Gujarat on October 2, 1869, and educated in law at University College, London. In 1891, after having been admitted to the British bar, Gandhi returned to India and attempted to establish a law practice in Bombay, with little success. Two years later an Indian firm with interests in South Africa retained him as legal adviser under a one-year contract in its office in Durban, SA. Here he was subjected to racism and South African laws that restricted the rights of Indian laborers.

Gandhi later recalled one such incident as his moment of truth. While traveling by train to Pretoria, a white man objected to Gandhi’s presence in a first-class carriage. Despite having a first-class ticket, Gandhi was asked to move to the van compartment at the end of the train. He refused and was thrown off the train at Pietermaritzburg station. There he spent the night in the waiting room and it is there he decided he would stay in South Africa to fight against racial discrimination. It was Gandhi’s first act of civil disobedience. From thereon, he decided to fight injustice and defend his rights as an Indian and a man.

Known as Mahatma, or “the great soul,” during his lifetime, Gandhi’s persuasive methods of civil disobedience influenced leaders of civil rights movements around the world, especially Martin Luther King, Jr., in the United States.

[My favorite Gandhi quote – Ed.:]

A time is coming when those, who are in the mad rush today of multiplying their wants, vainly thinking that they add to the real substance, real knowledge of the world, will retrace their steps and say: ‘What have we done?’

Civilizations have come and gone, and in spite of all our vaunted progress, I am tempted to ask again and again, ‘To what purpose?’ Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin, has said the same thing. Fifty years of brilliant inventions and discoveries, he has said, have not added one inch to the moral height of mankind. So said a dreamer and visionary if you will–Tolstoy. So said Jesus, and the Buddha, and Mahomed, whose religion is being denied and falsified in my own country today.

[Source: Mahatma (D.G. Tendulkar) Vol. 2; 2nd edn.(1960), Publications Division; p. 29.]

May 13, 1846 (a Wednesday)

Map of Gen. Taylor's advance, July 1845 to May 1846.

Map of Gen. Taylor’s advance, July 1845 to May 1846.

On this date, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly voted in favor of President James K. Polk’s request to declare war on Mexico in a dispute over Texas – the first American military conflict fought entirely on foreign soil.

The events that led to the war show that Polk deliberately provoked the conflict: Although Mexico had not formally recognized the independence of Texas or its annexation by the United States, Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor in 1845 to lead a 3,500-man army into Texas to Corpus Christi on the Nueces River, which Mexico considered its northern border.

On 8 March 1846, Secretary of War Marcy ordered Taylor to move his army from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande River, which Texas considered its southern border. On March 28, Taylor reached his destination, the north bank of the river directly opposite the Mexican town of Matamoros. His army began constructing an earthen fortification called Fort Texas (later renamed Fort Brown).

On April 11, Mexican General Mariano Arista and his army reached Matamoros. Arista considered Taylor’s arrival on the Rio Grande an act of aggression and demanded that his army withdraw north of the Nueces River, but Taylor refused. Mexican President Mariano Paredes issued a manifesto on April 23, arguing that by advancing into Mexican territory — and simultaneously threatening Upper California with naval mobilizations off the Pacific Coast — the United States had already begun hostilities. Mexican soldiers believed it was a defensive war when they ambushed the troops of American Captain Seth B. Thornton and killed or injured about 16 of his men on April 24; Taylor sent Polk a letter declaring that “hostilities have commenced.”

Interestingly, on 12 January 1848, a member of the Illinois delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives, Abraham Lincoln, questioned Polk’s motives and accused him of lying to Congress about his justification for the war:

The President, in his first message of May, 1846, declares that the soil was ours on which hostilities were commenced by Mexico; and he repeats that declaration, almost in the same language, in each successive annual message – thus showing that he esteems that point a highly essential one. In the importance of that point, I entirely agree with the President. To my judgment, it is the very point upon which he should be justified or condemned. In his message of December, 1846, it seems to have occurred to him… that it was incumbent upon him to present the facts from which he concluded the soil was ours, on which the first blood of the war was shed. Accordingly…in the message last referred to, he enters upon that task; forming an issue and introducing testimony… Now, I propose to try to show that the whole of this — issue and evidence — is, from beginning to end, the sheerest deception.


I am now through the whole of the President’s evidence; and it is a singular fact, that if any one should declare the President sent the army into the midst of a settlement of Mexican people, who had never submited, by consent or by force to the authority of Texas or of the United States, and that there, and thereby, the first blood of the war was shed, there is not one word in all the President has said which would either admit or deny the declaration [i.e., Polk did not answer the charge]. In this strange omission cheifly consists the deception of the President’s evidence – an omission which, it does seem to me, could scarcely have occurred but by design. [emphases in the original]

An important factor that led to the war was the American ideology of Manifest Destiny. John L. O’Sullivan coined the phrase when he wrote in the July/August 1845 issue of The Democratic Review that it must be “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” The term conveyed the idea that the rightful destiny of the United States included imperialistic expansion.

Although the phrase Manifest Destiny was a neologism in 1845, the philosophy it referred to had been around for centuries in America. As originally conceived, Manifest Destiny was an unabashedly prejudiced idea. It rested upon the sidelining or eradication (both real-world and fictional) of American Indian peoples; there was little place for African Americans (free or enslaved) within the trope; Asian and Hispanic immigrants did not figure in the ideal America it conjured. Catholics were generally ignored; women were deemed unimportant. God intended North America to be under the control of peoples who were white, Protestant, and overwhelmingly male, with an unquenchable thirst for free enterprise. It was a kind of early projection of Anglo-Saxon supremacy and there was a conspicuous racist element to it.

Boone’s First View of Kentucky, by William Ranney (1849). Manifest Destiny influenced American art, and American art supported Manifest Destiny.

Boone’s First View of Kentucky, by William Ranney (1849). Manifest Destiny influenced American art, and American art supported Manifest Destiny.

Of course, Americans did not universally subscribe to Manifest Destiny, but its vocal critics were always in the minority. One of them, William E. Channing, wrote an open letter to Henry Clay in 1837:

Did this county know itself, or were it disposed to profit by self-knowledge, it would feel the necessity of laying an immediate curb on its passion for extended territory…. We are a restless people, prone to encroachment, impatient of the ordinary laws of progress… We boast of our rapid growth, forgetting that, throughout nature, noble growths are slow….. It is full time that we should lay on ourselves serious, resolute restraint. Possessed of a domain, vast enough for the growth of ages, it is time for us to stop in the career of acquisition and conquest. Already endangered by our greatness, we cannot advance without imminent peril to our institutions, union, prosperity, virtue, and peace….. It is sometimes said, that nations are swayed by laws, as unfailing as those which govern matter; that they have their destinies; that their character and position carry them forward irresistibly to their goal;….that … the Indians have melted before the white man, and the mixed, degraded race of Mexico must melt before the Anglo-Saxon. Away with this vile sophistry! There is no necessity for crime. There is no fate to justify rapacious nations, any more than to justify gamblers and robbers, in plunder. We boast of the progress of society, and this progress consists in the substitution of reason and moral principle for the sway of brute force….We talk of accomplishing our destiny. So did the late conqueror of Europe [Napoleon]; and destiny consigned him to a lonely rock in the ocean, the prey of ambition which destroyed no peace but his own.


I have alluded to the want of wisdom with which we are accustomed to speak of our destiny as a people. We are destined [emphasis in the original] (that is the word) to overspread North America; and, intoxicated with the idea, it matters little to us how we accomplish our fate. To spread, to supplant others, to cover a boundless space, this seems our ambition, no matter what influence we spread with us. Why cannot we rise to noble conceptions of our destiny? Why do we not feel, that that our work as a nation is, to carry freedom, religion, science, and a nobler form of human nature over this continent; and why do we not remember, that to diffuse these blessings we must first cherish them in our own borders; and that whatever deeply and permanently corrupts us will make our spreading influence a curse, not a blessing, to this new world? It is a common idea in Europe, that we are destined to spread an inferior civilization over North America; that our slavery and our absorption in gain and outward interests mark us out, as fated to fall behind the old world in the higher improvements of human nature, in the philosophy, the refinements, the enthusiasm of literature and the arts which throw a lustre round older countries. I am not prophet enough to read our fate. I believe, indeed, that we are to make our futurity for ourselves. I believe, that a nation’s destiny lies in its character, in the principles which govern its policy and bear rule in the hearts of its citizens. I take my stand on God’s moral and eternal law. A nation renouncing and defying this cannot be free, cannot be great.

After the Mexican-American War began, U.S. expansionists invoked the phrase Manifest Destiny to rationalize imperialistic demands that their country use the opportunity provided by the conflict and conquer and retain much or all of Mexico. Even O’Sullivan, who had stressed Manifest Destiny’s peaceful nature, claimed that the United States deserved an indemnity such as California from Mexico. Many wartime proponents of Manifest Destiny fused into the ideology a belief that the United States had a mission to regenerate Mexico by bringing progress and Protestantism southward: U.S. troops would liberate what was described as a benighted Mexican population from the control of despotic rulers and Catholic priests. In answer to racist objections to absorbing Mexicans into the Union, some wartime expansionists responded that through superior breeding abilities or other means U.S. Anglo-Saxons would gradually displace Mexicans, and that there was nothing to fear from expansion southward.

Manifest Destiny was a graceful way to justify something unjustifiable. Ulysses S. Grant, one of the most prominent of American military men, and himself a participant in the war, wrote in his memoirs, “I do not think there ever was a more wicked war than that waged by the United States in Mexico. I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster, only I had not moral courage enough to resign.”

Unfortunately, the ideology of Manifest Destiny has continued to be an important concept in American culture up to the present day. After the Mexican-American War, U.S. expansionists broadened Manifest Destiny’s scope, applying the slogan increasingly to areas beyond the continent including Cuba, Hawaii, South America, and the Philippines. Like Americans before 1845, we may not use the specific words “Manifest Destiny” to describe the belief that America has a unique destiny in the world, but the concept is still at the heart of much U.S. foreign policy, American pop culture, and contemporary political debate.


April 22, 1927 (a Friday): The Political Flood

Flood refugees on the levee in Greenville, Miss. in 1927. (Courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History, accession no.: PI/CI/G74.4, no. 46).

Flood refugees on the levee in Greenville, Miss. in 1927. (Courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History, accession no.: PI/CI/G74.4, no. 46).

And the rains came. They came in amounts never seen by any white man, before or since. They fell throughout the entire Mississippi River Valley, from the Appalachians to the Rockies. They caused widespread flooding that made 1927 the worst year ever in the valley. The Great Flood of 1927 at one point covered 26,000 square miles in water ten feet deep. More water, more damage, more fear, more panic, more misery, more death by drowning than any American had seen before, or would again.

On this date, President Calvin Coolidge issued a proclamation to the nation. He declared, “The Government is giving such aid as lies within its powers …. But the burden of caring for the homeless rests upon the agency designated by Government charter to provide relief in disaster — the American National Red Cross.” He made no mention of emergency appropriations. Rather, Coolidge, as President of the United States and the Red Cross, asked for the public to donate $5 million [$55.9 million in 2005 dollars] to the Red Cross. Additionally, the President created a quasi governmental commission to assist the Red Cross in the relief effort. Coolidge appointed Herbert Hoover, Secretary of Commerce, as chairman.

The flood propelled Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who was in charge of flood relief operations, into the national spotlight and set the stage for his election to the Presidency.

The flood had the unlikely effect of contributing to both the election of Herbert Hoover as President, and his defeat four years later. He was much lauded for his masterful handling of the refugee camps, but later concerns over the treatment of blacks in those camps caused him to make promises to the African-American community which he later broke, losing the black vote in his re-election campaign.

Flood refugees near Greenville, Miss. in 1927. (Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis District)

Flood refugees near Greenville, Miss. in 1927. (Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Memphis District)

Several reports on the terrible situation in the refugee camps, including one by the Colored Advisory Commission led by Robert Russa Moton, were kept out of the media at the request of Herbert Hoover, with the promise of further reforms for blacks after the presidential election.

However, once elected President in 1928, Hoover ignored Robert Moton and the promises he had made to his black constituency. In the following election of 1932, Moton withdrew his support for Hoover and switched to the Democratic Party. In an historic shift, African Americans began to abandon the Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, and turned to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Democratic Party instead.

The flood of 1927 changed America. It put Herbert Hoover in the White House, even while his duplicity in dealing with blacks helped begin the shift of black voters from the Republicans to the Democrats. It inspired Congress to pass a law putting responsibility for the Mississippi in Federal hands, making it easier for both Congress and the public to accept an even larger Federal presence during the New Deal years. And the pressures the flood brought to bear on the delicate racial fabric of the Deep South caused ruptures that could never be mended.

February 19, 1942 (a Thursday)

Order posting.

On this date, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the War Department to define military areas in the western states and to exclude from them anyone who might threaten the war effort.  Key U.S. leaders claimed that all people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast of the U.S. posed a risk to national security. This led to the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans in what Roosevelt called “concentration camps,” often located in Native American reservations.

When war had seemed imminent with Japan in the Fall of 1941, Roosevelt had assigned a Chicago businessman, Curtis B. Munson, to be a special representative of the State Department and to go to the West Coast and Hawaii to determine the degree of loyalty to be found among the residents of Japanese descent.  Munson toured Hawaii and the Pacific Coast and interviewed Army and Navy intelligence officers, military commanders, city officials, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The overall result of his twenty-five page report was that:

…there is no Japanese “problem” on the Coast. There will be no armed uprising of Japanese. There will undoubtedly be some sabotage financed by Japan and executed largely by imported agents.

…for the most part, the local Japanese are loyal to the U.S. or, at worst, hope that by remaining quiet they can avoid concentration camps or irresponsible mobs. We do not believe that they would be at least any more disloyal than any other racial group in the United States with whom we went to war.

Munson’s report was submitted to the White House on November 7, 1941. It was then circulated to several Cabinet officials, including Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Attorney General Francis Biddle, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull. On February 5, 1942, Stimson sent a copy of the so-called Munson Report to President Roosevelt, along with a memo stating that War Department officials had carefully studied the document.

The Munson Report should have conclusively put to rest the existence of Japanese sabotage in the United States. The report also should have resolved any fears about the security of the West Coast as well. The lack of any evidence showing the Japanese-Americans being involved in espionage rings should have prevented the need for internment camps, but after the attack on Pearl Harbor the United States government chose to impound innocent people behind barbed wire. The results of Munson’s fact-finding mission were inexplicably suppressed until 1946.

Race prejudice and wartime hysteria.

Race prejudice and wartime hysteria.

Although two-thirds of the Japanese-American internees were U.S. citizens, they were targeted because of their ancestry and the way they looked. One internee, when told that the Japanese were put in those camps for their own protection, countered “If we were put there for our protection, why were the guns at the guard towers pointed inward, instead of outward?”

The living conditions in the concentration camps were often unsanitary, with families living in hastily constructed barracks near open sewers. Toilets were shared by everyone in the camp and had little or no privacy. Meals provided to the Japanese were meager and caused a great deal of malnourishment. Despite these poor conditions, programs were eventually put into place that improved the condition of the camps and allowed the prisoners to work for small wages.

On some occasions, riots broke out in the internment camps, resulting in death and injury. In January 1944, a military draft was produced by the government, forcing Japanese Americans in the camps to join the military and fight in World War II. Many of the draftees refused to join the military until they were given civil rights and the government, refusing, placed the resisters in federal prison.

Many prominent Japanese Americans formed lawsuits against the United States government during the internment. Among these were Hirabayashi vs. United States, Yasui vs. United States, and Korematsu vs. United States. These lawsuits placed a lot of pressure on the United States government and made many people question the constitutionality of the internment. On December 17, 1944, the United States declared an end to the internment and the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional on December 18, 1944.

After these events, Japanese Americans were allowed to leave the camps and return to their homes and live normally. By March 20, 1946, all of the internment camps had been closed, although most of the Japanese had become greatly disillusioned with the United States and continued to endure discrimination.

In 1983, a U.S. congressional commission “uncovered” the evidence from the 1940s proving that there had been no military necessity for the unequal, unjust treatment of Japanese Americans during WW II. The commission reported that the causes of the incarceration were rooted in ” … race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

During the Reagan-Bush years Congress moved toward the passage of Public Law 100-383 in 1988 which acknowledged the injustice of the internment, apologized for it, and provided a $20,000 cash payment to each person who was interned.

February 16, 1834 (a Sunday)

Ernst Haeckel

On this date, the German biologist, naturalist, philosopher, physician, and artist Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel was born at Potsdam. He is probably one of the most contentious evolutionary biologists that ever lived. He abandoned his medical practice after reading Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859 and returned to school, studying zoology and anatomy and eventually earning a position as professor in Jena.

Haeckel embraced the pre-Darwinian notion that life formed a series of successively higher forms, with embryos of higher forms “recapitulating” the lower ones. He thought that, over the course of time, evolution of new life forms occurred by the addition of new adult stages to the end of ancestral developmental sequences. Haeckel, who was very good at packaging and promoting his ideas, coined both a name for the process – “the Biogenetic Law” – as well as a catchy motto: “Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny.”

Thus, according to Haeckel, embryonic development was actually a record of evolutionary history. He expressed it this way, as quoted in Russell (1916) [1]:

The organic individual… repeats during the rapid and short course of its individual development the most important of the form changes which its ancestors traversed during the long and slow course of their paleontological evolution…

The human zygote, for instance, was represented by the “adult” stage of the protists; the colonial protists represented the advancement of development to the blastula stage; the gill slit stage of human embryos was represented by adult fish. Haeckel even postulated an extinct organism, Gastraea, a two-layered sac corresponding to the gastrula, which he considered the ancestor of all metazoan species. [2][3][4]

PZ Meyers at Talk.Origins Archive [5] writes that the Biogenetic Law as conceived by Haeckel says:

…that development (ontogeny) repeats the evolutionary history (phylogeny) of the organism – that if we evolved from a fish that evolved into a reptile that evolved into us, our embryos physically echo that history, passing through a fish-like stage and then into a reptile-like stage.

Haeckel came under fire for this embryo comparison, for excluding the limb buds of the echidna embryo.

Haeckel came under fire for this embryo comparison, for excluding the limb buds of the echidna embryo.

Haeckel was so convinced of his biogenetic law that he was willing to bend evidence to support it. In 1874, he had claimed that members of all vertebrate classes pass through an identical evolutionarily conserved “phylotypic” stage, which presumably represents the form of their most recent common ancestor. Only later in development would specific differences appear, he said.

In fact, there is a highly conserved embryonic stage among the vertebrate classes; at the late tailbud stage, vertebrate embryos of most all classes possess somites, neural tube, optic anlagen, notochord, and pharyngeal pouches. However, Michael Richardson and his colleagues (1997) [6] discovered significant differences between groups at this stage. For example, in echidnas, limb buds are already present at the tailbud stage, whereas in other species, these are not seen until significantly later.

But in his illustrations of vertebrate embryos, Haeckel deceptively omitted limb buds at an early stage of the echidna, despite the fact that limb buds do exist then, in order to make his vertebrate embryos look more alike than they do in real life. Haeckel’s motive is clear from the text accompanying his drawings: “There is still no trace of the limbs or ‘extremities’ in this stage of development…”. [7]

Near the conclusion of the Brass-Haeckel Controversy [8] of 1908, after months of vociferous and emphatic denial, in the Berliner Volkszeitung published on 29 December 1908, Haeckel apparently admitted he had altered drawings of embryos, as quoted in Haeckel’s Frauds and Forgeries (1915) [9]:

To cut short this unsavory dispute, I begin at once with the contrite confession that a small fraction of my numerous drawings of embryos (perhaps 6 or 8 per cent.) are really, in Dr. Brass’s sense, falsified – all those, namely, for which the present material of observation is so incomplete or insufficient as to compel us, when we come to prepare a continuous chain of the evolutive stages, to fill up the gaps by hypotheses, and to reconstruct the missing-links by comparative syntheses… After this compromising confession of “forgery” I should be obliged to consider myself “condemned and annihilated,” if I had not the consolation of seeing side-by-side with me in the prisoner’s dock hundreds of fellow-culprits, among them many of the most trusted observers and most esteemed biologists. For the great majority of all the figures – morphological, anatomical, histological, and embryological – that are widely circulated and valued in the best text- and handbooks, in biological treatises and journals, would incur in the same degree the charge of “forgery.” All of them are inexact, and are more or less “doctored,” schematised, or “constructed.” Many unessential accessories are left out, in order to render conspicuous what is essential in form and organisation. [ellipsis in original]

The truth is that the development of embryos does not fit into the strict progression that Haeckel claimed, but it has also been shown that ontogeny (development of a fertilized ovum through to maturity) and phylogeny (development of a species over time) are closely related. That is, similar features in embryos of different species often reliably demonstrate that the species share a recent common ancestor. This is nicely summarized by Douglas Theobald online at Talk.Origins Archive [10]:

The ideas of Ernst Haeckel greatly influenced the early history of embryology in the 19th century. Haeckel hypothesized that “Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny”, meaning that during its development an organism passes through stages resembling its adult ancestors. However, Haeckel’s ideas long have been superseded by those of Karl Ernst von Baer, his predecessor. Von Baer suggested that the embryonic stages of an individual should resemble the embryonic stages of other closely related organisms, rather than resembling its adult ancestors. Haeckel’s Biogenetic Law has been discredited since the late 1800’s, and it is not a part of modern (or even not-so-modern) evolutionary theory. Haeckel thought only the final stages of development could be altered appreciably by evolution, but we have known that to be false for nearly a century. All developmental stages can be modified during evolution… [emphasis in original]

'Tree of Life' by Haeckel (1866).

‘Tree of Life’ by Haeckel (1866).

Interestingly, in 1866 Haeckel created the first evolutionary tree to incorporate all life known at the time.

Although a strong supporter and defender of evolution (especially against attacks from religious leaders), Haeckel did not share Darwin’s enthusiasm for natural selection as the main mechanism for generating the diversity of the biological world. Instead, he favored a type of Lamarckism.

According to Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), change in the environment causes change in the behavior of individuals; altered behavior leads to greater or lesser use of a given structure or organ. Use would cause the structure to increase in size over many generations, whereas disuse would cause it to shrink or even disappear, because physical characteristics acquired by parents during their lifetimes are passed along to their offspring. The mechanism of Lamarckian evolution is quite different from that proposed by Darwin, although the predicted result is the same: adaptive change in lineages, ultimately driven by environmental change, over long periods of time.

PZ Meyers explains in his essay why Haeckel was completely wrong:

He argued that evolutionary history was literally the driving force behind development, and that the experiences of our ancestors were physically written into our hereditary material. This was a logical extension of his belief in Lamarckian inheritance, or the inheritance of acquired characters. If the activity of an organism can be imprinted on its genetics, then development could just be a synopsis of the activities of the parents and grandparents and ever more remote ancestors. This was an extremely attractive idea to scientists; it’s as if development were a time machine that allowed them to look back into the distant past, just by studying early stages of development.

Unfortunately, it was also completely wrong.

The discoveries that ultimately demolished the underlying premises of the biogenetic law were the principles of genetics and empirical observations of embryos. Lamarckian inheritance simply does not occur… DNA is the agent of heredity, and it is not modified by our ordinary actions – if you should get a tattoo, it is not also written into the chromosomes of your sperm or ova, and there’s no risk that your children will be born with “Mom” etched on their arm. The discovery that Haeckel had taken unforgivable shortcuts with his illustrations was a relatively minor problem for his theory, because the general thrust of his observations (that vertebrate embryos resemble each other strongly) had been independently confirmed. What really scuttled the whole theory was that its foundation was removed.

Much later, Haeckel attempted to develop a comprehensive philosophical system informed by biological and evolutionary findings. This system was to encompass ethics, theology, psychology, and politics. Some authors claim that Haeckel’s work was later appropriated by the Nazis who used it as justification for their racism and nationalism. [11] Others dispute that claim. Complicating this issue is the fact that, depending on whether you disparage or praise Haeckel, you are often assumed to be either a fundamentalist Christian, opposed to evolution, or an atheist, opposed to morality.

Haeckel’s major works are The History of Creation (1868) and The Riddle of the Universe (1899). Some of the terms he coined are still in use today, including ecology, phylum, phylogeny, and Protista.


  1. E. S. Russell. Form and Function (London: John Murray Ltd., 1916) p. 253.
  2. Ernst Haeckel. Generelle Morphologie der Organismen (Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1867).
  3. —————— Anthropogenie. Third edition. (Leipzig: W. Engelmann, 1879).
  4. S.J. Gould. Ontogeny and Phylogeny (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977).
  5. PZ Meyers. “Wells and Haeckel’s Embryos: A Review of Chapter 5 of Icons of Evolution.” The Talk.Origins Archive. Last modified 6 December 2006. Accessed on 14 July 2013 at http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/wells/haeckel.html.
  6. Michael K. Richardson, James Hanken, Mayoni L. Gooneratne, Claude Pieau, Albert Raynaud, Lynne Selwood, and Glenda M. Wright. “There is no highly conserved embryonic stage in the vertebrates: implications for current theories of evolution and development.” Anat. Embryol. 196: 91-106 (1997). Accessed on 17 July 2013 at http://www.oeb.harvard.edu/faculty/hanken/documents/Richardson%20et%20al%201997%20Anat%20Embryol.pdf. [Archived here.]
  7. Michael K. Richardson and Gerhard Keuck, “A question of intent: when is a ‘schematic’ illustration a fraud?” Nature 410/6825: 144 (8 March 2001).
  8. “‘MAN-APES’ THE SUBJECT OF A WAR OF SCIENCE; Between Prof. Haeckel and Dr. Brass Rages a Controversy in Which Prehistoric Heads and Tails Are the Fruitful Themes.” The New York Times, 7 February 1909. Accessed on 16 July 2013 at http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F30F11F83C5C15738DDDAE0894DA405B898CF1D3.
  9. J. Assmuth and Ernest R. Hull. Haeckel’s Frauds and Forgeries (Bombay: Examiner Press, 1915), pp. 14, 15.
  10. Douglas Theobald, Ph.D. “29+ Evidences for Macroevolution: The Scientific Case for Common Descent. Part 2: Ontogeny and Development of Organisms.” The Talk.Origins Archive. Last modified 17 May 2013. Accessed on 14 July 2013 at http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/.
  11. Daniel Gasman. “From Haeckel to Hitler: The Anatomy of a Controversy.” eSkeptic, 10 June 2009. Accessed on 14 July 2013 at http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/09-06-10/#feature. [Archived here.]

December 29, 1890 (a Monday)

View of the slain body of Chief Big Foot propped up in the snow at Wounded Knee.  U.S. soldiers, civilian burial party members, and a “Chunk" or "Stick" Stove of the type used to heat the Conical or Sibley army tent are shown in the background. (The Stick Stove almost certainly marks the location of Big Foot's tent, which was very close to the council circle. Major Samuel Whitside of the 7th Cavalry ordered a stove placed in Big Foot's tent on the night before the massacre.)

View of the slain body of Chief Big Foot propped up in the snow at Wounded Knee. U.S. soldiers, civilian burial party members, and a “Chunk” or “Stick” Stove of the type used to heat the Conical or Sibley army tent are shown in the background. (The Stick Stove almost certainly marks the location of Big Foot’s tent, which was very close to the council circle. Major Samuel Whitside of the 7th Cavalry ordered a stove placed in Big Foot’s tent on the night before the massacre.)

On this date, nearly 300 men, women, and children of Big Foot’s Minneconjou band of Sioux (Lakota) were murdered by the U.S. Army with four Hotchkiss guns near Wounded Knee Creek on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. This massacre is now recognized as one of the most significant and tragic episodes in the history of white and Native American relations. As the band fell dead that winter morning, so too would a people’s dream.

Zen stones

Indian agents in 1890 were not too concerned about the Ghost Dance until Charles L. Hyde, a citizen of Pierre, South Dakota, wrote a letter on May 29 to the Secretary of the Interior stating that he had reliable information from a Pine Ridge Lakota at the Pierre Indian School that the Lakota were planning an outbreak.

View of the twisted, frozen slain body of Chief Big Foot, Miniconjou Lakota, propped up after the Wounded Knee massacre.

View of the twisted, frozen slain body of Chief Big Foot, Miniconjou Lakota, propped up after the Wounded Knee massacre.

Wovoka (aka Jack Wilson) was the Paiute mystic whose religious pronouncements spread the Ghost Dance among many tribes across the American West. In the late 1880’s, Wovoka began to predict the dawning of a new age in which whites would vanish, leaving Indians to live in a land of material abundance, spiritual renewal, and immortal life. Like many millenarian visions, Wovoka’s prophecies stressed the link between righteous behavior and imminent salvation. Salvation was not to be passively awaited but welcomed by a regime of ritual dancing and upright moral conduct. Despite the later association of the Ghost Dance with the Wounded Knee Massacre and unrest on the Lakota reservations, Wovoka charged his followers to “not hurt anybody or do harm to anyone. You must not fight. Do right always… Do not refuse to work for the whites and do not make any trouble with them.”

While the Ghost Dance is sometimes seen today as an expression of Indian militancy and the desire to preserve traditional ways, Wovoka’s pronouncements ironically bore the heavy mark of popular Christianity. His invocation of a “Supreme Being,” immortality, pacifism, and explicit mentions of Jesus (often referred to with such phrases as “the messiah who came once to live on earth with the white man but was killed by them”) all speak of an infusion of Christian beliefs into Paiute mysticism.

The Ghost Dance spread especially among the more recently defeated Indians of the Great Plains. Local bands would adopt the core of the message to their own circumstances, writing their their own songs and dancing their own dances. In 1889 the Lakota sent a delegation to visit Wovoka. This group brought the Ghost Dance back to their reservations, where believers made sacred shirts – said to be bullet-proof – especially for the Dance. In the summer of 1890, white people living south and west of the Lakota reservations became alarmed and believed an Indian uprising would occur.

In October 1890, Daniel F. Royer was appointed Indian Agent at the Pine Ridge Reservation. He was a victim of a political plum system that handed incapable people precarious jobs after they had failed at everything else. He had no business meddling in Indian Affairs. On November 18, Royer dispatched a panicky telegram to the commissioner of Indian Affairs, demanding military intervention and the arrest of the Lakota leaders to prevent an outbreak:

Indians are dancing in the snow and are wild and crazy. I have fully informed you that employees and government property at this agency have no protection and are at the mercy of these dancers. Why delay by further investigation? We need protection, and we need it now. The leaders should be arrested and confined in some military post until the matter is quieted, and this should be done at once.

Special Edition Buffalo Echo, 22 November 1890.

Special Edition Buffalo Echo, 22 November 1890.

Sensationalistic accounts of purported Indian plots clotted the air and darkened the pages of newspapers across the country. For example, on November 22, 1890, the Buffalo Echo in Buffalo, Wyoming, put out a extra edition reporting under the headline, “THE MASSACRE BEGUN”, that “religion crazed Redskins” had broken out of the Pine Ridge Agency. The paper reported that 20,000 troops were being called up and that Fort Robinson had been left unprotected. It further reported that ranchmen and their families were “fleeing in terror”. The entire issue was based on conversations with a lady who was passing through by stage and who had no first hand knowledge, but was merely repeating what she had heard.

In December 1890, white officials banned the Ghost Dance on Lakota reservations. When the rites continued, officials called in troops to Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota. The military, led by veteran General Nelson Miles, geared itself for another campaign.

View from the center of the Lakota camp to the northeast, across the council circle, after the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek; shows scattered frozen bodies (women in foreground) in the snow, tepee poles; one with a soldier standing under them, a broken down wagon and U.S. soldiers with horse in the distance.

View from the center of the Lakota camp to the northeast, across the council circle, after the massacre at Wounded Knee Creek; shows scattered frozen bodies (women in foreground) in the snow, tepee poles; one with a soldier standing under them, a broken down wagon and U.S. soldiers with horse in the distance.

The presence of the troops exacerbated the situation. Short Bull and Kicking Bear led their followers to the northwest corner of the Pine Ridge reservation, to a sheltered escarpment the Lakota called “Oonakizin,” or the Stronghold. The dancers sent word to Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapas to join them. However, on 15 December, before he could set out from the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, Sitting Bull was arrested by federal Indian police, who mistakenly believed he was a Ghost Dancer. A scuffle ensued in which Sitting Bull and seven of his warriors were slain, as well as six of the Indian policemen; tensions increased at Pine Ridge.

On December 16, the South Dakota Home Guard, a militia which had been created by Governor Arthur C. Mellete less than a month earlier, ambushed and massacred and scalped about 75 Lakota Ghost Dancers on the Pine Ridge reservation. Pete Lemley, later known as “the Badlands Fox”, was a twenty-year old daredevil, a renowned horseman who wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone, so naturally he was just the kind of fearless rider needed to lead the Home Guard Ambush. Pete became a millionaire rancher and lived to be ninety-one years old. In 1959, at the request of his son (Dr. Ray Lemley), Pete tape recorded details of his participation in the attacks against Ghost Dancers during the month of December 1890. His account of the Home Guard Ambush on December 16, 1890, is a cowboy’s unashamed narrative of the day he considered one of the most exciting in his life:

There was a bunch of men there. We went over [Cheyenne River] and stirred them [Lakota] up and a lot of our fellows laid in at the head of a gulch. We went over to the Stronghold and got ’em after us and they chased us down Corral Draw. Riley Miller was at the head of it and layin’ up there behind the trees and rocks. This Riley Miller was a dead shot, and he just killed them Indians as fast as he could shoot. Francis Roush, Roy Coates, George Cosgrove, Paul McClellan was up with us. We killed about seventy-five of them. Riley Miller and Frank Lockhart went back there and got some pack horses and brought out seven loads of guns, shirts, war bonnets, ghost shirts, and things. Riley took ’em to Chicago and started a museum. He made a barrel of money out of it.

“Stirred them up” means Lemley and others galloped in upon a band of Ghost Dancers and fired directly into them. The Lakota ran to their tents for weapons. They mounted and chased the cowboys, falling directly into a well-planned ambush at the head of the Corral Draw, three miles south of Heutmacher Table. It is possible that some of the cowboys believed they were helping to protect white “settlers”, but most members of the Home Guard were out for the sport of killing Indians and nothing more.

The Home Guard also killed a small band of Lakota in early December near French Creek. The band had gone to Buffalo Gap to hunt at the ranch of a friendly whiteman they knew. They were greeted with a gun. They were unaware of the events that were transpiring around them. They sensed something wrong and attempted to leave. Because their horses were tired, they had to make camp between French Creek and Battle Creek. They were massacred in a surprise attack the next morning, December 10. The Lakota refer to the ambush as Buffalo Gap, which points to the origin of the hostility, not the location of the ambush. One young woman managed to escape to tell the story.

A group portrait of Big Foot's Miniconjou Lakota band at a Grass Dance on the Cheyenne River, South Dakota,  in August 1890. Nearly all these people were killed at Wounded Knee just a few months later.

A group portrait of Big Foot’s Miniconjou Lakota band at a Grass Dance on the Cheyenne River, South Dakota, in August 1890. Nearly all these people were killed at Wounded Knee just a few months later.

In early December 1890, Troops A & B of the 8th Cavalry under Capt. Almond B. Wells was stationed at Olrichs, South Dakota. Wells allowed Lt. Joseph C. Byron to enter the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and massacre a small band of Indians under Chief Two Strike on Cuny Table with cannon fire. All the Indians were killed. This incident appears to have been covered up by the United States Army for about 100 years. The property of the Indians was buried and the soldiers of the 8th Cavalry were sworn to secrecy, so that even General Miles, the overall commander at Wounded Knee in 1890, may not have been aware of it. This and the Home Guard massacres are documented in the Renee Sansom Flood Collection at Vermillion, South Dakota.

While serving as the editor and publisher of The Aberdeen Saturday Pioneer, a weekly newspaper published in Aberdeen, South Dakota, L. Frank Baum, the future author of The Wizard of Oz, wrote an editorial that was published on December 20:

Sitting Bull, most renowned Sioux of modern history, is dead. He was not a Chief, but without Kingly lineage he arose from a lowly position to the greatest Medicine Man of his time, by virtue of his shrewdness and daring. He was an Indian with a white man’s spirit of hatred and revenge for those who had wronged him and his [tribe].


With his fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are…

Today, the U.S. Army’s 7th cavalry — the reconstructed regiment lost by George Armstrong Custer in 1876 at the Battle of the Little Big Horn (“Custer’s last stand”) — surrounded a band of Ghost Dancers under Chief Spotted Elk (“Big Foot” was the name soldiers gave him) near Wounded Knee Creek and demanded they surrender their weapons. As that was happening, an altercation occurred between a Lakota man and a U.S. soldier and a shot was fired, although it’s unclear from which side. The massacre and precipitating events were described by the Commanding General, Nelson A. Miles, in his letter dated 13 March 1917 to the federal Commissioner of Indian Affairs:

I was in command of that Department in 1889, 1890 and 1891, when what is known as the Messiah Craze and threatened uprising of the Indians occurred. It was created by misrepresentations of white men then living in Nevada who sent secret messages to the different tribes in the great Northwest calling upon them to send representatives to meet Him near Walker Lake, Nevada.

This was done, and returning to their different tribes in the Northwest and West, and even in the Southwest, they repeated the false statement to the different tribes that the Messiah had returned to earth and would the next year move East, driving large herds of wild horses, buffalo, elk, deer and antelope, and was going to convert this into an Indian heaven – in other words, the Happy Hunting Grounds.

This, together with the fact that the Indians had been in almost a starving condition in South Dakota, owing to the scarcity of rations and the nonfulfillment of treaties and sacred obligations under which the Government had been placed to the Indians, caused great dissatisfaction, dissension and almost hostility. Believing this superstition, they resolved to gather and go West to meet the Messiah, as they believed it was the fulfillment of their dreams and prayer and the prophecies as had been taught them by the missionaries.

Several thousand warriors assembled in the Bad Lands of South Dakota. During this time the tribe, under Big Foot, moved from their reservation to near the Red Cloud Agency in South Dakota under a flag of truce. They numbered over four hundred souls. They were intercepted by a command under Lt. Col. Whitside, who demanded their surrender, which they complied with, and moved that afternoon some two or three miles and camped where they were directed to do, near the camp of the troops.

While this was being done a detachment of soldiers was sent into the camp to search for any arms remaining there, and it was reported that their rudeness frightened the women and children. It is also reported that a remark was made by some one of the soldiers that “when we get the arms away from them we can do as we please with them,” indicating that they were to be destroyed. Some of the Indians could understand English. This and other things alarmed the Indians and a scuffle occurred between one warrior who had a rifle in his hand and two soldiers. The rifle was discharged and a massacre occurred, not only the warriors but the sick Chief Big Foot, and a large number of women and children who tried to escape by running and scattering over the parry were hunted down and killed. The official reports make the number killed 90 warriors and approximately 200 women and children.

The action of the Commanding Officer, in my judgment at the time, and I so reported, was most reprehensible. The disposition of his troops was such that in firing upon the warriors they fired directly towards their own lines and also into the camp of the women and children. and I have regarded the whole affair as most unjustifiable and worthy of the severest condemnation.

View of the snow-covered ravine where many Lakota sought shelter during the massacre near Wounded Knee Creek; shows frozen bodies where soldiers fired and killed from both sides of the ravine, a few men with horses, and a broken wagon.

View of the snow-covered ravine where many Lakota sought shelter during the massacre near Wounded Knee Creek; shows frozen bodies where soldiers fired and killed from both sides of the ravine, a few men with horses, and a broken wagon.

As a matter of fact, soldiers chased and killed Lakota women and children as far as two miles from the camp site. One of the survivors, a Lakota woman, was treated by the Indian physician Dr. Charles Eastman at a make-shift hospital set up in a church in the village of Pine Ridge. Before she died of her wounds she told about how she had concealed herself in a clump of bushes. As she hid there she saw two terrified little girls running past. She grabbed them and pulled them into the bushes. She put her hands over their mouths to keep them quiet but a mounted soldier spotted them. He fired a bullet into the head of one girl and then calmly reloaded his rifle and fired into the head of the other girl. He then fired into the body of the Lakota woman. She feigned death and although badly wounded, lived long enough to relate her terrible ordeal to Dr. Eastman.

It does not take a genius to conclude from the above facts that the incident at Wounded Knee on 29 December 1890 was nothing less than a massacre. The fact that 23 Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded to soldiers of the 7th Cavalry who carried out the mass murders there still boggles the mind. Despite the current view that the battle was a massacre of innocents, the Medals still stand. Some Native American and other groups and individuals continue to lobby Congress to rescind these “Medals of dis-Honor“. ___________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________
Conflict came to Wounded Knee again in February 1973 when it was the site of a 71-day occupation by the activist group AIM (American Indian Movement) and its supporters, who were protesting the U.S. government’s mistreatment of Native Americans. During the standoff, two Indians were killed, one federal marshal was seriously wounded, and numerous people were arrested.

Finally, every year on December 15th people gather at Sitting Bull Camp, near Bullhead, South Dakota, to ride horseback nearly three hundred miles to the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. The ride is called the Omaka Tokatakiya (Future Generations) Ride and the majority of the riders come from three Lakota reservations: Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, and Pine Ridge. Others come from as far as Germany and the Czech Republic. In two weeks they travel across rivers and farms, cross a major interstate, and arrive at Wounded Knee on the anniversary of the massacre. While the ride is in many ways in homage to Sitting Bull, Big Foot, and those who lost their lives at Wounded Knee, this ride is also meant to foster leadership qualities in the youth. Along the way, the riders experience some of what their ancestors endured by embodying an intellectual, spiritual, and physical remembrance. Braving the cold — down to −20°F — these kids, some of them barely into puberty, ride as many as 35 miles in a day.
___________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________

Post Script:
I have heard some conservative extremists recently use the Wounded Knee Massacre in an argument against any restriction on the Second Amendment right to bear arms, such as a prohibition on the sale of modern assault weapons. An example is an article entitled “A Little Bit Of History To Think About” that may have first appeared on the “Common Sense Junction Political Blog” on 14 January 2013 and has been re-blogged several times on right-wing extremist websites. It reads in part:

Wounded Knee was among the first federally backed gun confiscation attempts in United States history. It ended in the senseless murder of 297 people… The Second Amendment was written by people who fled oppressive and tyrannical regimes in Europe, and it refers to the right of American citizens to be armed for defensive purposes, should such tyranny arise in the United States… Ask any Native American, and they will tell you it was inferior technology and lack of arms that contributed to their demise… Wounded Knee is the prime example of why the Second Amendment exists, and why we should vehemently resist any attempts to infringe on our Rights to Bear Arms. Without the Second Amendment we will be totally stripped of any ability to defend ourselves and our families. [emphasis in original]

Interestingly, the owner of the above website commented following the article: “This was posted as received in its entirety even though I don’t know who wrote it. If its yours and you want credit and a link let me know.”  So, no one knows who originally wrote it — Native American or immigrant, first generation or tenth generation.

To begin with, the Lakota were not citizens of the United States at the time — they were members of their own nation, by treaty and therefore according to the U.S. Constitution. As a result, the Second Amendment did not apply to them. The Lakota were entitled to arm themselves because they were in their own country.

There can be no doubt that Big Foot had surrendered himself and his people. On the morning of 29 December 1890, they were prisoners of war. General Miles recognized this. But the author of the above article neglects to point out that they were prisoners of war. As POWs, the army was prohibited from summarily executing them, even in those days. This is why killing the Lakota at Wounded Knee was murder and the incident was a massacre. The disarmed prisoners of war at Wounded Knee were killed in cold blood.

Wounded Knee was not “among the first federally backed gun confiscation attempts in United States history”, because the Lakota were not U.S. citizens. I don’t think even conservatives would blame the U.S. military for disarming foreign nationals that are perceived to be enemies — the army has been doing this since 1776. Nor were the Lakota being “totally stripped of any ability to defend [them]selves and [their] families” by their own leaders.

The sophomoric author of the above article has taken the Wounded Knee Massacre, which was a horrible tragedy, out of its historical context to use it to justify the sale of assault weapons today. This is unjustified and reprehensible.


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.”