Because today is the birthday of Charles Darwin, I have browsed the essays of Stephen J. Gould to find something to write about. Gould was an evolutionary biologist, with a great interest in the history of science. He is one of my favorite authors. We have one book of him, a yellowed Penguin edition of ‘Eight Little Piggies’ and I always keep it at hand. Today I noticed an essay about Darwin’s first publication: The moral state of Tahiti. This is an article in which Darwin and Robert FitzRoy (captain of the Beagle) defend the white missionaries were trying to teach some civilization to the inhabitants of the island of Tahiti. It was written in 1836.
I have not read the article itself, but I started reading The Descent of Man, a book by Darwin. After a few pages, I quickly shut the book again, because I could not bear the undisguised racism. In brief, Darwin’s vision was that there is a scale of development with Caucasians on top, the apes at the bottom and all other human ‘races’ in between. Today we know that the concept of ‘race’ is a cultural term and does not exist biologically. This makes any form of racism unacceptable. In Darwin’s time, however, racism was the scientific standard in Europe. As a result it was inevitable that the Europeans were behaving paternalistic. This means that they saw the people on Tahiti as immature children, who could not make the right decisions. For their own good, it was better that the white people were in control.
Gould rightly says that the vision of Darwin is shaped by the culture in which he lived and that we have to judge him on the grounds of the moral choices he made within that worldview. This shows us that he was a fierce opponent of slavery. The fact that according to him, these people belonged to an inferior race, did not mean that it was right to exploit and abuse them.
It sometimes seems as if all these ideas are situated so far in the past that they no longer affect us. But Darwin’s article was written 180 years ago. On the scale of recorded history (starting 3500 BC), this is very recent. I think that we Europeans still have a lot of hidden paternalism. In the Netherlands, the tradition of Zwarte Piet is fiercely defended as cultural heritage. But when it comes to the time when this tradition originated, the Transatlantic slave trade and colonization, we want to forget about it as quickly as possible. In this context, two Dutch MPs have made an interesting proposal: Open a museum about slavery and colonization in The Hague. Stereotypes can be broken down through more interaction with other cultures and their past.
- Stephen J. Gould (1994) The moral state of Tahiti — and of Darwin. In: Eight little piggies, reflections in natural history, Penguin Books.
- Picture: The cession of the district of Matavai in the island of Otaheite to Captain James Wilson for the use of the missionaries, 1798. (National Library of Australia)