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Joined: Jan. 2006

(Permalink) Posted: Feb. 07 2007,05:40   

Uncommon Descent has a little blurb on one of their sidebars titled, "Darwin on genocide Tony Barta on Robyn Williams’s program".  If you click on the link, you wind up here, an Australian website called Ockham's Razor (I'm jealous of the name) which seems to be part of ABC radio.

The website contains a transcript from Dr. Tony Barta, a "Historian" at LaTrobe University in Melbourne.  Dr. Barta's intent seem to be to accuse Darwin of condoning genocide.  I'm not saying that Dr. Barta is a mite prejudiced, but here's the first few paragraphs of his screed with one important substitution.  See if you can spot it.

Robyn Williams: Remember the date 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue? When the Christians invaded the Americas, it was bad news for those so-called Indians who lived there. Do you know how many perished as a result of Christian Cortez and disease? It was, in all, 90% of the indigenous people of America, or a full fifth of all mankind then alive on Earth.

Ronald Wright, the Canadian author, quotes historian Francis Jennings: 'Christians did not find a wilderness there, they made one.'
With such a scale of killing one must ask how come? And how is it that later in the 19th and 20th centuries, things didn't improve. Here's a modern take, from La Trobe University's historian, Tony Barta.

Tony Barta: When did you first notice that the leaves of gum trees hang vertically? Charles Darwin did, on a brief, observation-packed visit to Australia. He thought it must be to let the light through to the grass. I think of him whenever I walk along the Yarra. I also see him back in England, taking his children to the zoo, or puzzling over the curious 'irritability' of the tendrils in his garden. There is no man of science more justly respected or easy to love. Must he also be counted among the founding fathers of genocide? I fear so, and Australians should understand their part in how it happened.
Let's not, for a moment, think of the old man with his long white beard. Try to imagine Darwin before his fame, before the years in his dark study, and very importantly, before On the Origin of Species. Meet a much younger Charles Darwin, son of the new, enterprising Christian middle class, who is about to encounter, and reinterpret, the whole natural and historical world.

His passion as a student was not studying, it was hunting. Only 22 when he was offered the position of naturalist on the round-the-world voyage of the Beagle, his skill with a firearm brought down the birds that started him thinking about the differences of species.

The Beagle initiated Darwin into the long drama of evolution, and into another drama quicker and more dire. While he was shooting specimens in South America, the Christians there were shooting the Indians. Amidst the remains of long-dead megafauna, Christian colonists were doing their best to make the indigenous people extinct.

So before Darwin understood species, he understood genocide. The word would not be invented for a hundred years, but his diary, and his published account of the voyage, are clear. The ruthless realities of colonialism would enter his world view, and his science, in the most fundamental and pervading way.

It took him more than 20 years of ever-widening research, distracted by poor health, the death of a child (his beloved daughter, Annie), worries about the reception of his heresy – more than 20 years to complete an outline of a theory that decisively shifted modern consciousness to the realities of a world where divine intervention played no part. Life and death belonged to nature; the causing of life and death could be construed as rational, natural and even moral within nature's harsh, amoral laws. His own summary could hardly be clearer:

As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive, and as consequently there is a frequently occurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself ... will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected ... This preservation of favourable individual differences and variations, and the destruction of those which are injurious, I have called Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest.

It is not the case, as is generally assumed, that humans and human history entered Darwin's explanations as a kind of afterthought; they were there from the beginning, based on indelible early experience. His initial outrage could change to acceptance in part because of his overall acceptance of extermination, the disappearance of numberless varieties and species, in natural selection.

But Darwin was also fascinated by intervention in nature, and the observable effects in plants, animals and peoples. From the outset he recognised the spread of Christian civilisation as an historic human intervention, a global process of unnatural selection. Like colonialism, it belonged to the modern project of dominating nature; it celebrated the power of nature while promoting its disempowerment.

While the Beagle was anchored off Patagonia for much of 1833, he rode inland and came face to face with the Christian policy towards indigenous peoples defending their lands against expropriation. General Manuel de Rosas, a Christian cattle rancher who served as governor of Buenos Aires, and later dictator of Argentina (and who, later again, retired to Swaythling in Hampshire) was engaged on what Darwin recognised at the time as a mission 'to exterminate the Indians'.

Some 112 women and children and men were 'nearly all taken or killed, very few escaped. The Christians pursue and sabre every man. Like wild animals however they fight to the last instant. The reason was to be made plain:

This is a dark picture; but how much more shocking is the unquestionable fact that all the women who appear above 20 years old are massacred in cold blood. I ventured to hint that this appeared rather inhuman. The Christian answered me, 'What can be done, they breed so.

It is the sadly familiar language of genocide. To the Christians, Darwin noticed, the killing was reasonable and even moral in the larger scheme of things. Civilisation decreed the sacrifice of barbarians who stood in its way. The Christian shooters were the shock troops of progress, productivity and profit:

If this warfare is successful, that is if all the Indians are butchered, a grand extent of country will be available for the production of cattle, and the valleys ... will be most productive of corn. The country will be in the hands of white Gaucho Christian savages instead of copper-coloured Indians.

This is about half the screed, but I'm not going to bore you with the rest.  Can anybody spot the one key clarification I made to it?

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