In establishing the common descent of man, Charles Darwin put to rest any notion of discrete and separately created races of man. This endears him to anti-racists, and it’s even been asserted that by establishing common descent Darwin discredited any notion of race. Darwin himself, however, had no doubt that race existed and was of the utmost importance.
Nor did Darwin believe the races to be equal in ability. In his Descent of Man, Darwin writes that “the ancient races stand somewhat nearer in the long line of descent to their remote animal-like progenitors,” and speaks without shame of “the lower races of man.” Concerning race and intelligence, he considers the question to be settled:
The variability or diversity of the mental faculties in men of the same race, not to mention the greater differences between the men of distinct races, is so notorious that not a word need here be said.
He makes it clear that the lowest races of man are the Negro and the Australian aborigine:
The great break in the organic chain between man and his nearest allies, which cannot be bridged over by any extinct or living species, has often been advanced as a grave objection to the belief that man is descended from some lower form… But these breaks depend merely on the number of related forms which have become extinct. At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.
Darwin’s prediction has not been fulfilled, or course, and we now face the great problem of the savage races outbreeding the civilized. Contrary to the claims of his liberal apologists, Darwin did not regard the imminent extinction of the savage races which he anticipated as unfortunate – he saw it as an improvement.
In 500 years how the Anglo-saxon race will have spread & exterminated whole nations; & in consequence how much the Human race, viewed as a unit, will have risen in rank.
In arguing for the common descent of man, however, Darwin showed himself not insensible to our common humanity:
We have seen in the last two chapters that man bears in his bodily structure clear traces of his descent from some lower form; but it may be urged that, as man differs so greatly in his mental power from all other animals, there must be some error in this conclusion. No doubt the difference in this respect is enormous, even if we compare the mind of one of the lowest savages, who has no words to express any number higher than four, and who uses hardly any abstract terms for common objects or for the affections, with that of the most highly organised ape. The difference would, no doubt, still remain immense, even if one of the higher apes had been improved or civilised as much as a dog has been in comparison with its parent-form, the wolf or jackal. The Fuegians rank amongst the lowest barbarians; but I was continually struck with surprise how closely the three natives on board H.M.S. “Beagle,” who had lived some years in England, and could talk a little English, resembled us in disposition and in most of our mental faculties.
Although the existing races of man differ in many respects, as in colour, hair, shape of skull, proportions of the body, &c., yet if their whole structure be taken into consideration they are found to resemble each other closely in a multitude of points. Many of these are of so unimportant or of so singular a nature, that it is extremely improbable that they should have been independently acquired by aboriginally distinct species or races. The same remark holds good with equal or greater force with respect to the numerous points of mental similarity between the most distinct races of man. The American aborigines, Negroes and Europeans are as different from each other in mind as any three races that can be named; yet I was incessantly struck, whilst living with the Fuegians on board the “Beagle,” with the many little traits of character, shewing how similar their minds were to ours; and so it was with a full-blooded negro with whom I happened once to be intimate.
Despite this sympathy, Darwin did not change his inegalitarian position.