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Is the mob coming for Charles Darwin? Is the woke Left strong enough to take down the ultimate icon of the modern age?

Is this the end of Charles Darwin? Credit: adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images

Is this the end of Charles Darwin? Credit: adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images

September 28, 2020   6 mins

Cancellation has never been easier. You dig up some old quote, kick up a fuss on social media, and complain to some useful idiot in the relevant institution. Sackings and silencings follow — or, if the target is dead, de-commemoration. That’s how it worked with David Hume and Edinburgh University. The Hume Tower? Not anymore it isn’t.

It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. But that’s just the trouble. While it isn’t difficult and makes a satisfying splash, you soon run out of fish.

The woke have worked their way through thousands of contemporary figures — and have even returned to a few choice favourites. JK Rowling’s getting cancelled every other week now — which may suggest she’s not cancellable at all, of course. There’s always Tory politicians and their ilk, but those guys are born cancelled, so they don’t really count. The whole point of a cancellation is that you take someone from a position of honour (or blissful anonymity, in the case of a private citizen) and subject them to public disgrace. It’s the shift from one state to the other then generates the energy.

In theory, there’s an abundant supply of dead white guys with the requisite dead white guy opinions, but who’s heard of half of them these days? I know they’re meant to be important philosophers, scientists or whatever, but if most people don’t know much about them, no one will pay much heed if they get cancelled. Why even bother ‘decolonising’ the curriculum, if the kids aren’t being taught about their past anyway. I mean, David Hume? David Whom, more like.

So cancel culture needs dead white males who are still famous. Pulling down their statues is like extracting a tooth with a living nerve — very noticeable. Winston Churchill is the go-to option, but he just won’t budge. Furthermore, his defenders are forewarned and thus forearmed. A smarter strategy, therefore, would be a raid on a prominent, but unanticipated, target. 

Which bring us to Charles Darwin. There’s no doubting his continued fame. If anything, he’s got more famous in recent years. 2009 was the 200th anniversary of his birth: there were festivals, exhibitions and a film. The Bank of England put him on the £10 note and Christ’s College, Cambridge put up a statue of him as a young man.

The anniversary came at a key cultural moment. It was the decade when ‘New Atheism’ was at its most fashionable. A generalised hostility towards religion was a way for secular liberals to process the trauma of 9/11 without singling out Islam. The so-called ‘Four Horsemen’ — Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett — propelled the movement forward with best-selling books. But as well as fire-breathing preachers, evangelical atheism required plaster saints — and who better than Charles Darwin, who did so much to challenge that old-time religion?

Unlike the other bearded prophets of modernity, Marx and Freud, Darwin survived the 20th Century with his reputation intact. In fact, breakthroughs like modern genetics would enhance the explicatory power of his ideas. He’s also been lucky in his enemies. From Bishop Wilberforce in his own time to American televangelists in ours, Darwin is on one side, conservatism at its most embarrassingly backward on the other.

A country gentlemen, he wasn’t overtly political — and yet his ideas about evolution in the natural world were a perfect fit for liberal faith in human progress. In 19th Century terms, Darwin can thus be seen as a man of the Left — perhaps, the man of the Left. He has his fans on the Right too, but across a broad swathe of progressive opinion, Darwin is a truly foundational figure.

But can he be dislodged from the progressive pantheon, like David Hume was? Will the iconoclasts even try? It all depends on just how far the woke Left thinks it can push the liberal Left. After all, it wouldn’t just be luvvies pressed for public comment — but eminent scientists, directors of major museums and prominent public educators. Would Brian Cox bend the knee? Or Sir David Attenborough?

Darwin’s cancellation would certainly put a lot of very important people on the spot. But is there anything to cancel him for — apart from his deplorable dead white maleness?

Let’s start with his intellectual circle — because guilt by association is an acceptable instrument of the cancel culture. Firstly, there’s TH Huxley, a.k.a. “Darwin’s Bulldog,” who is a noted ‘scientific’ racist. Then there’s Francis Galton, who was Darwin’s cousin and the father of eugenics. In fact, the Darwin and Huxley clans include a who’s who of British eugenics — including two of Darwin’s sons. Also worth a mention is Herbert Spencer, yet another Victorian polymath who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” and is regarded as the founder of Social Darwinism.

What about Charles himself? Did he subscribe to the problematic views that were so common among his associates? It looks that way, though one can argue as to what extent.

His Descent of Man contains disparaging references to the “savages” he encountered during his voyage on the Beagle. He was into skull measurements and the racist and sexist claptrap that goes with that particular pseudoscience. There’s some grim stuff in his correspondence too — for instance, the following passage in a letter to Charles Kingsley:

“It is very true what you say about the higher races of men, when high enough, replacing & clearing off the lower races. 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.”

Enough evidence to get him cancelled? Yes, going by the precedents. But what about the likely defences?

Firstly, there’s the obvious point that Darwin’s prejudices were not unusual for his time. And, true enough, they weren’t. But the same applies to David Hume and that didn’t save him from disgrace.

A second line of defence is to emphasise Darwin’s progressive opinions — he was, for instance, a staunch abolitionist. But wasn’t the whole British Empire also abolitionist for most of the Victorian era? Wasn’t the Royal Navy deployed to actively disrupt the slave trade? Yes and yes, but that doesn’t stop the Empire from being viewed today as an overwhelmingly bad thing. 

A third line of defence is suggested in an argument advanced by Jerry Coyne, the American biologist and blogger. Commenting on David Hume’s cancellation he proposes a rule for deciding whether or not a controversial monument should be removed:

“According to Coyne’s Dictum that prescribes cancellation only for those being honored for actions that are dishonorable (like Confederate generals), and not for those being honored for the good things they did, the Hume Tower’s name should stay.”

That makes a lot of sense, but the horse has already bolted. For instance, the stained-glass window commemorating Ronald Fisher at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge was installed to honour his foundational achievements in statistics, not his horrible views on race. That didn’t stop it from getting uninstalled. If this defenestration was the right call, then why shouldn’t the same principle apply to Darwin’s statue at Christ’s College? 

In any case, it could be argued that it is Darwin’s public works not just his personal opinions that are the problem. More than anyone, he elbowed aside a worldview in which man was created in God’s image, replacing it with descent from the beasts. He thus created a conceptual space for unequal gradations of humanity. He might not have intended for so much poison to flow from that starting point, but it did. Evolutionary theory, properly understood, does not justify eugenics or Social Darwinism, but the likes of Galton and Spencer nevertheless claimed Darwin as an inspiration. Guilt by association, you see.

If it dares to, the woke Left not only has the means of cancelling Charles Darwin, but also the motive (furthering the woke terror) and the opportunity (the proven weakness of a craven cultural establishment).

There are fears that the process has already started. Earlier this month, it emerged that the Natural History Museum is reviewing its collections — including those associated with Darwin’s voyage — in response to the recent protests. The museum’s director is quoted as saying that “the Black Lives Matter movement has demonstrated that we need to do more and act faster, so as a first step we have commenced an institution wide review on naming and recognition.”

A first step. As recently as 2008, the museum moved its marble statue of Darwin back to its current position, presiding over the world-famous main hall. But is the great man sitting quite so securely today? I doubt he’ll be chucked into the Thames, but he could find himself banished to some corridor, with a charge-sheet inscribed on a nearby plaque. As for the statue of his younger self — sat on a park bench in Cambridge — will today’s students tolerate his presence at all? 

Of course, a campaign to cancel Darwin is not without risk. Woke over-reach could provoke a backlash. Who knows, the cultural elites might just take a stand. In fact, the Natural History Museum review is a chance to do that proactively — telling the whole truth about the past, but refusing to dis-honour it. 

And besides, as experts in taxidermy, they can tell the mob to get stuffed.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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