For centuries, in the Christian world, it had been the great project of natural philosophy to identify the laws that animated God’s creation, and thereby to arrive at a closer understanding of God himself. Now, with The Origin of Species, a law had been formulated that—even as it unified the realm of life with that of time—seemed to have no need of God at all. Not merely a theory, it was itself a startling display of evolution.
But was it right? By 1876, the most impressive evidence for Darwin’s theory had been uncovered in what was fast proving to be the world’s premier site for fossil beds: the American West. Cope was not the only palaeontologist to have made spectacular discoveries there…
Nervousness at the idea that humanity might have evolved from another species was not bred merely of a snobbery towards monkeys. Something much more was at stake. To believe that God had become man and suffered the death of a slave was to believe that there might be strength in weakness, and victory in defeat. Darwin’s theory, more radically than anything that previously had emerged from Christian civilisation, challenged that assumption. Weakness was nothing to be valued. Jesus, by commending the meek and the poor over those better suited to the great struggle for survival that was existence, had set Homo sapiens upon the downward path towards degeneration.
For eighteen long centuries, the Christian conviction that all human life was sacred had been underpinned by one doctrine more than any other: that man and woman were created in God’s image. The divine was to be found as much in the pauper, the convict or the prostitute as it was in the gentleman with his private income and book-lined study.
Nowadays, the spiritual heirs of the Christians, which I call neochristians, find the divine in the most grotesque mental illnesses: like those men who believe they are women, or vice versa.
Darwin’s house, despite its gardens, private wood and greenhouse filled with orchids, stood on the margins of an unprecedented agglomeration of brick and smoke. Beyond the fields where he would lovingly inspect the workings of worms there stretched what Rome had been in Augustus’ day: the capital of the largest empire in the world. Just as Rome had once done, London sheltered disorienting extremes of privilege and squalor. The Britain of Darwin’s day, though, could boast what no one in Augustus’ Rome had ever thought to sponsor: campaigns to redeem the poor, the exploited, the diseased.
Darwin himself, the grandson of two prominent abolitionists, knew full well the impulse from which these sprang. The great cause of social reform was Christian through and through. ‘We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment.’ And yet the verdict delivered by Darwin on these displays of philanthropy was a fretful one. Much as the Spartans had done, when they flung sickly babies down a ravine, he dreaded the consequences for the strong of permitting the weak to propagate themselves. ‘No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.’
Here, for any Quaker, was a peculiarly distressing assertion. Cope knew the traditions to which he was heir. It was Quakers who had first lit the fire which, in the recent civil war, had come to consume the institution of American slavery; it was Quakers who, in America as in Britain, had taken the lead in campaigning for prison reform. Whatever they did for the least of their Saviour’s brothers and sisters, they did for Christ himself. How, then, could this conviction possibly be squared with what Cope, in mingled scorn and dread, termed ‘the Darwinian law of the “survival of the fittest”’?
The question was one that had perturbed Darwin himself. He remained sufficiently a Christian to define any proposal to abandon the weak and the poor to their fate as ‘evil’. The instincts that had fostered a concern for the disadvantaged must themselves, he noted, have been the product of natural selection. Presumably, then, they had to be reckoned to serve some evolutionary purpose. Yet Darwin havered. In private conversations he would confess that, because ‘in our modern civilisation natural selection had no play’, he feared for the future. Christian notions of charity—however much he might empathise with them personally—were misplaced. Only continue to give them free rein, and the peoples who clung to them were bound to degenerate.
And this, were it to happen, would be to the detriment of the entire human race. Here, at any rate, Cope was in perfect accord with Darwin. He had taken the railroad across the vast expanses of the Great Plains, and he had sent telegrams from forts planted in the lands of the Sioux, and he had seen their hunting grounds littered for miles around with the bleached bones of bison, felled by the very latest in repeating rifles.
He knew that Custer’s defeat had been only a temporary aberration. The native tribes of America were doomed. The advance of the white race was inexorable. It was their manifest destiny. This was evident around the world. In Africa, where a variety of European powers were scheming to carve up the continent; in Australia, and New Zealand, and Hawaii, where there was no resisting the influx of white colonists; in Tasmania, where an entire native people had already been driven to extinction. ‘The grade of their civilisation,’ as Darwin put it, ‘seems to be a most important element in the success of competing nations.’
How were these differences, between a white and a native American, between a European and a Tasmanian, most plausibly to be explained? The traditional response of a Christian would have been to assert that between two human beings of separate races there was no fundamental difference: both had equally been created in the image of God. To Darwin, however, his theory of natural selection suggested a rather different answer. As a young man, he had sailed the seas of the world, and he had noted how, ‘wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal’. His feelings of compassion for native peoples, and his matching distaste for white settlers, had not prevented him from arriving at a stark conclusion: that there had come to exist over the course of human existence a natural hierarchy of races.
What Darwin said between the lines, Gobineau, who died the same year Darwin died, set out in a whole book.
Joseph Arthur, Count de Gobineau (1816-1882) was the one who elaborated the theory of Aryan racial superiority in Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races. He is considered the father of racial demography. Count Gobineau’s works were seminal to demonstrate that the race factor is central to the understanding of human history.
The progress of Europeans had enabled them, generation by generation, to outstrip ‘the intellectual and social faculties’ of more savage peoples. Cope—despite his refusal to accept Darwin’s explanation for how and why this might have happened—conceded that he had a point. Clearly, in humanity as in any other species, the operations of evolution were perpetually at work. ‘We all admit the existence of higher and lower races,’ Cope acknowledged, ‘the latter being those which we now find to present greater or less approximation to the apes.’
So it was that an attempt by a devout Quaker to reconcile the workings of God with those of nature brought him to an understanding of humanity that would have appalled Benjamin Lay. Cope’s conviction that a species could will itself towards perfection enabled him to believe as well that different forms of the same species could co-exist. Whites, he argued, had elevated themselves to a new degree of consciousness. Other races had not. In 1877, a year after he had lain amid the fossil beds of Montana, oppressed by terrible dreams, Edward Drinker Cope formally resigned from the Society of Friends. [pages 439-444]