Darwin, Dawkins and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Matt Busby Andrews

Matt Busby Andrews recalls how Charles Darwin come to visit his forebears in Australia and New Zealand, but notes that great biologist came to influence much more than local scientists. We shouldn’t make the same mistake with visiting biologists like Richard Dawkins.

Thursday 19th April

It was 130 years ago today, in Down House Cottage in Kent, a coughing Charles Darwin bravely told his wife and children, “I am not the least afraid to die.” Later that day, the world said goodbye to its most influential biologist. In fact, his intellectual successor, Richard Dawkins Darwin argued at the Open University 2009 Annual Lecture, that Darwin was the most revolutionary scientist ever. 

Even as a younger man, Darwin made an impression. He certainly did on my forebears. The Busbys, in New Zealand and Australia, had the adventurer come to stay as he made his travels on HMS Beagle. It’s been family lore ever since.

But Darwin’s real impact in the colonies – for good and for ill – was made on the policy makers a generation later. Especially on their social policies towards indigenous people. All of which should caution us against biologists who talk about more than biology.

Darwin had plenty of interaction with all kinds of ethnic group on his five-year voyage on HMS Beagle. Fitting in with his emerging theory of natural selection, he inclined give each one a ranking as to how evolved they were.

On meeting African slaves in the Americas, he wrote to his professor at Cambridge, John Henslow, that he was “forming a much higher estimate of the negro character.” Which is why he became a force for good in the emancipation movement.

Other races weren’t given the same stamp of approval.

On meeting the inhabitants Tierra del Fuego, off Chile, he gave a devastating judgment. He demeaned the Fuegians with, “their skins filthy and greasy, their hair entangled, their voices discordant and their gestures violent. Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow-creatures…”

Not even human? That thought would have deadly implications for the Fuegians.

In Argentina, he came across indigenous people as they were being slaughtered by General Juan Manuel de Rosas. As a guest of the General, he watched proceedings with a dispassionate eye. He notes in Voyage of the Beagle that:

"This war of extirmination (sic), although carried on with the most shocking barbarity, will certainly produce great benefits, it will at once throw open four or five hundred miles in length of fine country for the produce of cattle."

A few years later, while caught in a lull in December 1835, Darwin was rowed into the Bay of Islands. Here he met James Busby, the appointed “British Resident” of the colony.

It had been a busy year for James. Under the influence of some capable missionaries, he’d been working with 34 Northern Maori chiefs to draw up the New Zealand Declaration of Independence. In contrast to the treatment afforded to native people across the Pacific, this saw indigenous people as being equally human, as it accepted that:
"all sovereign power and authority in the land… reside entirely and exclusively in the hereditary chiefs and heads of tribes in their collective capacity".

While this strong statement upset people back in the Colonial Office, the thinking behind their declaration wasn’t controversial at the time. Many educated people accepted what the Bible taught, that all races were “made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.” So, naturally, Maori could be entitled to their land and regulating their lives.

Whatever the treaties implied, Darwin wasn’t impressed with the Maori. His published diaries explained that the Polynesians were far further up the ladder.  His mind made up, the young naturalist then sailed the Tasman and stopped in Sydney in January 1836. At a cracking pace, he took at boat to Parramatta, crossed Emu Plains and rode over the Blue Mountains.

On reaching Bathurst, Darwin stayed a while at with James’ brother, Doctor George Busby, at his home on Howick Street. No doubt, to talk about their University days back in Edinburgh (before Darwin moved to Cambridge) and, of course, what he’d seen on his journey.

As Darwin kept rigorous notes of all observations, we know exactly what he’d seen. He’d been struck by the evergreen eucalypt forests. And he’d taken great interest in a party of indigenous men. He paid the “harmless savages” a shilling to demonstrate their spear-throwing abilities.

This amused him. But it didn’t impress him. The fact that they took the coin was another case of how:

“The thoughtless aboriginal, blinded by these trifling advantages, is delighted at the approach of the white man, who seems predestined to inherit the country of his children.”

Darwin’s final assessment was the Aborigines stood “a few degrees higher in the scale of civilisation than the Fuegians.” In so doing, they were damned with faint praise. In more ways than one.

We can imagine Charles Darwin sharing these pessimist thoughts over a glass of medicinal brandy with the only GP west of the mountains.

Perhaps Dr Busby would have compared his notes from the field on the Wiradjuri. How this mighty tribe had kept the English at bay for years in an engagement called the Bathurst Wars. Dr Busby, like his brother in New Zealand, didn’t seem to think the indigenous people should be simply allowed to be wiped out by the invaders. As an elder of the Presbyterian Church, he actively supported the work of the Wellington Valley Mission. The four missionaries there were under-resourced, but they believed the Wiradjuri could become part of modern society – and could become Christians too.

Darwin would have said they were all wasting their time. Hereditary would trump education anyway. The fact that the warriors had finally lost to the English would have only proven Darwin’s point. For he’d already scribbled in his diary that:

“The varieties of man seem to act on each other in the same way as different species of animals — the stronger always extirpating the weaker.”

Races like Aborigines were doomed to die, and that was part of the benefit of natural selection. He made that much clear about fifty years later when he wrote about the future of Aborigines in The Descent of Man:
"Civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate the savage races throughout the world ... The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized 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."

Aborigines were now being lumped in with primates, not people. It was a big departure from what the Evangelicals had been saying to government heads. Of course, this shift didn’t immediately affect the Busbys. But they didn’t seem to resist the new thinking either. We can only wonder if it’s just a sad coincidence that the mission to the Wiradjuri that Busby once supported soon collapsed.

The shockwave really hit once Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1856. It was a watershed, not just in how we thought about our relationship to nature. As wiser heads have noted, it was also marked a new direction in the way we thought about indigenous people.

In New Zealand, academics began to ridicule the efforts of the Christian missionaries to the Maori. Emboldened by Darwin, the scientist Alfred Newman proclaimed in Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1881 that:

“…the disappearance of the race is scarcely subject for much regret. They are dying out in a quick, easy way, and are being supplanted by a superior race.”

In Australia, government officials were forming the same view. The guiding thought wasn’t “one blood” it was all about whose blood was superior. For this reason, the lives of “half-castes” might conceivably be improved – if only we could remove them from their families.

But as to the full-blooded Aborigine, there would be no hope of a future. Even enlightened Australians, like Daisy Bates, felt that way. This Irish born woman of the Never Never wrote in her book, The Passing of the Aborigines, that she merely hoped to "smooth the pillow of a dying race".

Now Charles Darwin never intended any of these destructive doctrines. But no one can deny that he set up the categories for “Social Darwinism.” Still, Australia and New Zealand’s academics should have been much more critical of evolutionary thinking – especially as it was applied to every day life.

Shouldn’t we also, then, be critical of biologists who start talking outside of their expertise today?

This week, Australia said farewell to Professor Richard Dawkins, undoubtedly the world’s most famous biologist. As the big name at the Global Atheist Convention 2012, he barely said a word about biology.

He mostly wanted to talk about atheism and how we should think. On Q and A he wanted us to know there are some questions that we shouldn’t ask. And that there was no point to life or to the universe. At one point his words had a sting:

“Why?” is a silly question. You can ask, “What are the factors that led to something coming into existence?” That’s a sensible question. But “What is the purpose universe?” is a silly question. It has no meaning.

Here, Dawkins is stepping right out of his field of acknowledged expertise. He’s demanding a kind of Doublethink, where it’s right to question the universe, but it’s wrong to ask why the universe is here. And so thousands of philosophers and curious four-year-olds, are being told to shut up.

Much more corrosive, must be Dawkin’s gospel of the fundamental worth of human beings, and how we should feel about human suffering. In 2005, he wrote River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life he gives a practical example of how to make sense of a tragic bus accident that had killed some school kids:

"…if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies like the crashing of this bus are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

There will be consequences to these ideas – though no one can accurately predict what they will be. But it will certainly affect how people see people in the future. Eventually, these thoughts will influence policy makers.

Australia and New Zealand’s leaders today need to be discerning about the sermons of scientists from Old England. That’s to say, much more discerning than they were in the time of the Busbys.


This is a longer treatment of an article that first appeared on The Punch online.