Ewan Somerville, Telegraph, May 8, 2021
Charles Darwin is among “highly celebrated scientific figures” who “held racist views” because he used his theory of natural selection to justify white male superiority, according to a new university’s handbook for teaching and research.
The renowned naturalist is on a list of 11 feted scientists whose views “influenced the type of research they carried out and how they interpreted their data”, according to Sheffield University’s guide drawn up to decolonise the biology curriculum.
This is despite Darwin’s fervent support for the abolition of slavery, which he called a “sacred cause”, unlike many of his contemporaries. He said of slavery that “it makes one’s blood boil”.
The handbook, seen by The Telegraph, tells students and lecturers that he must be historically caveated when lecturers teach his seminal theory of evolution.
Historians told The Telegraph that Sheffield’s guidelines were “unhistorical and misleading” and “authoritarian”.
The Russell Group university has also told science students and lecturers in the guidance to drop the terms “founding father”, “idols” and “geniuses” to avoid “hero worshipping” scientific figures.
This practice treats them as “white saviours” and erases less privileged scholars, it explains. Drawn up by lecturers in the Animal and Plant Sciences faculty, the guide says “whiteness and Eurocentrism of our science” must be dismantled.
“It is clear that science cannot be objective and apolitical,” it adds, and “the curriculum we teach must acknowledge how colonialism has shaped the field of evolutionary biology and how evolutionary biologists think today”.
Darwin published the groundbreaking theory of evolution by natural selection with his work ‘On the Origin of Species’ in 1859, widely viewed as the core of evolutionary biology.
Central to it is the concept of ‘survival of the fittest’, where species with physical characteristics best adapted to their environment are most likely to reproduce and pass on those traits, which are then refined and adapted further.
According to Sheffield’s decolonised curriculum, Mr Darwin “believed that his renowned theory of natural selection justified the view that the white race was superior to others, and used his theory of sexual selection to justify why women were clearly inferior to men.”
It says his voyage on HMS Beagle, when he collected plant and animal samples, was to map colonies.
But Prof James Moore, a biographer of Darwin and historian of science, told The Telegraph: “Almost everyone in Darwin’s day was ‘racist’ in 21st century terms, not only scientists and naturalists but even anti-slavery campaigners and abolitionists.
“What set his ‘racism’ apart – and makes him more like us today – was his profound conviction that all the human races are ‘family’, sisters and brothers.
“Darwin’s wokeness was most obvious in his maintaining the full common humanity and unity of the races in the face of a rising anthropology that insisted the races were in fact separately originated and unrelated species, thus offering justification of atrocities that Darwin is now blamed for.”
Prof Nigel Biggar, an Oxford historian, added: “During Darwin‘s lifetime the British Empire was busy emancipating slaves across the world.
“The ‘decolonising’ assumption that ‘colonial mapping’ was all about oppression is false, and the judgement that Darwin should be damned by association is morally stupid.
“Before propagating this ideology, did Sheffield University secure the consent of academic staff, and does it now allow for conscientious objection? If not, its conduct is authoritarian and arguably a violation of academic freedom.”
The latest move to decolonise the sciences and maths follows plans to diversify Sheffield’s engineering degrees, leaked to The Telegraph, taking aim at Sir Isaac Newton as a potential beneficiary of “colonial-era activity” whose rule of gravity requires context.
Other scientists named in the handbook, titled “Applying a decolonial framework to teaching and research in ecology and evolution”, include DNA discoverer James Watson and Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus.
The universities minister, Michelle Donelan, has previously warned that campuses risk mirroring the Soviet Union by “censoring history” with decolonising efforts.