Why Have We Unlearned What We Knew in 1900? By Raymond Wolters
An eminent historian’s view.
Some years ago evolutionary psychologist J. Philippe Rushton asked me, as a historian, the following question:
Why have modern historians ‘unlearned’ so much that was known and understood in 1900? Why has knowledge about the evolutionary basis of race regressed while the understanding of other matters has increased?
I did not have a good answer at the time, but I’d like to try again. Let me begin with a brief summary of the prevailing wisdom of 1900. Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859, and by 1900 his theory of evolution had become the dominant opinion in academic and scientific circles. In 1900, most scholars understood evolution in terms of the sub-title of Darwin’s book: The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
Origin of Species maintained that evolution toward higher forms of life stemmed from adaptations to different environments and from conflict and competition that led to ‘‘survival of the fittest” (though it was the philosopher Herbert Spencer who coined that phrase). Darwin specifically applied this concept to mankind in his 1871 sequel, The Descent of Man.He wrote: “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races throughout the world.” “Looking at the world at no very distant date, an endless number of lower races will be eliminated by the higher civilized races . . . .“
By 1900, Darwin’s prediction had been seconded by mainstream American writers and scientists. Novelist John De Forest (1826 – 1906) conceded that superior blacks might continue to dominate in some territories, “that portion being probably the lowlands where the whites cannot or will not labor.” But De Forest also predicted that what he called “the low-down Negro” would pass “into sure and deserved oblivion.” Francis Walker (1840 – 1897), a prominent demographer and economist, studied the census figures of 1870, 1880, and 1890 and concluded that the black population was already declining because black slaves had been freed and thrust into competition with white people. Lord James Bryce (1838 – 1922), a distinguished British student of the United States, seconded this opinion. Joseph Le Conte (1823 – 1901), a highly regarded biologist and geologist, summed up the Darwinian consensus: “The struggle for life and the survival of the fittest” were “applicable to the races of men.” The destiny of weaker varieties of humanity was either “extinction . . . or . . . relegation to a subordinate place in the economy of nature; the weaker is either destroyed or seeks safety by avoiding competition.”
The failure of Reconstruction had reinforced this consensus. After the Civil War, Southern blacks were enfranchised. Then, with cooperation from so-called Southern “scalawags” and Northern “carpetbaggers,” blacks became influential in the governments of several states of the former Confederacy. However, Reconstruction ended in the 1870s, most blacks were disfranchised, and by 1900 a great many whites, in the North as well as the South, considered Reconstruction to have been a failure. They attributed the failure to blacks’ presumed inability to restrain spending, balance budgets, or control crime.