Should Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution be “canceled” if he held racist beliefs? That’s what Ken Ham, CEO of the creationist Answers in Genesis (AIG) ministry, suggests in an episode of AIG’s “Answers News” with cohosts Bodie Hodge and Avery Foley. Ham also discusses this topic in a recent blog post on AIG’s blog.
Ham, whose ministry owns the Creation Museum in Kentucky and the nearby Ark Encounter Noah’s Ark-themed park, isn’t really interested in canceling Darwin. Rather, he wants to cancel the teaching of evolution in public schools – and he has decided that during this time of heightened sensitivity over issues of racial justice, labeling Darwin as a racist is the way to do it.
He’s not alone in this endeavor. Author Peter Heck wrote an opinion piece in June for Disrn, a right-wing website, and he used the same justification to “cancel” Darwin and evolution. Heck wrote, “Even by the most generous of measures, the intellectual and philosophical heritage of Charles Darwin is one of the most hideously racist legacies one can fathom. And yet, his inherently racist dogma is not only presented in public schools across America, it is state and federal policy that every student in America demonstrate proficient in understanding and applying his dangerous ideology.”
Ham and Heck’s reasoning, however, does not hold up. The “ideology” that Heck refers to is evolution. Yet, the theory of evolution is a scientific discovery that can be separated from the personal beliefs of Darwin. That is, as a scientific theory, it has been tested over and over again by other scientists.
It’s also worth remembering that Darwin put forth the first word in evolution, not the last. Since his time, many other scientists have looked at the same data and advanced and refined Darwin’s ideas. Therefore, whether or not Darwin was racist – and there is no conclusive evidence to say that he was – it is possible to criticize Darwin for his beliefs without invalidating his scientific achievements. As writer Val Wilde put it in a post for the “Friendly Atheist” blog recently, “Even if we did decide to collectively ‘cancel’ Darwin, the theory of evolution would still be a scientific reality.”
While holding figures of the past accountable for their racist beliefs is necessary and important, it cannot be a reason to exclude or “cancel” important scientific breakthroughs from the public education system. Evolution is a crucial part of our school systems’ curriculum and students should be educated on this topic.
Ham and Heck are attempting to “cancel” the theory of evolution not simply because of anything Darwin may have said but because, as staunch believers in creationism, they have a religious motive. Heck’s writing makes it clear that he does not want evolution to be taught in schools, so he calls out Darwin’s discovery of natural selection and evolution as bigoted and in part responsible for slavery and eugenics, as a means to justify its exclusion from the curriculum. It’s a ridiculous assertion. The fact that some people might have distorted Darwin’s theory over the years to buttress racist views does not indict evolution. (In fact, the theory traces the origin of humankind to regions of Africa – a finding that must give racists nightmares.)
If there is evidence that people in the past or present are racist or prejudiced in their opinions, we must call them out for it and bring awareness to the issue. But delegitimizing evolution, a testable scientific theory, on the basis of reckless claims about Darwin’s personal beliefs is completely illogical. Unfortunately, it’s also a common tactic for Ham and his allies.