In twenty-first-century America, science has become so politicized that to speak openly of “supporting science” likely marks you as a Democrat. Today, 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change has been caused by human beings, while major scientific organizations work openly against social evils like racism, misogyny, and poverty. But despite its recent record, science has not always aligned so well with modern values of equality and the common good. The history of science includes not only racial hierarchies, but also Western cultural supremacy, the militarization of scientific knowledge, and the subordination of scientific research to corporate profits.
In the mid-nineteenth century, racist ideas pervaded the scientific, philosophical, and religious worlds. Atheists and religious alike owned enslaved people, as did prominent scientists, politicians, and philosophers. While revolutions raged in Europe, the industrial revolution brought remarkable advances in technology and wealth, largely on the backs of the enslaved. Into this social context Charles Darwin introduced his theory of “evolution by means of natural selection” in 1859. At the time of publication, most scholars still believed in the immediate creation of all human life by God or by Nature. Some, like Darwin, believed that all humans were one species, an idea called monogenism. Others, like David Hume, Louis Agassiz, and Josiah Nott, believed that humans were created as multiple species with different levels of intelligence, a theory called polygenism. While most abolitionists were monogenists and most pro-slavery advocates were polygenists, there were exceptions. Plenty of people who believed in monogenism (including many abolitionists) held that white Europeans carried the ideal form of humanity, and a few who believed in polygenism were in fact abolitionists themselves, arguing that the different human species were all equal. In the final line of Origin of Species, Darwin himself hammered the first nail in the coffin of polygenistic science with a lofty vision of universal common ancestry:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Despite some inaccuracies and fierce opposition, Darwin’s blend of novel hypotheses, expansive taxonomic work, and good rhetoric transformed the scientific world within a few decades. By the late-nineteenth century, only a few supporters of polygenism remained, but the philosophical, theological, and scientific racism that had made polygenism so popular was soon drawing people to a new cause: eugenics.