Imprimir Republish


The lost tropical link

Brazil was fundamental when it came to Darwin producing his theories, returning later to the country they molded the nation

ReproductionCharles Darwin (1809-1882) spent four months in Brazil in 1832, during his famous voyage on board the Beagle. He left, impressed with what he had seen: “Delight is a word that is insufficient to express the emotions felt by a naturalist alone with nature in the heart of a Brazilian forest”, he wrote in his scientific diary. Brazil, however, appears in much less idyllic form in his personal writings: “I hope never to return to a country with slavery. The state of the enormous slave population should concern all who arrive in Brazil. Slave masters want to see the black as another species, but we all have the same origin in our common ancestry. My blood boils when I think of the English and Americans with their ‘cries’ for liberty, who are so guilty of all this”. In a house in which he stayed in Rio he suffered when he witnessed, “daily, and at every hour”, a mulatto being beaten with such violence that “it would be enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal”. Instead of the song of the sabiá [Turdus rufiventris], what rang in the ears of Darwin when he returned to England was a terrible sound that stayed with him for the rest of his life: “Even today, if I hear a shout from afar, I remember, painfully and clearly, of when I passed by a house in Pernambuco and heard the most terrible howling. Right away I understood that it was some poor slave who was being tortured. I felt as impotent as a child faced with that, incapable of making the least objection”.

“For Darwin, the voyage of the Beagle was less important for the specimens he collected than for the experience of witnessing the horrors of slavery in Brazil.  To a certain extent he chose to focus on the common descent of man precisely to show that all races were equal and therefore, in short, to object to those who insisted on calling the blacks a different species and inferior to whites”, explains biologist Adrian Desmond, from University College London, who along with James Moore, has just had published Darwin’s sacred cause: race, slavery and the quest for human origins,  a study that shows an unexpected abolitionist passion in the scientist, as revealed by the rediscovery of diaries and personal letters. “The great revelation of these writings is that most of Darwin’s research, for many years, was about race. For Darwin there was no difference between ‘race’ and ‘species’ and his research into the origin of the species is also about the origin of races, including humans. The extent of his explicit interest in fighting science with a racist stamp is surprising and we were able to detect a moral drive behind his work on human evolution, a belief in  racial  ‘brotherhood’ that had its roots in his hatred for slavery which led him, along with other factors, to think about  common ancestry. His science was not ‘neutral’, as was believed, but driven by moral passion and humanitarian concerns”, he observes.

The well-known reticence of the naturalist to publish his work (there were 30 years of indecision), notes the author, may also be explained by this “un-Baconian” view of science of his, which would equally throw light on the reasons that led a young man with a promising career in his grasp to risk his future by upsetting the Christian society to which he belonged, with his “man from monkey” theory. “As a result of his anti-slavery heritage and because of his experience of Brazilian slavery, when Darwin returned to Europe in 1836 he conceived his image of common ancestry. His notebooks from 1837 and 1838 show his thinking moving more and more in the direction of a racial brotherhood, ideas he developed at a time when there was great abolitionist euphoria”, is Desmond’s opinion.


Analysis of the documents reveals a young Darwin who deserves to be better known. “The secret diaries that were written immediately after the voyage of the Beagle show a very different man from that serious ‘man of science’ who presented The Origin of Species as a patient accumulation of facts, which practically forced him to his evolutionary conclusions. Of course, we don’t intend to explain all of his work in terms  of his passion for abolition, but we believe that it was his obsession with racial unity that led him to touch upon this untouchable and treasonable subject, despite all the problems that arose”, he states. The curiosity of the researchers was roused ten years ago when they re-read The descent of man and selection in relation to sex. “In two thirds of a book, supposedly about human evolution, the only things talked about were bees, birds and butterflies. Why? Well, Darwin wanted to prove his theory of ‘sexual selection’. But why was this so important? Because it was the central proof of common racial ancestry, since this selection was responsible for the differences in appearance between races of animals and humans and not, as the pro-slavery lobby wanted, because the species were created separately. The fact that a good part of his ideas were hatched when the USA was preparing for a civil war because of slavery raises the moral dimension of his research.” Darwin, despite being discreet in his commitment, as befitted a Victorian gentleman, was opposed to slavery and grew up in a family that was deeply involved in the abolitionist cause: the Wedgwoods, his mother’s family and that of his future wife. His paternal grandfather, Erasmus, was also a defender of the “sacred cause”.

It was in Edinburgh, where he tried unsuccessfully to study medicine, that he first met a black man, a freed slave from Guyana who taught Darwin to stuff birds. “They became great friends and Darwin obviously would not accept racist arguments that blacks ‘could not be civilized’. He even became furious with his colleague Charles Lyell, who returned from the USA absolutely delighted with the slave owners who had welcomed him as their guest and warned him that it was necessary to look beyond the polite traps of Southern society and see the cruel reality on which it was based. Even his deep antipathy towards the naturalist and detractor of evolutionism, Louis Agassiz, can now be understood because of the defense of polygenism he put up at Harvard.”

As was inevitable, if the Darwinist theory came, to a certain extent, from a political epiphany the naturalist experienced in Brazil, when he returned to the country in 1870, what was then called “Darwinism” was received by a generation that was planning political changes in the nation. “That was a moment when the might of the land was no longer seen as a local distinguishing feature; what was seen were men with their racial make-up. Doctors, lawyers, historians and naturalists felt responsible for the creation of a new identity for the nation and the question of race became an obsession, since it was the language by which it was possible to explain away the inequality that existed and achieve a certain national unity”, observes anthropologist, Lilia Schwarcz, from USP.

This meeting of minds over racial discourse and nationalism provided the opportunity that was needed to think about a nation based on biological criteria. “In the eyes of these intellectuals only the evolutionist ‘doctrine’ would allow for the creation of a representation of Brazil as a unit in formation. Evolutionism is what provides the ‘scientific conviction’ that young nations, trapped by the fatality of colonialism, could draw closer to the civilized, metropolitan nations, because according to the theories it was in the nature of beings to transform themselves over time”, is the analysis of sociologist, Carlos Alberto Dória, author of the PhD thesis, The cadence and decadence of Brazil: the future of the nation in the shadow of Darwin, Haeckel and Spencer, defended at Unicamp. “In adopting evolutionist and racial jargon the erudite elite, especially  doctors and lawyers, ended up assuming a type of awareness of the backwardness and  found support to take the discussion about equality between men, and therefore criteria about citizenship, to another level”, notes Lilia. But at the same time that the adoption of Darwinist social models gave the elite a feeling of closeness to the European world and a confidence in progress and civilization, it caused a certain uneasiness when these theories were applied to Brazilian racial issues, since the reality of the country’s advanced stage of inter-breeding could not be avoided.

ReproductionDarwin: torture scene in Brazil deeply affected the naturalistReproduction

Even so, the reception given to Darwinism in Brazil was one of the least problematic in the Americas. “In societies where the elite are not united, all ideas, even scientific ones, are appropriated as arms. Darwinism is a good example of this, because it was easily converted into a symbol of secularism”, is how historian Thomas Glick, from the University of Boston evaluates it. The racial problem encouraged the evolutionist discourse and led to a movement for classifying the races scientifically; evolutionist convictions, on the other hand, allowed for an optimistic view of the capacity of Brazil to overcome its backwardness.

“So, development in Brazil in the 19th century meant overthrowing the monarchy, making labor free, favoring free competition and re-examining the concept of the State”, says historian, Regina Gualtieri, from the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp). But the evolutionism that Brazil knew, even though it was called “Darwinism”, was the version that English philosopher, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and German biologist, Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) presented. “The view that both of them had of evolution was linked to a system of thinking that formed part of the radical ultra-liberalism of Victorian industrialism, at the same time as it classified human societies hierarchically as races and civilizations”, notes Dória. “None of the evolutionist intellectuals (Euclides da Cunha, Nina Rodrigues, Sílvio Romero, Manoel Bonfim, Monteiro Lobato) directly read Darwin’s works to find out exactly what ‘evolution’ or ‘race’ meant and how they were processed in the natural kingdom; they preferred to take them second hand from Spencer and Haeckel.”

Spencer was the pioneer in divulging the idea of evolution to the non-specialist public, even before Darwin had suggested the importance of a selection theory. But his interpretation was responsible for considerable confusion about the real Darwinism: it was Spencer who redefined natural selection as the “survival of the fittest”, thus becoming the spokesman for a social theory based on the brutal struggle for existence, which was wrongly called “social Darwinism”, and which preached the war of the strong against the weak and rich against poor, as necessary conflicts since they would lead human society to full development, by ridding it of the “weak”. Haeckel, an early Darwinist, saw a parallel between the development of the races and the development of the species. For him the races called “primitive” were a “child’s” step in the march of humanity towards progress, at the summit of which was the white man. He even created a religion, “monism”, in which all economics, politics and ethics were reduced to applied biology.

For a country that was trying to transform itself politically, economically and socially evolutionary ideas, especially after they had been put through the Spencer and Haeckel “filter”, were very welcome and even religious debate did not prevent their rapid spread in Brazil. “Concepts like natural selection and the struggle for life could be used, in the name of transformation, to fight the alleged apathy and incompetence of those who opposed it. Haeckel’s biological law, on the other hand, when transferred to the social world, forecast that during their development people would recapitulate the history of other already developed people, and in the Spencerian interpretation, the simplest and least evolved social organizations would be transformed, following in the steps of more complex societies”, is the analysis of Regina Gualtieri.
“Brazilian style Darwinism was filtered by a German cultural view, a characteristic of the impact of the ‘German crisis in French thinking’, the greatest expression of which was the Germanism of the Recife school”, is Dória’s assessment of the situation. “The project of this modernizing generation, which started questioning French culture using German sources, became incorporated into a consistent discourse about race, as the main support for the preparation of the Brazilian being. For our evolutionists, race will be the community itself.”Brazil also had other peculiarities that facilitated the acceptance of Darwinism, even if it was in its “bastard” form. In the sphere of the State, the emperor, although a friend of Agassiz and other enemies of evolutionism (he revealed in a letter his profound horror at any closeness between men and monkeys), was not completely against Darwin. The Catholic elite was equally disposed to harbor a certain degree of goodwill towards the new ideas, since it perceived that it had something to gain from accepting polygenist evolutionism, which provided a scientific basis for legitimizing white supremacy. Finally, in all the main museums, institutes and important faculties, such as that of Medicine, in Bahia, and Law in Recife, there were sympathizers to Darwinism. “In the absence, however, of biologists and naturalists in any great quantity, the main Brazilian Darwinists were doctors or social theoreticians”, remembers Glick. A notable detail in the acceptance of these ideas was the evidence it provided for the way in which French culture had fallen into decay among literate Brazilians; until then it had been the basis of positivism but was about to be attacked by the materialist generation.

Reproductions from the book “Rio de Janeiro – city of mixed races"

Also according to Dória, this gave Brazilian evolutionism a contradictory aspect, since it saw itself transformed into the basis for theoretically sustaining practices of a conservative nature, despite the revolutionary direction of Darwin’s discoveries. “Evolutionism, especially in its Haecklian format, ended up becoming an ideology, since it was used to confirm a conviction of the elite that there were qualitative differences between human groups that allowed them to be classified as inferior or superior. The social, cultural and biological all fused to form a theory of social organization: while some claimed that the atavistic results of interbreeding could be reversed by the mechanism of importing Europeans to ‘whiten’ the inferior races, the same effect could be obtained by imposing European culture, which would be enough to ‘whiten’ a mulatto”, observes Glick. It is important to point out that this ideology, forged from Darwinism, spread beyond the closed circuit of institutions of knowledge and learning throughout society via conferences and their consequent disclosure and debate in the press of the time. The most notable examples were the Popular Conferences of Glória, public lectures given in Rio de Janeiro, created in 1873 to publicize the arts and sciences. Even though the public was restricted to a literate elite, this was no reason for the conferences not to gain political strength, whether by legitimizing the ideas by debating them, or because they had repercussions in the press, which collaborated in spreading and crystallizing the new ideas, such as those that emerged from the cycle of conferences on Darwinism in 1875. The one given by Dr Miranda Azevedo became famous. He was the person mainly responsible for spreading “social Darwinism” in the country, especially through his defense of the “struggle for existence”. “For Azevedo, Darwinism supplied the instrument he needed for thinking about and resolving the problems of Brazilian society, such as when he attacked the system for calling up soldiers which, he claimed, removed from society the healthiest and strongest individuals, leaving the ‘weak’ to reproduce and constitute the Brazilian family and society”, recalls historian, Karoline Carula.

“Is it precisely the weak who have to constitute families and thus transmit to their children the germs of this feebleness, this degeneration that all statesmen announce”, asked the doctor of his audience. Beginning with this line of reasoning he would then attack the monarchy, because it was incapable of acting according to the “laws” of Darwin, and closed with a war cry: “I prefer to be descended from an improved monkey than from a degenerate Adam”. These discussions were equally important for preparing those who read naturalist novels, like those of Aluísio Azevedo (The mulatto, from 1881, and The tenement house from 1890), both permeated, notes Carula, “with the theory of Darwin”, which revealed “how Darwinism had already acquired another category of disclosure at the beginning of the 1880s, showing that public opinion already accepted it in literature. “In naturalism, personalities and plots are subject to the blind determinism of ‘natural laws’, which science at the time believed to be codified. Among these were those coming from Darwinism and other types of evolutionism, like the social Darwinism of Spencer. Obviously Azevedo didn’t want to apply concepts. But in the naturalist episode the ‘struggle for survival’, the ‘survival of the fittest’, ‘moral evolution’ etc are heavily used”, believes biologist Ricardo Waizbort, from Fiocruz..

Curiously enough, in the midst of all this ideological debate, little attention was paid to one of the true Darwinists in Brazil: Fritz Muller (1822-1897). “He was undoubtedly the most important Darwinist biologist of the 19th century after Darwin himself”, Glick believes. Having emigrated from Germany to Brazil in 1892, Muller lived discreetly as a modest teacher, giving lessons in the south of the country, confronting the powerful influence of religion in the educational system. In 1863 he wrote Für Darwin, a study on crustaceans that was fundamental and pioneering when it came to the empirical confirmation of the mechanisms of natural selection. Darwin, in his enthusiasm for it, wanted the book translated into English and the two corresponded for many years. As a teacher in Desterro, his Darwinism had an influence on the poet, Cruz e Souza, who was laughed at by his colleagues, who saw in the writer’s father the “lost link”. But the poet maintained his sense of humor and even wrote verses about his condition as a black: “You come exactly and directly from Darwin. I can detect in your face the cranial protuberances of the orangutan, the lascivious gesture, the animal and predatory air of the monkey”. “Muller, like German immigrant, Carl von Koseritz, corresponded with Haeckel in Brazil and, alongside the Swiss Emílio Goeldi, were “first hand evolutionists” who nevertheless, were not mentioned in the library of evolutionists, like Tobias Barreto or Sílvio Romero, which reveals the ideological nature that the biological ideas of Darwin had gained in Brazil.

This, therefore, ends the cycle of the mixture between Darwin, nation and race in a tropical format. “The type of evolutionist discussion that took place in the country weakened the aspects of heredity and emphasized those that were more linked to problems of adaptation. This weakened the racist arguments in the public sphere, with their discourse in patterns found in social Darwinism”, observes Dória. “Interbreeding started being seen as a way of diluting selection, the mixture of which occurred in private and was commanded by each individual. If the nation was a collective creation, selectionism is an individual and private issue, like eugenics that become deaf, and appear to already be resolved within society by the ‘fact’ of interbreeding.”
Reproductions from the book “Rio de Janeiro – city of mixed races"
Only the improvement in the adaptation of the races that constituted the nationality gained limelight in the public sphere: the “inheritance” was hidden behind a cloak of privacy. “This gave our racism more diluted features and in keeping with the myth of ‘racial democracy’, far from apartheid-like eugenics and, at the same time, extremely tolerant towards private processes of discrimination. At the bottom of it all was the postponing of the recognition of citizenship for black people, planned for a diluted or diluting future, according to biological laws that would lead to a whitening of Brazil. As a result, the wish to be Brazilian would imply abdicating the wish to be black.” Going in the opposite direction, continues Dória, was the program for improving the people of the Brazilian biocracy (the State becomes the personality that directs social organism in the desired direction, which removes the natural character of evolution), hygienism, the most important representatives of which were Lobato and Oswaldo Cruz. Hygienism was essentially not geneticist but was aimed at correcting the life of people coming out of slavery and being abandoned in poverty. But Lobato’s words do not let us forget the hidden driving force behind it: “Our dilemma is this: from illness or racial incapacity. It’s preferable to choose illness”.

“For Brazil, evolutionism performed the role of the only safe guide throughout the discussion process about the formation of the nation. So what Brazilians understood by ‘Darwinism’ was a parameter of discussions that were closer to social philosophy than biology, showing just how we appropriated that theory”, sums up Dória. But, notes Lilia, in Brazil evolutionism is intertwined with social Darwinism, as if it were possible to talk about ‘human evolution’, albeit differentiating the races; denying civilization to the blacks and colored people, without mentioning the effects of already advanced interbreeding; expelling the “gangrenous part” and guaranteeing that the future of the nation was “white and western”. Darwin himself, especially after the publication of The ascent of man in 1871, also started accepting, like any good Victorian, the idea of a racial and cultural “ladder”, with whites at the top and blacks at the bottom. “It’s not right to say that the blame for the harmful effects of ‘social Darwinism’ are exclusively from the interpretation presented by Spencer, the ideal alibi for Darwin, as if he were merely the pure and exempt scientist. As far as Darwin was concerned, non-social Darwinism was not possible, because the social was an integral part of his system of understanding nature. In this sense, he was consciously the matrix of colonialism and of other barbarous acts committed in his name. That is why it is important on this 200th anniversary of his birth to look again at the young Darwin, who was capable of putting  passion into science and taking it down a humanitarian path”, remembers Adrian Desmond. These were times when the “sacred cause” was not confused with the “white man’s burden”.