“Evolution” and racism in a twentieth century reference book

Over the past few decades there has been a concerted effort among creationists to produce reference books which “tell their side of the story”. Most creationists also spend an appreciable amount of time discussing perceived lapses in evolutionary theory. Although I have seen misrepresentations in these accounts, I have yet to come across any reference that ignores known facts and logic on the scale of a book published in 1926 as the first volume of the legitimate-sounding New Outline of Knowledge reference series. I picked up The Romance of Evolution written by Frederick H. Martens from a library sale because I was interested in how evolution was presented in the early 20th century. Inside the book, I saw a sketch of the Piltdown Man, which was regarded at the time to be an early human species found in the United Kingdom. Later, in 1953, it was discovered to be a hoax. I wanted to see how our knowledge has changed in the last few decades. I was not prepared for what I saw inside.

The book is not a scientific text at all, and evolutionary theory does not even figure anywhere in the book! The book is a pseudoscientific polemic written for a very specific agenda – to tell the reader that the white race is superior to all others from an evolutionary standpoint. Facts to don’t stand a chance and the gross misrepresentations are quite appalling.

Take for example the following passage:

“.. If Evolution’s story is read as it really runs, cleared of the technical jargon and confusing detail which breaks the thread of the greatest narrative ever told by Nature, the master story teller of the all time, it will make clear to you a hundred and one facts about yourself you never have suspected. It will prove to you nothing that lives and breathes on earth, whether it walk, swim, or fly, was born by chance.”

The first odd thing about this passage is that “Evolution” is capitalized. This is intentional, and a awkward attempt to deify the process and attribute it to a specific purpose. Note also the bizarre statement that chance plays no part and everything is preordained. It is all very clear: evolution is biological process, while the fictitious concept of Evolution which the author propagates is simply a vehicle for Intelligent Design.

But these are not the most shocking parts in the so-called reference book. Those sections are reserved for passages of an overtly racist nature not backed up by an iota of scientific evidence:

Some people like to “kid themselves along” that all the races of man have sprung from one common stock, are gifted alike, and equal in mind and brain, if not in body and stature. They like to think – for religious, sentimental, or humanitarian reasons – that there are no inferior races of mankind!

There are the black tribes of Africa today… No amount of sentiment can make them the equals of the white races… Nor do the yellow races, the Mongolian races, stand on a level with the white race…

There are also comparisons of various races to simians, which I do not deign to reproduce here. What infuriates me the most is that racist wolves were donning the sheep’s clothing of science to perpetuate these lies.

And it all boils down to what I feel is the most widely misinterpreted phrase in science  – “the survival of the fittest”. Few knew what it meant back then. Not many know what it means now. Biological fitness is made into a caricature by those who do not care to understand it and those who choose to deliberately misrepresent it. Take for example the central thesis behind the racist agenda in the book:

…only the fittest survive among beasts or men, for that is the ancient law of life on earth, the law that has come from the first day. We were hunted down, killed, and destroyed by a stronger, taller, handsomer, and less hairy race, which swept down on us… and the fittest are the superior not the inferior race.

Usually a misunderstanding of biological fitness goes hand in hand with a failure to appreciate the concept of natural selection. The brilliant American scientist Dr. John William Draper delivered a lecture which was published in Popular Science lamenting the situation:

It is to be regretted that this phrase “natural selection” has been introduced… It implies a personification of Nature. It is anthropomorphic. But Nature never selects, never accepts or rejects, knows nothing about duties, nothing about fitness or unfitness. Nature simply obeys laws.

Those words (written in 1877) have rarely been heeded in the public discourse of evolution.

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