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"Culture" and Civilization in Darwin's The Origin of Species

cr88's picture

 One thing I found really interesting when reading Darwin's text was the incursion of ideas regarding the cultural superiority of Europe/the West into Darwin's discourse on the nature of evolution. "If it has taken centuries or thousands of years to improve or modify most of our plants up to their present standard of usefulness to man," writes Darwin, "we can understand how it is that neither Australia, the Cape of Good Hope, nor any other region inhabited by quite uncivilized man, has afforded us a single plant worth culture" (118). Darwin's use of the word "culture" is particularly interesting here. Though Darwin is ostensibly using the word in its horticultural context, the anthropological definition of the word is hard to ignore in this context, where Darwin is asserting the superiority of "civilized" horticulture over that of "uncivilized" horticulture. This is a recurring theme in Darwin's text; he goes on to describe the superiority of domesticated animals in "civilized" countries to those of domesticated animals in "uncivilized" countries. Given that the ability to cultivate plants and establish agriculture and thereby ceasing to lead a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle is in fact one of the defining traits of what we would call a "civilization", Darwin's definition of "civilized" seems excessively stringent.  From this short passage, it is easy to see how Darwin's theories have been applied to assert the superiority of one people over another in so many contexts, such as but not limited to the colonial powers over their colonized peoples, the Nazis over their victims, and the Social Darwinists in the highest strata of society over their lower caste compatriots.


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