Darwin – some social considerations.

In rejecting Darwin’s fantasy of the virtues of ‘civilised’ life in contrast with an equally imaginary ‘savage’ life, we need to recall the role of violence which underwrites the establishment of the modern nation-state and of kingdoms.

Acts of great violence (physical and conceptual) are required to produce and maintain these social formations.

For those unable to see the realities of Western life, some of Foucault’s work spells out the role of ongoing warfare at home and abroad needed to prop up the pretences of ‘reason’.

Charles Darwin was largely removed from the everyday realities of these acts of physical violence, and lived out most of his life (and his ‘civilised’ fantasy) in a privileged comfort zone at Down, living off wealth derived ‘bloodlessly’ from remote financial and symbolic investments.

However he did have more than ample evidence of how ‘civilised’ people treated both members of their own society and other peoples when he travelled the world on the Beagle.

Darwin often records his feelings of compassion for those who suffer at the hands of authority (and was clearly opposed to slavery) but his discomfort never extends to questioning, and advocating radical change to, the established social order when seeking solutions to this suffering.

Like most other people, he chose not to act on this evidence – and he later finessed on taking up the complex matters raised by Karl Marx as being beyond him.


When Charles Darwin (Gent and Naturalist) joined the Beagle in December 1831, he was immediately inserted into a longer standing naval social system which had rich links with the established social formation.

This social formation was well and truly lashed into place. On the second day at sea, “Four men between them received 134 lashes for insolence, disobedience, and neglect of duty. Darwin cringed as the whip hissed and felons howled.” (Desmond and Moore, “Darwin”  1991:115).

But his special place on the Beagle was neither that of an officer nor an ordinary seaman, so (and understandably) these matters were not of ones he chose to pursue.

And we must note at the outset that Darwin, during the course of his lifetime, certainly took on major challenges with the then established order which was rooted in Creationism. His guiding instinct seems to have been a belief in the ability of species to change, and this was one he says that few others amongst his peers shared. This instinct was not at the fore during his Beagle years.

But the application of his belief can be seen as part of a process by which a newly emerging elite sought to replace the cosmological  foundations of the existing and outgoing elite and to do so without going too far and threatening the privileged position of his own elite.

He often refers to the “lower orders” of his own society. This use of vertical metaphors is part and parcel of an process (widespread now as it was then) by which ‘supra-positioning’ games are in play to produce illusions of ‘superior’ people – ‘superior’ at home and abroad.

Darwin’s life work involves crafting a mythology which – while reminding humanity of its common links with the rest of life – preserves the investments of a very narrow group. Competition between individuals is ‘naturalised’ as the means by which creation is fashioned.

And, on a deeper level, the conceptual practices of horticulturists and animal breeders – artificial selection – are replicated as ‘natural selection’.

Darwin’s work stops well short of crafting a new sense of identity for life which would do away with the conceptual foundations and ‘ancient distinctions’ upon which contemporary European life rely.

Completing this work – moving towards a new sense of identity for life –  is a task which has been largely untouched in the West for 150 years. A crass form –  Nationalism – has prevailed, as an earlier British Empire has faded. (The recent revival of a US form of Empire – involving a fantasy called ‘THE international community’ – has yet to succeed in gaining the necessary conceptual foundations).

Seeing all life as one – seeing ‘human’ life as part of life, not apart from life – is an Eastern view, not a Western one. No room for Holy Cows as the lot-feed cattle which replaced the free flowing buffalo in America are ground soullessly into hamburger patties for chain store profits.

One of the key problems during this time has been that – in rightly reclaiming life from the traps of institutionalised monotheism – the accumulated wisdom necessary for good life guidance which is to be found in all manner of places has also been rejected in the name of ‘science’.

This accumulated wisdom includes all manner of solutions to real existential dilemmas and problems faced by life.  A dialogue between Darwinism and the cosmologies of First Peoples is long overdue. Of course, it could not be expected to take place in the 1830, since it was yet to come into existence.


In 1831 Darwin was setting out on a great voyage and encountering the reality of community life on a small naval ship.

In addition to Captain FitzRoy and other crew, young Charles (then only 22) befriended the even younger Midshipsman Philip Gidley King – son of the former Commander of the Beagle (and aspiring naturalist) – and grandson of a former Governor of New South Wales of the same name.

Darwin and the younger Philip G King  became close friends as they sailed half way around the world.

By the time Darwin arrived in Sydney, New South Wales, on 12 January 1836, they had known each other for four solid years. And during that time they had lived in very close contact each day, as well as having – when on land – undertaken exploring trips together. Darwin refers to King as “my chief companion”. Young King was coming home to the King family.

Charles Darwin’s entry into polite society in colonial Australia was assured.

Little wonder then that, as we have seen (previous posting “On Inheritance”)  Darwin was to ‘correct’ his Diary when he recorded that Aboriginal people had been robbed of their land.


Darwin does not arrive in Australia as a naive perceiving subject (since that is not possible for anyone). The acts of interpreting our experiences are outcomes of complex processes, which factor in all manner of considerations. We create socially acceptable ‘frameworks’ which, in so far as they constitute the categories of our experience – are the ‘limits’ of our perceptions – render things visible but remain un-visible.

Darwin later wrote that:

“Before arriving here (in New South Wales – BR) the three things which interested me most were – the state of society amongst the higher classes, the condition of the convicts, and the degree of attraction sufficient to induce persons to emigrate.” (Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle, Penguin 1989:325). Indigenous people do not enter into the picture.

Having come to Australia by way of South America (and by way of an emerging ‘scientific’ world view which uses a “naturalistic” cultural code) Darwin was already well indoctrinated with a split in European consciousness which enables imperialism at the expense of the well-being of indigenous peoples.

For those who share in this code, it is acceptable to see the New World in terms of a geography which places no importance on the cultures, Ways and lives of the people already there.

The Beagle itself was on a mapping expedition to assist with the speculative ventures of British capitalists – men close to Darwin’s heart just as other European men –  scientific explorers like Humboldt – were close to his head.


Darwin soon set off on his trip across the Blue Mountains to the newly established town of Bathurst. His account of that trip is necessary reading from any interested in Darwin and Australia. Unpacking Darwin’s record of that trip makes for a fascinating experience, and will require more space than is available in this posting.

He met some indigenous men near Parramatta and interacted with them. These men would, in all probability, have include some who regarded themselves as being on their own traditional country, or country in which they had traditional rights.

He later wrote:

“It is very curious to see in the midst of a civilised people, a set of harmless savages wandering around without knowing where they shall sleep at night, and gaining their livelihood by hunting in the woods.” (Voyage of the Beagle page 321)

The figure-ground relationship can be reversed here. How odd it is to see Europeans implanting themselves in the lands and lives of First Peoples, and – heedless to their true surroundings – carrying on as thought they were in Europe.

As the white man has travelled onwards, he has spread over the country belonging to several tribes. These, although thus enclosed by one common people, keep up their ancient distinctions, and sometimes go to war with each other.” (ibid)


Darwin arranged to return by way of Captain King’s farm “Dunheved” not far from Parramatta, where he arrived on 26 January. This consisted of land which had been “granted “ to the King family – Philip Gidley King Senior having been a Governor. Land which was expropriated from First Peoples.

It may have belonged, traditionally, to some of the indigenous people Darwin met on the outward leg of his trip.

The Kings were Darwin’s hosts – not the First Peoples into whose cosmos the fantasy farm of “Dunheved” was being fashioned. Darwin and King compared their “naturalists” notes.

The following day Darwin also enjoyed the company at lunch of Hannable Macarthur at a nearby property – complete with several young ladies, one of whom young King would later marry. Macarthur was a leading social figure in the penal colony.

Men like Captain King and McArthur, whose fortunes were flourishing as a result of the expropriation of First Peoples living countries, had already made up their minds about the rightness of displacing life’s chosen representatives in Australia.

Darwin, as a social Being subject to the normal workings of reciprocity  – and not blind to where his own best future investment interests may lie – models himself on the ‘better’ class of people he takes to be his hosts in this part of the world.


It is interesting to note of Darwin and King – two young men who saw much more of the world than those who were less fortunate – and who would have been exposed to the habits of sailors – that they both returned home and married their own cousins.  This habit is sometimes used as a means of slurring those who practice it, and all those who incur this slur should be made to apply their limited logic to all cases.

Cousin marriage, normal among many ‘savage’ people, also plays a role in the workings of a ‘civilised’ elite – with its very narrow social horizons.

In both the Darwin case and the King case, these marriages cemented wealthy alliances, Marriage is frequently used to cement alliances between powerful groups.

The prospects of young King – as a third generation of an English family in Australia –  marrying an Indigenous woman were, of course, completely out of the question.

“The Blacks” had nothing of value to exchange – except, of course, their living countries and the full complement of resources necessary for life to survive and flourish. Except, of course, everything which was needed to prop up the failing social systems of Europe. And in return, they got what exactly?

Decisions had already been taken that there was no need to engage in acts of genuine exchange with Australia’s First Peoples – they were to be treated as being of no account, and their lands and livelihood simply expropriated.

This denied Darwin the opportunity to engage with Australia’s First Peoples on anything but the most superficial of levels.

Like the Kings and the Macarthurs (and all new arrivals) Darwin was not expected to learn the languages of this country, nor to learn the cultural protocols which are part of travelling over country.

Australia was a penal colony when Charles Darwin visited, and it has remained a European conceptual prison-house until the present day.


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