The Mixed Legacy of Darwin

Date: 1892
Owner: Benjamin Lara
Source Type: Images


Darwinian evolution had a massive impact on science and society in Latin America (and, for that matter, the entire world). A quick look at some of the other topics on this website will give some sense as to just how influential natural selection was on a wide variety of Latin American sciences. Some of these influences were rather benign: botanists looked to Darwinism to explain the abundance of various forms of plant life and paleontologists used natural selection to make sense of the region's unique fossil record.

Social scientists and reform-minded elites, however, found in Darwinism a useful tool for legitimizing their own biased opinions about society and the various peoples within it. Herbert Spencer's theory of Social Darwinism--the idea that a society on the whole could evolve like a species--became popular among many Latin American elites. Although some Latin Americans used this theory to claim that miscegenation had improved their societies (see the source on Silvio Romero in the Social Science topic), most agreed with the Eurocentric idea that any loss of whiteness was a kind of de-evolution, both for the mixed-race offspring and the society as a whole.

The drive to improve their nations led many Latin American governments (circa 1880-1940) to impose various measures to ensure that the genetic constitution of the nation continued to improve and the "degenerative" genetic elements were relegated to society's periphery. Criminologists and eugenicists were at the forefront of these efforts. As in the image of Mexican criminals seen here, professional criminologists thought they could identify the genetic traits of criminals; usually, these studies simply reinforced old stereotypes that Indians and blacks were inferior and prone to criminal behavior. Eugenicists and social hygienists then attempted to remove such destructive elements from the national "germ plasm."

It is interesting how Darwin's theory, which derived from observations he made in Latin America, returned to that region in such a different form. Certainly Darwin did not have the evolutionary divergence of born criminals in mind when he studied the finches and iguanas of the Galapagos. Although all scientific ideas are subject to manipulation, Darwinism is a particularly powerful theory because it revolutionized the idea of what it means to exist as a species. In Latin America, a region of incredible diversity in plant, animal, and human life, "survival of the fittest" was too often transformed from a theory into a national policy.

CITATION: Martinez Baca, Francisco and Manuel Vergara. Estudios de antropologia criminal. Puebla: Imprenta, litografia y Encuadernacion de Benjamin Lara, 1892.