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Benjamin K. Hays, fl. 1887-1918
Natural Selection and the Race Problem
Charlotte, N.C.: Charlotte Medical Journal, 1905.


Charles Darwin's 1859 publication, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life has been, since its inception, surrounded by controversy. Darwin's focus on evolution has long been pitted against myriad religious beliefs surrounding the creation of the universe, and has been held as heresy by many members of various religions. Debates over whether or not to teach the theory of evolution in science classrooms have long raged both in North Carolina and beyond. Perhaps most controversial of all, however, has been the attempt to apply (or misapply) the theories of evolution to social issues and the "science" of race.

Darwin himself rarely commented on the possible social ramifications of his theories. Instead he "focused primarily on the biological evolution of animal species and almost never addressed the cultural or social consequences of this evolution for humans" (Rutledge). Nonetheless, others, such as Herbert Spencer, "who first coined the phrase 'survival of the fittest,' reasoned that Darwinist principles were intended to buttress the case that biological evolution could be equally applicable to human societies" (Rutledge). Given the heightened anxiety surrounding race relations in the late nineteenth century, the application of Darwin's philosophies to human societies most often led to a supposedly scientific racism in which Caucasians were always the "fittest" for survival.

One of the many attempts to use a form of social Darwinism to rank the races was published by Dr. Benjamin K. Hays (1887-1918). While little biographical information about Hays is available, his publications indicate that he was a practicing medical doctor in Oxford, North Carolina and that he served as the Chairman of the Medical Society of the State of North Carolina. In addition to his 1905 tract "Natural Selection and the Race Problem," Hays also published a talk entitled "The Continued Fevers of North Carolina," which detailed the ongoing issues with the oft-fatal fevers plaguing North Carolina at the turn of the century.

Hays begins "Natural Selection and the Race Problem" by alleging that "in a scientific discussion prejudice can have no place" (p. 1). Hays claims that he approaches the issue not as a "moralist" but rather by seeking to "examine the conditions as they are" and to "account for them by natural causes" (p. 1, p. 2). Crediting Darwin's The Origin of Species with calling forth the "greatest intellectual contest that the world has known," Hays attempts "a clear application of the law of evolution to the two races in this country" (p. 3).

Hays begins by summarizing the key points of Darwin's theory—"no species can go on reproducing itself without finding some natural check upon its growth" and the "best-adapted to its environment" will pass down "its superior traits to its offspring" (p. 4). Hays argues that "if we accept the theory (and I without reservation do accept it) that all animal life descended from a few primitive forms, we are able to trace, step by step, every state in the development of the higher forms of life" (p. 4). Extending this theory even further, Hays alleges that "there is a certain point at which races and nations have seemed grown. They pass into a lethargy or decadent period, and from this they never advance" (p. 6).

In Hays's opinion, "the African" had reached that "state of lethargy": "at the dawn of history, he was fully developed, and during the past three thousand years he has not made one step of progress" (p. 8). Hays argues that "the superiority of the American negro to his African brother, who is a savage and a cannibal, is due to slavery" as "the present attainment of the American negro has been solely the result of his close personal contact with the white man" (p. 8).

Claiming that the "negro has been domesticated," Hays goes on to question whether or not African-Americans can become an "integral part of Anglo-American civilization" (p. 10). Hays claims that the Anglo-Saxons have been most successful in dealing "with the many barriers to development which nature had placed" (p. 7). He notes that this success is not without downfall as "good citizens, good neighbors, kind fathers and faithful friends" may nonetheless "feel no moral constraint" in regards to those perceived as competitors (p. 8). Citing the race as a singular unit, Hays argues that the black man "has never been a competitor, but has always been subservient to the white race. And just so long as he remains subservient his position is secure, and just so soon as he becomes a competitor his fate is sealed" (p. 10). Using an analogy to further emphasize this supposed and required subservience while furthering the dehumanization of the race, Hays acknowledges that African Americans can serve masters, a municipality, or a State, and "so long as the negro renders this service he is protected by the white man as a gardener protects his hot-house plants" (pp. 10-11).

Citing the achievements of W.E.B. Du Bois, "one of the most scholarly negroes in this country," Hays warns, "And yet, if every American negro could, by some miraculous power, be endowed with Prof. DuBois' scholarship, or if every tenth negro could have this priceless gift, the two races could no longer occupy the same soil" as America requires a dominant and a subservient race (pp. 11-12). Hays acknowledges that while the white man has no "greater right to the soil," yet feels that nonetheless he would be the victor of any race struggle, and acknowledges the "tragedy" of the white man's collision with Native Americans as proof (p. 12). Should the black man become dominant, according to Hays, he would just fall victim to "that vicious element which renders the home and highway unsafe for unprotected women" (p. 12). Such an element, Hays fears, is on the rise as those blacks who are "unwilling to pay the price of industrial advancement, incapable of mental or moral elevation; endowed by nature with a lust closely akin to that of the brute creation; without love of home or country" instead turn to the rape of a "white woman" to "gratify every passion of their depraved natures" (p. 13). Hays's deplorable statements reflect many of the white fears and justifications expressed during the racial struggles of the late 1800s, fears that led to segregation, lynching, and race hatred.

Even as Hays recounts the problems arising between white and black men in the "Struggle for Existence," he offers a disturbing solution: "Natural Selection" (p. 17). For, Hays notes, "our civilization offers the negro alcohol, gambling halls and venereal diseases, but it does not give the power to resist temptation. Our civilization offers individual liberty, but liberty to the ignorant means license and crime. Our civilization offers industrial advancement but a refusal to comply with the conditions means poverty and disease" (pp. 17-18). As the "beneficent hand" of the Southern white master and Northern liberal recedes into history, Hays envisions the downfall and end of the African American "race" (p. 18). Such a downfall, for Hays, is inevitable: "The weak has ever been dominated by the strong, and where the strong cannot control it will destroy" (p. 21).

Hays, believing that he spoke science untainted by racist thought, would likely be surprised to learn that his piece is often used in North Carolina high school history classrooms in order to study "the major issues facing their [African American] population in the years after Reconstruction ended and the white views that attempted to hinder their progress" (McGlinn). Hays' piece is clear evidence of the use and misuse of scientific theories in order to bolster social bias and personal racism.

Works ConsultedHays, Benjamin K., "The Continued Fevers of North Carolina," Transactions of the Medical Society of North Carolina, 1899, The North Carolina State Library (accessed 10 August 2010); McGlinn, Megan, "The African American Experience in NC after Reconstruction," Learn NC, The University of North Carolina (accessed 9 August 2010); "Rutledge, Dennis M., "Social Darwinism, scientific racism, and the metaphysics of race," The Journal of Negro Education, Summer 1995, The CBS Interactive Business Network (accessed 10 August 2010).

Meredith Malburne-Wade

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