As they swept their way across the world, restructuring the demographics of the globe while condemning untold millions to the servitude that fueled their ever-increasing wealth, the Europeans were as convinced as their colonial forebears of the moral rectitude of their exploitation.
With science replacing Christianity as a framework for making sense of the world, leading European thinkers showed great dexterity in appropriating the new way of thinking as further justification for world domination. The early 19th century French naturalist, George Leopold Cuvier, contributed to a newly emerging field of scientific racism by declaring that “the Caucasian race has given rise to the most civilized nations, to those which have generally held the rest in subjection.”
A moral duty to dominate the world
Early affirmations of Caucasian racial superiority were given a more robust platform with the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Although Darwin himself never applied his theory to social evolution, Herbert Spencer – one of his early advocates – was only too eager to do so. His approach, known as Social Darwinism, soon became the new philosophical foundation for theories of European superiority, giving imperialists what seemed like a moral duty based in biology to dominate the rest of the world. The new racist ideology of white supremacy rapidly spread throughout the world. The following, for example, passed as acceptable scientific material in late nineteenth century Australia:
To the Aryan… apparently belong the destinies of the future. The races… who rest content in…placid sensuality and unprogressive decrepitude, can hardly hope to contend permanently in the great struggle for existence…
The survival of the fittest means that might – wisely used – is right. And thus we invoke and remorselessly fulfil the inexorable law of natural selection when exterminating the inferior Australian.
As the world entered the twentieth century, this supposed “law of natural selection” was about to be sorely tested. After two world wars, the colonial structures established by the Europeans would get dismantled.
The systematic exploitation of the entire world by one region had reached its zenith. However, the massive global inequalities it had created still show no sign of diminishing. Human exploitation continues to ravage billions of lives across the globe, with the wealthiest fifth of the world enjoying 70% of its income, while the poorest fifth scrapes by on just 2%.