Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution
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An astonishing new portrait of a scientific icon
In this remarkable book, Adrian Desmond and James Moore restore the missing moral core of Darwin’s evolutionary universe, providing a completely new account of how he came to his shattering theories about human origins.
There has always been a mystery surrounding Darwin: How did this quiet, respectable gentleman, a pillar of his parish, come to embrace one of the most radical ideas in the history of human thought? It’s difficult to overstate just what Darwin was risking in publishing his theory of evolution. So it must have been something very powerful—a moral fire, as Desmond and Moore put it—that propelled him. And that moral fire, they argue, was a passionate hatred of slavery.
To make their case, they draw on a wealth of fresh manuscripts, unpublished family correspondence, notebooks, diaries, and even ships’ logs. They show how Darwin’s abolitionism had deep roots in his mother’s family and was reinforced by his voyage on the Beagle as well as by events in America—from the rise of scientific racism at Harvard through the dark days of the Civil War.
Leading apologists for slavery in Darwin’s time argued that blacks and whites had originated as separate species, with whites created superior. Darwin abhorred such "arrogance." He believed that, far from being separate species, the races belonged to the same human family. Slavery was therefore a "sin," and abolishing it became Darwin’s "sacred cause." His theory of evolution gave all the races—blacks and whites, animals and plants—an ancient common ancestor and freed them from creationist shackles. Evolution meant emancipation.
In this rich and illuminating work, Desmond and Moore recover Darwin’s lost humanitarianism. They argue that only by acknowledging Darwin’s Christian abolitionist heritage can we fully understand the development of his groundbreaking ideas. Compulsively readable and utterly persuasive, Darwin’s Sacred Cause will revolutionize our view of the great naturalist.
survive, the oldest known images of named slaves. This record for taxonomic and ultimately political purposes was no less a record of oppression. Here they were, forcibly stripped to the waist (men and women), which completed the image of degradation and subjugation. (Imagine a Southern belle being stripped by a black photographer: he would most certainly have been lynched.) The political control of science lay equally naked in these compelling pictures. From the slave port of Charleston,
Anthropologicals’ drive to drum up public support). Allan was peculiar, for he appreciated the finer points of many tribes. He had lived in America and was familiar with Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians. Nor did he have any illusions about tribal extinctions, it being the custom ‘to go to them with a Bible in one hand and a bottle of rum in the other, and to tell them to be like us or disappear’.59 Yet in his ‘Ape-Origin’ he too baulked at the bad blood caused by common descent. Compare the ‘greatest
Darwin, 1:8–10; Notebooks, Mi, 9, 10, 29, 42, 44, 156; Corbet, Family; PP, AP, 1834 (613), xlviii, 217, 228; 1836 (583), xliii, 161, 218–20; Clarkson, History, 1:467–8, wrongly identifying the uncle as the archdeacon’s father-in-law (cf. Corbet, Family, 2:20). 31. J. Wedgwood I to J. Plymley, 2 July 1791, Wedgwood E26/18998, also Farrer, Correspondence, 162–3; Clarkson, History, 2:341–2; E. G. Wilson, Thomas Clarkson, 86; Katherine Plymley diaries, 19 Sep. 1823 and 8 Mar. 1824, Shropshire
connected and natural’ approach by laying out the organic components as wholes. So phrenology had a serious neuroanatomical side, with the Darwin brothers encouraged to take at least this aspect seriously. Even the best private anatomy teacher, the brilliant, irascible John Barclay, was forced to concede the odd point. Barclay, although doddery (turning sixty-seven when Darwin started) grudgingly admitted that he was ‘indebted for several new and important views’ to the phrenologists’
considered ‘luminous and philosophical’. Morton had never seen a Fuegian; Darwin had, and it showed in his imperious response: ‘Dr. Morton is so far wrong’ about Fuegian canoes. Lyell’s reply has not survived. Perhaps he explained that tact was necessary: that slave-owners had welcomed him and he was about to make a second tour through the South where he would depend on their hospitality. Confronting them like Martineau would have been both ungracious and self-defeating.18 Anyway, wasn’t Travels