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Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins

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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...

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Overview

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To make their case, they draw on a wealth of fresh manuscripts, unpublished family correspondence, notebooks, diaries, and even ships’ logs.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.

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Editorial Reviews

Christopher Benfey
Darwin's power, according to Desmond and Moore, lay in his marshaling an argument for the unitary origin and hence "brotherhood" of all human beings, and this, they argue, is precisely what Darwin achieved in The Origin of Species and later in The Descent of Man. The case they make is rich and intricate, involving Darwin's encounter with race-based phrenology at Edinburgh and a religiously based opposition to slavery at Cambridge.
—The New York Times
Thomas Hayden
In lesser hands, this recasting of Darwin's life as an extended anti-slavery campaign could seem like a stretch, perhaps to justify a book for the Darwin-Lincoln double anniversary. But Desmond and Moore, professional historians of science who are widely regarded as Darwin's finest biographers, barely mention Lincoln (though they do show Darwin reading the news of America's Civil War with great interest). More to the point, the authors follow Darwin's example by deciding that the best way to prove a controversial point is "to pile on crippling quantities of detail." Drawing on his manuscripts, notebooks, letters and even marginal jottings in books, they construct a theory of both broad scope and meticulous documentation, leaving critics with few holes to probe.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Who better than Desmond and Moore, Darwin's acclaimed biographers, to bring a fresh perspective to Darwin's central beliefs? "No one," they say, "has appreciated the source of that moral fire that fuelled his strange, out-of-character obsession with human origins." This masterful book produces a perspective on Darwin as not only scientist but moralist. Darwin's deep abolitionist roots, say the authors, led him to ask the questions he did. Homing in on Darwin's moral and intellectual formation, and drawing on notebook jottings and marginalia, Desmond and Moore argue persuasively that the centerpiece of Darwin's work was demonstrating the "common descent" of all human races, using science rather than activism to subvert the multiple origins view promoted by slavery's advocates. His humanitarian approach to science, the authors say, makes him more of a moral agent than his critics would concede, while the moral drive behind his science goes against today's ideal of disinterested scientific objectivity. Desmond and Moore build a new context in which to view Darwin that is utterly convincing and certain to influence scholars for generations to come. In time for Darwin's bicentennial, this is the rare book that mines old ground and finds new treasure. (Jan. 28)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Perhaps because he left behind such an extensive chronicle of his own writings, Darwin, the man, has inspired abundant literature aiming to understand the workings of his mind, his personal passions, and his inner demons; for example, the authors' The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. In a similar vein, their newest book reinterprets much of his life work as having been motivated by an altruistic humanitarian vision and an equally intense abhorrence of slavery. Drawing from a wealth of documentary sources from the era, they explore how the Enlightenment's scientific objectivity coexisted with colonial racism and how Darwin uniquely honed his science according to a set of values that he hoped could provide a transcendent vision of a "great human family," as presented in The Descent of Man. Well researched, likely to be controversial (some will call it revisionist history), this book provides another enlightening glimpse into a life of seemingly infinite complexity.


—Gregg Sapp
Kirkus Reviews
Co-authors of the massive Darwin (1992) offer a new take on the impetus for his theory of evolution: It was "moral passion," rather than the force of observed, recorded and analyzed facts, that fired his work. Darwin grew up in an abolitionist culture, Desmond and Moore demonstrate. Both of his grandfathers, Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin, were ardent supporters of the antislavery movement, and his older sisters firmly instilled its message in him. Add to this the impact of his teenage apprenticeship in taxidermy to a freed slave, "a very pleasant and intelligent man," and his shocking encounters with the brutality of human bondage during his years on board the Beagle. Drawing heavily on unpublished correspondence and Darwin's notes about and early drafts of On the Origin of Species, the authors argue that it was abhorrence of slavery that led this country gentleman to risk his reputation in a conservative society by linking all races to a common, more primitive ancestor. They show Darwin working out his theory of sexual selection as the means by which human races became differentiated. In recounting the development of his theories, and his reservations about presenting them and exposing himself to society's wrath, the authors supplement the history of science with the history of slavery and racism in the 19th century. They cite and quote from the work of James Cowles Prichard, John Bachman, Sir Charles Lyell, Asa Gray and Louis Agassiz, among others. Modern readers may be startled by Victorians' openly racist language and the general assumption-among men of science as well as religious figures and political leaders-that whites, especially Englishmen, were superior. Championingthe abolition of slavery did not mean accepting blacks as intellectual or cultural equals, and Darwin was apparently no exception to this general rule. Stimulating, in-depth picture of 19th-century scientific thinking and racial attitudes.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780141032207
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Publication date: 12/28/2009

Meet the Author

Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s Darwin (1991) won the James Tait Black Prize, the Comisso Prize for biography in Italy, the Watson Davis Prize of the History of Science Society, and the Dingle Prize of the British Society for the History of Science. It was short-listed for the Rhône-Poulenc Prize and has been widely translated.

Adrian Desmond has written seven other books on evolution and Victorian science, including an acclaimed biography, Huxley. An Honorary Research Fellow in the biology department at University College London, he is editing (with Angela Darwin) The T. H. Huxley Family Correspondence.

James Moore’s books include The Post-Darwinian Controversies and The Darwin Legend. He has taught at Harvard, Notre Dame, and McMaster University, and is professor of the History of Science at the Open University. He is currently researching the life of Alfred Russel Wallace.

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Table of Contents

Illustrations

Introduction Unshackling Creation

1 The Intimate 'Blackamoor' 1

2 Racial Numb-Skulls 27

3 All Nations of One Blood 49

4 Living in Slave Countries 68

5 Common Descent: From the Father of Man to the Father of All Mammals 111

6 Hybridizing Humans 142

7 This Odious Deadly Subject 172

8 Domestic Animals and Domestic Institutions 199

9 Oh for Shame Agassiz! 228

10 The Contamination of Negro Blood 267

11 The Secret Science Drifts from Its Sacred Cause 297

12 Cannibals and the Confederacy in London 317

13 The Descent of the Races 348

Notes 377

Bibliography 422

Index 457

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