Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution

Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution


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Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution by Adrian Desmond, James Moore

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To make their case, they draw on a wealth of fresh manuscripts, unpublished family correspondence, notebooks, diaries, and even ships’ logs.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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547055268
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 01/28/2009
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

Unshackling Creation

Global brands don’t come much bigger than Charles Darwin. He is the grizzled grandfather peering from book jackets and billboards, from textbooks and TV – the sage on greeting cards, postage stamps and commemorative coins. Darwin’s head on British £10 notes radiates imperturbability, mocking those who would doubt his science. Hallow him or hoot at him, Darwin cannot be ignored. Atheists trumpet his ‘atheism’, liberals his ‘liberalism’, scientists his Darwinism, and fundamentalists expend great energy denouncing the lot. All agree, however, that for better or worse Darwin’s epoch-making book On the Origin of Species transformed the way we see ourselves on the planet.
     How did a modest member of Victorian England’s minor gentry become a twenty-first-century icon? Celebrities today are famous for being famous, but Darwin’s defenders have a different explanation.
     To them Darwin changed the world because he was a tough-minded scientist doing good empirical science. As a young man, he exploited a great research opportunity aboard HMS Beagle. He was shrewd beyond his years, driven by a love of truth. Sailing around the world, he collected exotic facts and specimens – most notably on the Galapagos islands – and followed the evidence to its conclusion, to evolution. With infinite patience, through grave illness heroically borne, he came up with ‘the single best idea anyone has ever had’ and published it in 1859 in the Origin of Species. This was a ‘dangerous idea’ – evolution by ‘natural selection’ – an idea fatal to God and creationism equally, even if Darwin had candy-coated this evolutionary pill with creation-talk to make it more palatable. Evolution annihilated Adam; it put apes in our family tree, as Darwin explained in 1871 when he at last applied evolution to humans in The Descent of Man. Secluded on his country estate, publishing book after ground-breaking book, Darwin cut the figure of a detached, objective researcher, the model of the successful scientist. And so he won his crown.
     The most that can be said for this caricature is the number of people who credit it. Not only evolutionists and secularists, but many creationists and fundamentalists see Darwin’s claim to fame – or infamy – in his single-minded pursuit of science. Doggedly, some say obstinately, he devoted his life to evolution. A zeal for scientific knowledge consumed him, keeping him on target to overthrow God and bestialize humanity. Brilliantly, or wickedly, Darwin globalized himself. By following science and renouncing religion, he launched the modern secular world.
     This isn’t just simplistic; most of it is plain wrong. Human evolution wasn’t his last piece in the evolution jigsaw; it was the first. From the very outset Darwin concerned himself with the unity of humankind. This notion of ‘brotherhood’ grounded his evolutionary enterprise. It was there in his first musings on evolution in 1837.
     Today we are beset by polemics of every stripe, comic attempts to pummel Darwin into this shape or that, to convict or acquit Darwin of beliefs – atrocities even – associated with his name. (A recent title about German history says it all: From Darwin to Hitler.)
     To reverse Marx’s dictum for a moment: the point is not to change Darwin, the point is to understand him. Darwin was neither saint nor satan. Looked at in his own day, he was complex, sometimes even contradictory, never quite as one imagined, but vastly more interesting and informative. And the real story behind his journey to evolution – human evolution – is much richer than anyone realizes. It is a story we have been piecing together for years, trying to grasp what could have made this gentle naturalist such an anomaly in his age, and so determined in the face of overwhelming odds.

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