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

by Adrian Desmond, James Moore
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

by Adrian Desmond, James Moore


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An “arresting” and deeply personal portrait that “confront[s] the touchy subject of Darwin and race head on” (The New York Times Book Review).
It’s difficult to overstate the profound risk Charles Darwin took in publishing his theory of evolution. How and why would a quiet, respectable gentleman, a pillar of his parish, produce one of the most radical ideas in the history of human thought? Drawing on a wealth of manuscripts, family letters, diaries, and even ships’ logs, Adrian Desmond and James Moore have restored the moral missing link to the story of Charles Darwin’s historic achievement.
Nineteenth-century apologists for slavery argued that blacks and whites had originated as separate species, with whites created superior. Darwin, however, believed that 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 a common ancestor not only to all races, but to all biological life.
This “masterful” book restores 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 (Publishers Weekly, starred review). It will revolutionize your view of the great naturalist.
“An illuminating new book.” —Smithsonian
“Compelling . . . Desmond and Moore aptly describe Darwin’s interaction with some of the thorniest social and political issues of the day.” —Wired
“This exciting book is sure to create a stir.” —Janet Browne, Aramont Professor of the History of Science, Harvard University, and author of Charles Darwin: Voyaging

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547527758
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 06/01/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 140,814
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt

Introduction: 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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