How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009, 484 pgs
“Some creationists fear Darwin because his theories contradict their literal biblical belief that creation occurred in six 24-hour days. But they do not get at the real dangers of Darwinism,” writes influential evangelical Christian Tony Campolo. The true threat is that Darwin’s “writings express the prevalent racism of the 19th century and endorse an extreme laissez-faire political ideology that legitimizes the neglect of the suffering poor by the ruling elite.” (Tony Campolo, “The real danger in Darwin is not evolution but racism.” January 23, 2008.)
Science historians Adrian Desmond and James Moore published a 700-page biography of Darwin in 1992 that was both comprehensively vivid and highly regarded. Their new book “Darwin’s Sacred Cause,” is filled with rich details about how American slavery and the formation of racial identity shaped Darwin’s views of human evolution. The mid-nineteenth century “Unity versus Plurality” debate was one of the hottest topics of Darwin’s generation. Impeccably researched and elegantly written, they paint a picture of Darwin’s journey on the anti-slavery terrain as an anathema to the scientific-pluralism-and-slavery lobby. To use an expression from Darwin, Desmond and Moore “throw some light” on the origin of species, but not the complete story.
Their starting point is Darwin’s own family, reaching back two generations into the British abolition movement. Darwin’s wealthy grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, financed the anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Clarkson, arguably the “Great Founding Father” of all abolitionism. Grandfather Erasmus Darwin was aghast at reports of a slave ship that threw 133 sickly slaves overboard so the owners could collect insurance on their “lost property.”
Drawing upon a wealth of notebooks, diaries, and unpublished family correspondence Desmond and Moore are remarkably convincing that Darwin paid close attention to slavery and the racial sparring ground of scientists in Britain and America over the notion that blacks and whites were distinct species, and then how this pluralistic viewpoint was used to justify slavery. While reading “Darwin’s Sacred Cause” one gets the impression you are part of Darwin’s family, listening to discussions with his friends around the kitchen table drinking coffee, walking in the garden, or in his study sanctioning his correspondence and looking for just the right word to make his points with the opposition. The scientific and religious characters in the story come alive and the intellectual and moral surfaces are also exposed.
Darwin was particularly put off by the arrogance coming out of the “American School” of anthropology that supported racism and the theory of polygeny, or the separate creation of animals and humans in different parts of the earth. His moral fire became a great flame when he heard the conflicting interpretations of Genesis and the speculation about multiple racial origins that were used to explain human diversity, and with it, the rational for slavery backed by commonplace beliefs in the inferiority of dark-skinned people.
He had witnessed the excesses of slavery on the Beagle voyage (1831-1836) and he was revolted by its “heart-sickening atrocities.” Desmond and Moore point out that the “enormity of the crime in the eyes of the Darwin’s and their Wedgwood cousins was understandable. The African slave abductions had resulted in probably the largest forced migration of humans in history.”
Mid-nineteenth century was a time when racial groups were relentlessly sorted into “superior” and “inferior” categories. Whites were imagined to have had separate and distinct origins compared to the blacks or Negro types, who, though somewhat human, were thought to be soulless beasts with striking resemblances to apes or chimpanzees.
Darwin particularly disliked Harvard professor Louis Agassiz’s theory of many aboriginal races in the world. Agassiz was America’s best-known scientist at the time. But Darwin also did not like the provocative “Indigenous Races” written by Josiah Nott and George Gliddon that showed pull-out maps of the “Geographical Distribution of Monkeys, in their Relation to that of Some Inferior Types of Men.”
The “superior” group or slaveholders looked to the American School of anthropology—which Agassiz supported—to justify slavery which in turn was sanctioned in the rational of pluralism to explain the diversity of race. Slaveholders also turned to the Bible, using hermeneutic interpretations of Cain’s mark and Noah’s Curse to gain sanction of slavery.
In the face of these issues and derogatory beliefs, Darwin precisely marshaled the argument for a unitary origin and brotherhood of all human beings by carefully researching varieties in other animals. This is the basic premise behind what Darwin achieved in “The Origin of Species” and later in “The Descent of Man.” Desmond and Moore highlight concepts like “unity of descent” and “common descent” (what the American School of anthropology denied), that are now so familiar to biologists today in showing the unity of man.
Perhaps Desmond and Moore overstate the “sacred cause” behind the scientific writings of Darwin, but attempting to find the ornamental embellishments in this book will leave the reader in a state of wonderment, as well as thoughtful and in awe regarding the intensity of the abolitionist’s debates over the justification of slavery, social equality and the held disparaging views of other people.
Reflective Adventist, perplexed by the mysterious amalgamation of man and beast statements found in Ellen White’s “Spiritual Gifts” (1864) published five years after “The Origin of Species,” will better understand the background from which her statements arise after reading “Darwin’s Sacred Cause.” That alone is worth the price of the book. The “varieties of race” pathway through the woods is well laid out in the historical account of the debate over human origins.
The Adventist creationist George McCready Price, who thought Darwin’s works were of “Satanic origin,” looked for a way to support and interpret Ellen White’s “amalgamation of man and beast” after the flood. In the process, he noted that “if the Seventh-day Adventist people will all get behind these two ideas, Flood geology and plenty of species-making since the Flood [which would presumably include mixing and crossing of the races of mankind], and if these two ideas can become widely known as the Adventist official teaching on these subjects, I believe that it would not be long before the scientific world would ‘sit up and take notice.’” (Ronald L. Numbers. The Creationists from Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Expanded Edition). 2006. p. 144.)
Darwin believed that humans could be traced to a single ancestry and that all races belonged to the same human family. Darwin would no doubt have been troubled by Ellen White’s and Price’s amalgamation views on the varieties of species and in certain races of men derived from the sexual union of man and beast in the same way that he steadfastly opposed Agassiz’s theory. Darwin’s friend Joseph Dalton Hooker, who often visited him at home and followed him around in the garden, realized that Agassiz’s “multiple centre ideas were worse for your theory (Darwin’s) than any thing else.”
According to Desmond and Moore, one of the leading intellectual impulses and the moral core of Darwin’s evolutionary universe was his effort to eradicate the polygeny theory in “The Origin of Species” and to administer the coupe de grace to Agassiz’s and other scientists who supported the aboriginal creation theory and consequently its hold over slavery. Darwin thought it was shameless and exaggerated that polygenists, slaveholders, amalgamationists and slave-dealers alike were calling Hottentots “orang-utan-like humans” and he set about to prove them wrong—a “Sacred Cause” indeed.
Darwin wrote in the “Descent of Man,” “When the principles of evolution are generally accepted…the dispute between the monogenists and the polygenists will die a silent and unobserved death.” Maybe not as quickly as he imagined, but for that moral quest alone he deserves all 200 candles on his cake.