Darwin's Sacred Cause

In a remarkable historical coincidence, two of the nineteenth century’s most influential figuresCharles Darwin and Abraham Lincolnwere born on the same day, February 12, 1809. To celebrate the bicentennial of this event and the sesquicentennial of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859), which has been listed among the most important books ever written, numerous publications have appeared on the lives and achievements of Darwin and Lincoln. Some note certain interconnections between them, such as their abhorrence of slavery. In Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Adrian Desmond and James Moore propose a radically new explanation of how Darwin conceived and developed his profoundly innovative ideas on transmutation.

Desmond and Moore contend that abolition, the “sacred cause” of their title, was the moral fire that ignited Darwin’s controversial ideas. Based on overwhelming evidence in his letters and other personal papers, historians of science and biographers have long recognized that Darwin was an ardent abolitionist, but, according to Desmond and Moore, these previous scholars neglected the relationship between Darwin’s views on slavery and his theories of how new species, particularly the human species, originated. Traditionally, scholars stressed Darwin’s geological and biological observations during his five-year voyage aboard the Beagle, his later assiduous collection of data from naturalists and breeders, and his wide reading, especially of British economist Thomas Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), as providing the impetus for his conception of natural selection, in which the best adapted species survive and poorly adapted species become extinct.

In Desmond and Moore’s new interpretation, Darwin’s belief that all human races are members of the same species antedated his ideas on transmutation and provided the emotional stimulus for the theory of evolution. Although the actual writing of Darwin’s Sacred Cause took only two years, the authors have traced the book’s origins to their 1991 biography, Darwin, which was a critical and popular success. After the biography’s publication, Moore’s research into Darwin’s Christian abolitionist heritage and Desmond’s expertise in the science and politics of Victorian England ably armed them in their quest to “recover Darwin’s lost humanitarianism.” Because of the extensive research that they did for their Darwin biography, they were already familiar with many of Darwin’s letters and other private papers, and they deepened this understanding by studying many new documents, such as Darwin’s correspondence with the American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison; the Beagle’s logbooks; and Darwin’s marginal comments, underlinings, and exclamation marks in books from his personal library. They also explored the vast pro- and antislavery literature in England and the United States.

For the most part, the authors structure their book biographically, conducting their analyses via the framework of Darwin’s lifefrom his family background, through his education at Edinburgh and Cambridge universities, to his Beagle voyage and his subsequent career as a naturalist, culminating with his publication of The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). They distinguish their approach from those doctrinaire atheists who have caricatured Darwin as a single-minded scientist whose discoveries, by creating a materialistic vision of life’s history, undermined religion. They also disagree with religious creationists who mistakenly portray Darwin as antireligious and immoral. Instead, they believe that their interpretation of Darwin as a great humanitarian best fits the documented facts. Furthermore, they realize that he was a complex man who both shared in and rebelled against the values of his Victorian era.

Desmond and Moore also realize that, in the twentieth century, Nazis and other groups misused Darwin’s ideas in helping to forge their racist ideologies. The authors do not support these and similar attempts to “hijack” Darwin for ends that would have horrified him. Rather, they want to understand what all groupshistorians, scientists, and ideologueshave failed to grasp“the moral fire that fueled hisobsession with human origins.” Even those already familiar with the antislavery views of Darwin’s forebears will be enlightened by the wealth of new information the authors have found that elucidates both the extent of British involvement in the slave trade and the efforts of committed abolitionists who devoted their time, money, and energies to eradicating this heinous practice. Abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson and his many allies, including members of the Darwin family and the Wedgwoods (Darwin’s maternal relatives), succeeded in convincing the British government, in 1807, to outlaw its trade in slaves, though the practice of slavery was allowed to continue in the colonies.

By the time Charles Darwin was born in 1809, nearly two million Africans had been abducted and sold in British colonies. During his youth he absorbed the belief from his sisters and relatives that black people were not members of a different, inferior race but human beings like him. While he studied medicine at Edinburgh University he met his first black man, a freed slave who taught him how to stuff birds. Darwin found him intelligent and pleasant to work with. However, at the university he also encountered others...

(The entire section is 2307 words.)