This week marks the publication of the Darwin book that has so far received the most advance publicity in the UK, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore (Allen Lane). Desmond and Moore, both together and separately, have written some of the best histories of the Victorian life sciences, including a best-selling biography of Darwin. You can get a sense of the book from this excerpt currently featured in Prospect Magazine.
Desmond and Moore always wade very deep in the archives but also with an eye to what might attract today’s reader about their subject. Not surprisingly, then, this is a book that documents the link between Darwin’s more general doctrine of common descent and his belief that all humans descend from a common ancestor and hence are members of the same species. A lot of stress is placed on Darwin’s revulsion at the brutality of slavery that he saw while voyaging on the Beagle, and the fact that it was common among the natural historians of his day to believe in several species of ‘man’. The reader can easily get the impression that this was some kind of triumph of evidence over prejudice. However, this impression would be very misleading.
One reason abolitionism did not immediately meet with widespread approval was that it was seen, from a naturalistic standpoint, as based on a sentimental attachment to Christian notions of the ‘brotherhood of man’, despite the evidence that was accumulating for the vastly different lives and dispositions of the races. Darwin was immune to such knee-jerk naturalism because his mind was ‘prejudiced’ by a very healthy dose of Unitarianism and non-conformist Christianity on both sides of his family. Desmond and Moore talk about this too but I guess the book wouldn’t appear so sexy if the headline read: “Darwin Saved from Racism by Christian Upbringing”.
To make their case, Desmond and Moore are smart to confine their argument largely to Darwin’s early years, since as he grew older he tended to stress the hierarchy of the races and downplay the distinctiveness of the human condition in natural history. In other words, as Darwin’s lost touch with his Christian roots, Darwin’s science lost touch with humanity. He began close to believing in the natural equality of all humans and ended close to believing in the natural equality of all species. Instead of reassuring us of the former vision, future Darwin historians should critically explore the emergence of the latter vision, a legacy of Darwin that will increasingly concern us in the 21st century.