Those who follow the Darwin industry are very familiar with Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. In that biography they were one of the few biographers to highlight young Charles’ Edinburgh years (October 1825 to April 1827) and show the powerful influences that experience had on the teenager. Here too in Desmond and Moore’s new Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Edinburgh becomes the substantive starting point. This is as it should be since the freethinkers he would be exposed to in the radical Plinian Society (a largely student-based group Darwin seemed to relish given his attendance at all but one of its 19 meetings during his stay there) would have a profund influence on his thinking for the rest of his life. Desmond and Moore correctly acknowledge this, observing that this period “helped condition his life’s work on the deepest social — and scientific — issues” (17). Indeed the Plinians would steep Charles in a radical materialism that the present biographers admit was “mirrored” in his work a decade later (35).
All well and good so far. But not quite. This is a book with its own cause. From the outset the authors explain frankly that , “We show the humanitarian roots that nourished Darwin’s most controversial and contested work on human ancestry” (xviii). And those “humanitarian roots,” we are told again and again throughout its 376 narrative pages was Darwin’s passionate and unwavering hatred of slavery. “No one has appreciated the source of that moral fire that fuelled his strange, out-of-character obsession with human origins. Understand that,” they insist, “and Darwin can be radically reassessed” (xix). And what is that reassessment? The reader is not left waiting: “Ours is a book about a caring, compassionate man who was affected for life by the scream of a tortured slave” (xx).
At issue, of course, isn’t the horrific abomination of slavery nor Darwin’s abhorrence of it (this has long been known and acknowledged by historians) but rather the purported impact that Desmond and Moore claim his abolitionism had on his theory’s development and purpose. In short, the question is, does the anti-slavery Darwin necessarily make for a “kinder, gentler” Darwin? An affirmative answer must rest upon two supports, one conceptual and the other factual. The remainder of this essay will examine both to answer this question.
One of the more interesting trajectories of this book is it anchoring in Darwin’s early Edinburgh years, a comparatively short period but one fraught with significance for Darwin. In this starting point I fully concur with Desmond and Moore. While many look to his voyage on the Beagle (December 1831 to October 1836) as introducing the young naturalist to the fullness of nature’s laboratory that would culminate in his theory of natural selection and a wholly naturalistic evolutionary theory, these authors point to the earlier Edinburgh experiences as establishing the seminal backdrop for all else that would follow. They point out that Edinburgh was rife with discussions of race, cranial size, and phrenology. Some attempted to demonstrate the validity of scientifc racism, others the opposite. All — or nearly all — were cast in materialistic terms. Desmond and Moore’s summary is quite accurate:
So this wasn’t the barren period Darwin in his biography would have us believe. Issues of environmental versus anatomical determinism, and a self-animated versus a Creatively animated nature, were being thrashed out all around him, issues which would have repurcussions for generations, inside and outside Darwin’s own work. Arguments about brain sizes, innate dispositions and racial categories were still raging, putting a consensus some way off. Groups were competing to sway the students and Darwin was at the center of it. But the young innocent probably wasn’t so much embroiled as wide-eyed. Still, many of these themes would later resurface in his own work on human racial descent (43).
During Darwin’s stay at Cambridge, he too was exposed to many ideas, not the least of which was a vocal but conflicted anti-slavery impluse. Through it all, insist Desmond and Moore, Darwin “held fast with radically pliant ‘brotherbood’ science and shackle-breaking ideology in true Whig tradition” (57). Indeed Darwin would, according to the authors, reject the measuring, weighting, calculating racial anthropologists (those self-important, confident phrenologists and physiognomists) he had found in Edinburgh. “No skull collecting would mark his science,” they insist.” He would find a very different way of approaching black and white, slave and free” (110).
It is important to keep this claim in mind since it is crucial to Desmond and Moore’s thesis that while he became a “secret materialist — happy to have brains secrete even religious notions as physiological byproducts” (132), he would eschew the scientific racism implicit (and more often than not explicit) in this radical materialism in favor of a wholly naturalistic theory confirming a common descent and botherhood of all mankind. They refer to it as generations of “brotherly common descents” (141).
How he accomplishes this forms a considerable part of Darwin’s Sacred Cause. Basically, by establishing common descent as a viable scientific paradigm, Darwin was able to settle the old monogenist/polygenist debate once and for all. The monogenists viewed human development on earth as emanating from a common pair — this was, for some, most eloquently described in the opening chapters of Genesis. But there were non-biblical monogenists as well. Polygenists, however, believed in multiple origins for humanity. As America headed towards Civil War, the polygenists held the upper hand. The biblical monogenism of James Cowles Prichard (1786-1848) looked antiquated against the “scientific” racism of Josiah Clark Nott (1804-1873), George R. Gliddon (1809-1857), and others. Desmond and Moore describe in detail how Darwin sought to establish a viable counter to the polygenists with an explanation of human origins that was at once naturalistic and based upon a common descent. In effect, a science of human oneness and brotherhood. They describe how the publication of Darwin’s Origin in 1859 tipped the scales permanently in his favor, citing the example of Charles Loring Brace (1826-1890), an abolitionist firebrand who claimed to have read the book thirteen times.
All this is true. Darwin was adamantly opposed to slavery, Darwin did end — eventually — the polgenists’ claim to scientific respectability. But this alone would hardly warrant a book. As mentioned before, historians have long known of Darwin’s consistent antipathy towards slavery. As for his role in settling the monogenist/polygenist dispute, that too has long been known (n. 1). The essential problem with Desmond and Moore’s effort is their naive assumption that anti-slavery means egalitarian and humanitarian. This is a conceptual problem that haunts the book throughout. There really is no reason to assume an immediate and direct relationship between the one and the other, and the example of Charles Loring Brace given above goes not only to this point but to demonstrate the selective treatment they give to this whole subject. Charles Loring Brace was indeed a vocal opponent of slavery and also and ardent Darwinist. What Desmond and Moore do not say is that Brace viewed blacks as inherently inferior and was himself a vocal opponent of miscegenation. In the words of historian George M. Fredrickson, Brace made “the Darwinian case for differentiation of the races by natural selection . . . [and] ended up with a view of racial differences which was far from egalitarian in its implications” (n. 2). Brace held out little hope for “the mullato” and finished up by declaring, “there is nothing in the gradual diminution and destruction of a savage or inferior race in contact with a more civilized and powerful which is ‘mysterious’ . . . . The first gifts of civilization are naturally fatal to a barbarous people . . . . (n. 3). Fredrickson quite accurately points out that “Brace’s pioneering effort to devolop a Darwinist ethnology in opposition to the American School, although animated to some degree by antislavery humanitarianism, had demonstrated that most of the hierarchical assumptions of the polygenists could be justified just as well, if not better, in Darwinian terms” (n. 4).
The example of Josiah Clark Nott underscores this point. Desmond and Moore spend considerable time showing how the Alabamian’s rabid polygenism formed the basis for an extreme racism and justification for slavery; they fail to point out that in the end Nott was able to reconcile with Darwinism. Nott recognized at once that he had been outdone by Darwin’s irreligious formulations. Writing to Ephraim Squire in the summer of 1860, Nott quipped, “the man [Darwin] is clearly crazy, but it is a capital dig into the parson — it stirs up Creation and much good comes out of such thorough discuassions” (n. 5). In the end, Nott came to accept Darwin’s theory of man’s common descent. Indeed he claimed nothing of what he wrote on the race question was negated but simply refined, and who was not to say that even in Darwin’s world races might not be “permanent varieties” (n. 6). The point, of course, isn’t whether or not any of this is true — it is obvious nonsense and most of Nott’s contemporaries recognized it as such — but whether Darwin’s defeat of polygenist theory and its replacement with his common descent really had any difference in the end toward establishing a science of brotherhood is doubtful. Brace, Nott, and many others could enbrace common descent precisely because it suggested nothing close to racial brotherhood.
This poor conceptualization of anti-slavery and ipso facto humanitarianism is compounded by a misunderstanding of Darwin himself. Desmond and Moore correctly point out the crucial impact that the Edinburgh freethinkers had upon him and his theory, but they are simply wrong in contending that he distanced himself from their emerging racial craniology. Their denials notwithstanding, there were skulls in Darwin’s science. In his Descent of Man (1871) Paul Boca’s crantiometry is referenced approvingly. While Darwin was careful to avoid the implication that “the intellect of any two animals or of any two men can be accurately gauged by the cubic contents of their skulls,” he seemed to give accumulated aggregate craniometric data some evidentiary weight. “The belief that there exists in man some close relation between the size of the brain and the development of the intellectual faculties is supported by the comparison of skulls of savage and civilized races, of ancient and modern people, and by the analogy of the whole vertebrate series” (n. 7). Citing the work of physician/craniologist Joseph Barnard Davis (1801-1881), Darwin noted that Europeans had a cranial capacity of 92.3, Americans 87.5, Asiatics 87.1, and Australians 81.9 cubic inches. Clearly, if Darwin did in fact believe in a brotherhood of man it was a very unequal brotherhood.
Darwin’s “bullbog defender” Thomas Henry Huxley provides yet another example. A devoted Darwinian, Huxley did not translate common descent into common equality. Like Brace, Huxley was relieved to witness the end of America’s “peculiar institution.” Writing at the end of the war that had raged for four years across the Atlantic, Huxley said, “But whatever the position of stable equilibrium into which the laws of social gravitation may bring the negro, all responsibility for the result will henceforward lie between nature and him. The white man may wash his hands of it, and the Caucasian conscience be void of reproach for evermore. And this, if we look to the bottom of the matter, is the real justification for the abolition policy” (n. 8). Even Desmond and Moore must admit that Huxley “shared none of Darwin’s ‘man and brother’ sympathy” (275).
But how keen really was that “man and brother” sympathy for Darwin himself? After well over 300 pages of explication designed to show how Darwin’s anti-slavery passion led to his “brotherly common descent” we find the crux of the matter: “It was a humanitarianism that Darwin took pride in. His anti-slavery and anti-cruelty ethic was inviolate. Yet the incongruity of his class holding this ethic sacrosanct while disparaging the ‘lower’ classes (even as colonists displaced or exterminated them) [emphasis added] is impossible to comprehend by twenty-first century standards” (370). Darwin was indeed a product of his class as any reading of his Descent will prove; in fact, it formed the very basis of his conception of man as a social animal (n. 9). But it will take more than Desmond and Moore’s eight pages of dismissive discussion of Descent to see that. Instead the quotation above would imply they’re trying get Darwin off the hook by pleading he was just a “man of his times” and failure to appreciate this dichotomy is mere presentism. Frankly, it would have been incomprehensible for some in the nineteenth century as well — Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868), Theodore Weld (1803-1895), William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), Wendell Phillips (1811-1884), John Marshall Harlan (1833-1911), and George Frisbie Hoar (1826-1904) found this kind of hypocracy repugnant. Darwin’s work was supposed to be prescient, path-breaking, revolutionary. But by book’s end Darwin looks pretty conventional, even compliantly if somewhat minimally racist himself. Writing to former slave-holder Charles Kingsley, Darwin admits, “It is very true what you say about the higher races of men, when high enough, will have spread & exterminated whole nations.” Desmond and Moore admit, “racial genocide was now normalized by natural selection and rationalized as nature’s way of producing ‘superior’ races. Darwin ended up calibrating human ‘rank’ no differently from the rest of his society. After shunning talk of ‘high’ and ‘low’ in his youthful evolution books, he had ceased to be unique or interesting on the subject” (318).
So in the end we find Darwin’s “sacred” cause was, well, not all that sacred. His cause was less about slavery and more about common descent, which in the final analysis had nothing whatsoever to do with equality. In fact, it could easily be argued Darwin cleared out the polygenists to give way to a new generation of racial discriminators and engineers. Based upon Darwinian principles, Darwin’s fascination with breeder and domestic stocks, opened the door to manipulating human “stock,” of managing and even culling the “unfit.” Not that Darwin himself would have condoned that, but surely, Francis Galton (1822-1911), took the evolutionary ball handed him by his cousin and ran with it. In the end, Darwin’s cause was hardly humanitarian and by no means sacred. As the lampooning cartoon that opens this essay suggests, if Darwin proved that man is a mere animal related (however distantly) to his ape ancestors then, like the domestic pigeons he was so fond of studying and analogizing from, mankind was capable of being bred, manipulated, and “improved.” That sort of biological historicism unleashed by Darwinian theory has exacted an enormous price.
Of course, this suggests a connection between Darwin and the more unseemly Social Darwism. I have likely imposed upon the reader’s time long enough, but for those who would like to explore this in greater detail, Mike Hawkin’s Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860-1945 (Cambridge UP, 1997) is highly recommended. For now, I will simply say that Darwin’s Sacred Cause has proved not what its authors intended, but instead that passionate opposition to slavery could — indeed did — enslave this Victorian elitist who was shackled (if not by racism) by a theory that was crafted to support his own class and prejudice. History is full of irony!
1. See Herbert H. Odum, “Generalizations on Race in Nineteenth-Century Physical Anthropology,” Isis 58.1 (Spring 1967): 4-18.
2. George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1971), p. 234.
3. Quoted in Ibid., p. 235.
5. John S. Haller Jr., Outcasts from Evolution: Scientific Attitudes of Racial Inferiority, 1859-1900, 2nd ed. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1995), p. 80.
7. Charles Darwin, Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871; reprinted, New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004), p. 42.
8. Thomas Henry Huxley, “Emancipation — Black and White” (1865), http://aleph0.clarku.edu/huxley/CE3/B&W.html accessed 2/15/09.
9. Like his fellow Victorian imperialists, Darwin could view the extinction of indigenous peoples with an unsettling indifference. There is considerable evidence to support the view that Darwin saw struggle as product of culture and class more than race: “When civilized nations come into contact with barbarians the sturggle is short, except where a deadly climate gives its aid to the native race. Of the causes which lead to the victory of civilized nations, some are plain and simple, others complex and obscure. We can see that the cultivation of the land will be fatal in many ways to savages, for they cannot, or will not, change their habits. . . . The grade of their civilization seems to be a most important element in the success of competing nations.” Descent, op. cit., p. 156.
Darwin always viewed indigenous peoples with the Eurocentric eyes of power and class, and he had thought this long before writing Descent. In The Voyage of the Beagle he wrote the following of the natives he encountered on Tierra del Fuego:
The perfect equality among the individuals composing the Fuegian tribes must for a long time retard their civilization. As we see those animals, whose instinct compels them to live in society and obey a chief, are most capable of improvement, so it is with the races of mankind. Whether we look at it as a cause or consequence, the more civilized always have the more artificial governments. For instance, the inhabitants of Otaheite, who, when first discovered, were governed by hereditary kings, had arrived at a far higher grade than another branch of the same people, the New Zealanders, — who, although benefited by being compelled to turn their attention to agriculture, were republicans in the most absolute sense. In Tierra del Fuego, until some chief shall arise with power sufficient to secure any acquired advantage, such as the domestication of animals, it seems scarcely possible that the political state of the country can be improved. At present, even a piece of cloth given to one is torn into shreds and distributed; and no one individual becomes richer than another. On the other hand, it is difficult to understand how a chief can arise till there is property of some sort by which he might manifest his superiority and increase his power.
I believe, in this extreme part of South America, man exists in a lower state of improvement than in any other part of the world. — Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle, 2nd ed. (1845; reprinted, New York: Tess Press, n.d.), pp. 214-215.
Basing Darwin’s humanitarianism on his abhorrence of slavery and a purported “brotherhood of man” largely misses the point. Historians have long known that Darwin’s racial classifications were based more upon levels of cultural attainment than ethnic groups. See, for example, Goria McConnaughey, “Darwin and Social Darwinism,” Osiris 9 (1950): 397-412.