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Reading “Darwin’s Sacred Cause”

February 8, 2009
New York, N.Y.

It is well known that English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) had a particular abhorrence to slavery and even (unusual in the 19th century) an affinity for people of color. From Darwin's Autobiography (published 1887) everyone knows the story of how Darwin learned taxidermy as a student in Edinburgh paying for lessons from a black man skilled at stuffing birds, "and I used often to sit with him, for he was a very pleasant and intelligent man." Everyone as well knows about the big argument aboard the Beagle between Darwin and Captain Robert FitzRoy after FitzRoy had "defended and praised slavery, which I abominated."

It is also widely known that Darwin's two grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin (an early theorist of evolution) and Josiah Wedgwood (of pottery fame) were active in the English anti-slavery movement. (The Darwin and Wedgwood families became very close: Charles Darwin's mother was a Wedgwood and so was his wife.) In 1787, Wedgwood had a medallion designed of an enchained black man with the inscription "Am I not a man and a brother?", which became the seal of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Wedgwood distributed the medallions for free — including sending some to Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia — and they became a fashionable item for people to wear to signal their belief in the cause.

Dig a little further into Charles Darwin's attitudes towards race and slavery, and you might find the illuminating essay "Charles Darwin: Slavery and the American Civil War" by Ralph Colp, Jr. (Harvard Library Bulletin, Vol. XXVI, No. 4, October 1978). During the Civil War, sympathies among the English were mostly with the South, partially because England was one of the beneficiaries of cheap slave-produced cotton, and partially because Southerners were perceived as more "civilized" than the Yankees (despite the use of stolen labor to erect this "civilization"). Particularly in his correspondence with American botonist Asa Gray, Darwin reveals a wish that "the North would proclaim a crusade against Slavery [resulting in] that greatest curse on Earth Slavery abolished." During the Civil War, Darwin only waivers in his pro-North sympathies when the North interferes with an English mailpacket ship, and it appears that England might join the South in the war, at which point Darwin's English patriotism clashes with his Abolitionism.

More historical research might resurrect the matter of Edward Eyre, the governor of the British colony of Jamaica. (In British colonies, slavery was theoretically ended in 1834, but slaves were forced into an "apprenticeship" period and weren't entirely emancipated until 1838.) In 1865, following an uprising of black peasants, Eyre had his troops burn over a thousand homes, execute 439 Jamaicans, and flog 600 more. A political opponent, a mixed-race man named George William Gordon, was also hanged after a rigged court martial. Eyre was exonerated by Parliament, but MP John Stuart Mill founded a Jamaica Committee to promote the prosecution of Eyre, and he got the support of Charles Lyell, Thomas H. Huxley, Herbert Spencer, and Charles Darwin. Supporting the actions of Governor Eyre were Thomas Carlyle (who will figure again in this blog entry), John Ruskin, Alfred Tennyson, Charles Kingsley, and — how sad is this? — Charles Dickens. (See Bernard Semmel, The Governor Eyre Controversy, MacGibbon & Kee, 1962, and Richard Reeves, John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand, Atlantic Books, 2007, p. 376-383)

Despite this background, nothing quite prepared me for the overwhelming impact of the brilliant new book by the pre-eminent Darwin scholars Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). Read that subtitle again: Desmond and Moore are suggesting that not only was Darwin one of the most humanitarian scientists of the 19th century, but that his attitudes towards slavery and race actually drove and influenced his science! The premise is audacious, yet this book uses Darwin's journals, letters, and even notes he made in other author's books to build a very solid case. As they put it in the Introduction,

As joint authors of Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (1991) — highly regarded as the definitive Darwin biography until Janet Browne's recent two-volume study, Charles Darwin: Voyaging (1995) and Charles Darwin: The Power of Place (2002) — Desmond and Moore know their subject and the source material extremely well. They have given Charles Darwin a terrific present for his 200th birthday, and the rest of the world a must-read in this bicentennial year.

Darwin's Sacred Cause begins with the grandfathers, and in its opening chapters the book reveals itself to be just as much about British anti-slavery politics from the 1780s through the 1850s, a fascinating subject in its own right. The most prominent agitator against slavery was Thomas Clarkson. It was he who convinced William Wilberforce to take up the battle in Parliament, leading to the banning of the slave trade in the British dominions in 1807. (However, slavery still existed in British colonies, especially in the West Indies, with almost a third of a million slaves in Jamaica.) Clarkson was partially funded by Josiah Wedgwood, even when others weren't entirely pleased with Clarkson's radical turns.

With that start, opposition to slavery seemed ingrained in the Darwin and Wedgwood family genes. Throughout Darwin's Sacred Cause we are constantly hearing from Charles Darwin's in-laws and cousins who continue to battle for the emancipation of slaves in British colonies (and then turn their sights on America). Throughout his life, Charles Darwin had a strong conviction that all the races of the world were bound in a unity of origin and a common descent.

In his voyage on the Beagle, Darwin witnessed slavery and the slave trade first hand, and the experience never left him. When he received a letter from a family member about how Parliament might abolish slavery in the colonies during the 1833 session, he wrote back (with characteristic misspellings):

This racial "unitarism" of Darwin was pretty much a minority view. Most people — scientists and non-scientists alike — were "pluralists," meaning that they believed the races were created or emerged separately, and even that the races represented separate species.

This was not an issue of science vs. religion. Even among those who treated the book of Genesis as literal truth, there were unitarists who identified the source of all people with Adam and Eve, and pluralists who focused on the Curse of Ham, and noted how Ham's son Canaan had become a "servant of servants" (and by tradition this meant a black slave). Others believed in a more benign separation of races concomitant with the origin of different languages in the Tower of Babel incident.

Captain FitzRoy of the Beagle later took up a Curse of Ham justification for slavery.

(The Curse of Ham has never really gone away; "father of modern creationism" Henry M. Morris uses the Curse of Ham to explain the origin of races in The Beginning of the World: A Scientific Study of Genesis 1-11 in an edition printed as late as 1996.)

In the mid-1840s, the American Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches all split into North and South factions over the issue of slavery, and two decades later Abraham Lincoln said what everyone already knew in his Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865, six weeks before his assassination) that "Both [sides] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other."

Science experienced a split as well. The calm persuasive dignity of the three volumes of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830 – 1833) did much to wean Victorian minds from Biblical chronology and to establish a long history of the Earth. But there was still much confusion about where people and other living things came from. In Lyell, they just seem to pop up and disappear in periodic epochs, a process that seemed to require a Creator. Transmutation of species (an early term for evolution) was still a dreaded concept, and without transmutation to explain how species could change, scientists were almost forced to accept a pluralist explanation of race.

Regardless whether it came from religion or science, pluralism was a problem because pluralism provided the intellectual infrastructure for slavery. If God had turned Canaan black and intended for him to be a "servant of servants," then God had ordained slavery, and there were plenty of examples of slavery in the Bible. If Genesis was a fairy tale but the Creator had nonetheless planted different species in different parts of the world, then justification of enslavement of one of these species by another was much less onerous.

Some histories of science create a streamlined view by eliminating entire people, theories, and concepts. Darwin's Sacred Cause is not one of them. We are instead plunged into the extremely chaotic, constantly shifting, sloppy and ideological scientific milieu of Great Britain (and later America) in the 1830s through 1860s, with a dizzying parade of scientists and crackpots difficult to keep straight without a scorecard.

Early on, one hero emerges: He is James Cowles Prichard (1786 – 1848), whose book Researches into the Physical History of Mankind described a single origin for the world's people and their languages. While others were exaggerating immutable differences between the species, Prichard was identifying similarities and adaptations through small-scale variations over long periods of time. The collection of 30 black-and-white plates in Darwin's Sacred Cause includes a gorgeous drawing from Prichard's Researches of two Hottentots (now known as the Khoikhoi of southwestern Africa) that is very unlike the typical racist caricatures of most 19th century anthropological literature.

In Darwin's Sacred Cause, however, the villains outnumber the heroes, and they become more numerous and more vehement as the century advances. As we all know, slavery in the United States did not gradually fade away as people became progressively enlightened about the true nature of the vile institution. Quite the contrary: As the pressure to end slavery from the North and from Europe became stronger, the South clung tighter to its slaves, and in the decades leading up to the Civil War, racist religion and racist science sky-rocketed to justify slavery.

The English intelligentsia frequently weighed in on the issues. The fiercely Abolitionist journalist Harriet Martineau shows up frequently in Darwin's Sacred Cause as a favorite family friend of the Darwin's and Wedgwood's. At the opposite extreme is Thomas Carlyle, whose viciously racist rantings sickened many of the people who heard him speak, and still sickens the reader of this book over 150 years later.

Some of the scientists justifying slavery, such as Dr. Josiah Nott and George R. Gliddon, are discussed in Darwin's Sacred Cause but otherwise lost in the backlots of history. It is sad to see Charles Lyell in his trips to America succumb to the charms of the aristocratic and genteel South, form a distorted view of slavery, and later decide that the different races had sprung independently in different parts of the world. Later on, the book's true villain emerges as Louis Agassiz (1807 – 1873), born in Switzerland but based at Harvard from 1847 on, who also adopted a separate-creation/separate-immutable-species theory of the world's races. (How many races were there? The number ranged from 2 to 63. Agassiz thought there were 8. [p. 375])

It is Agassiz's writings — and their joyful reception by the South in justifying slavery — that prompts Darwin to action to refute him, and in turn to inch closer and closer to disclosing his theory of Natural Selection to the world. Darwin's Sacred Cause assumes a breathless pace as the reader approaches the end of the 1850's, with full prior knowledge that the end of the decade will bring both the publication of The Origin of Species in November 1859, the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860, and the secession of seven states prior to his inauguration in March 1861.

By the 1850s, the debate about the unity or plurality of human races had "carried over into domestic-breed studies." For example, it was pretty much established that domesticated dogs and pigeons were bred from wilder animals. But it was generally assumed that the many varieties of dogs and pigeons had come from separate origins. If it could be shown that all domesticated pigeons derived from one wild species, then by extension, human races might also have arisen from one source as well. "By the 1850s, the [pigeon] loft, the farm and the kitchen garden has become the battleground for good natualists and bad propagandists at loggerheads over human origins." (p. 244)

Darwin loved data. He read voraciously to extract data out of books that he otherwise considered completely wrong. He used the full resources of the British Empire to gather data from around the world. He formed deep friendships with correspondents who would respond to his queries with loads of data. And he loved experimentation. For example, it had always been assumed that seemingly related plants on different land-masses must be result of independent creations because seeds could not survive immersion in salt water. Nobody had ever tested that hypothesis until Darwin did his own experiments, keeping seeds immersed in numerous smelly jars of salt water for weeks, then for months. Most of the seeds survived the experience just fine, and some even sprouted better! He wrote an article about his experiment for Gardeners' Chronicle and reminded the readers

This is one of very many quotations that Desmond and Moore have dug up to show that even when Darwin was submerging seeds in salt water, he was thinking about the implications for the origins of race. "There was no need for aboriginal species or aboriginal humans to be created over their entire range, for dispersal was viable, even across oceans." (p. 251)

Darwin began accumulating so many livestock that he was listed as a "Farmer" in Bagshaw's History, Gazetteer and Dictionary of Kent. (p. 252) One of the most entertaining passages in Darwin's Sacred Cause is his experiments in pigeon-breeding (including joining two pigeon-breeding clubs), leading to his determination that all varieties of domestic pigeons that he had accumulated — which he said an ornithologist would see as "three good genera and about fifteen good species" — were actually members of the same species that had originated with the rock dove. All the pigeon varieties were successfuly inter-breedable with fertile offspring — the most common test of species unity. (This is why Origin of Species begins with a discussion of pigeons.)

In 1857, the pluralists Josiah Nott and George R. Gliddon published a book Indigenous Races of the Earth in which they gave new names to the pluralists and unitarists. Pluralists like themselves who believed in separate creations of similar species would now be known as Polygenists. Those who believed in uniform origins became believers in Monogenesis, suggesting a very old-fashioned affection for Adam and Eve. (p. 288-289)

Although Darwin originally had much grander plans for it, Origin of Species did not discuss humans. But every reader was able to extrapolate, and one review even began "Mr. Darwin boldly traces out the genealogy of man, and affirms that the monkey is his brother, and the horse his cousin, and the oyster his remote ancestor." (p. 328) Despite Darwin's overall intent, some people insisted on extracting from Origin of Species only what they wanted to see, interpreting the "struggle for existence" described within its pages as a mandate for racial extermination. (p. 337)

Darwin would not specifically tackle the issue of race for another 12 years, in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), the completion of which Desmond and Moore suggest was prompted by the Governor Eyre matter. Race required a separate book because Darwin did not believe that most racial characteristics offered a survival benefit. Hence, they did not come under the category of Natural Selection. The second half of the mechanism of evolution was Sexual Selection — the way in which animals and humans choose mates. Most racial characteristics develop simply because different population groups develop different standards of physical beauty. To a certain extent, through the choice of mates, we govern our own evolution as a self-selecting "domesticated animal." (p. 359)

The Descent of Man is not a perfect book. It reveals plenty of prejudices and stereotypes that are normal for someone living in England in the middle of the 19th century, and it is even possible to extract some passages, mangle them a bit, and then "prove" that Darwin was a proponent of eugenics or something equally vile.

But this is not the whole picture. The whole picture that emerges from Darwin's Sacred Cause is a man who is extraordinarily decent and kind and driven to demonstrate the unity of all people of the world in one human race. Very few other scientists of the 19th century come close to Darwin's standards.

Darwin's Sacred Cause is a much-needed corrective to the recent creationist assault on Darwin and evolution from books such as From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics and Racism in Germany and Darwin's Plantation: Evolution's Racist Roots, and movies such as Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Anybody who looks at Darwin's life and work only to find facism and racism is simply dense, or (more likely) too full of their own bigotries to see reality.


Humanitarian scientist stares down creationist
toady in Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed


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