Since the early 20th century, at least, young earth creationists have attempted to blame Charles Darwin for genocide, world wars, and whatever political movements seemed most threatening at one time or another (i.e. communism). What Darwin is faulted with changes with the times, but most recently young earth creationists have focused on hot topics from Darwin’s own era: racism and slavery. From the Answers in Genesis tract Darwin’s Plantation to the upcoming (and unethically produced) documentary The Voyage That Shook the World, creationists claim that Darwin’s evolutionary vision undermined the “consanguinity” of all members of the human species, thus justifying slavery.
While acknowledging the popularity of these views among creationists, Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s latest book Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s View of Human Evolution does not attempt to direct refute creationist propaganda. It is not a defense of Darwin, but rather an explanation of how the famous naturalist integrated his concerns over racism and slavery into his work. Born into a high-class Whig household Darwin imbibed the anti-slavery sentiments of his family early and hung onto them throughout his life. Darwin may have had a paternalistic view that blacks, native peoples, &c. were culturally inferior to whites, but this was about as far as his racism extended. Darwin was truly revolted by slavery and the racist science of contemporaries like the creationist naturalist Louis Agassiz.
Perhaps the most important contribution of Desmond and Moore’s new work, however, is that human evolution played an important part in Darwin’s ruminations about evolution from the very beginning. Darwin often made comparisons between what he observed among animals in the wild to what he saw in human society, especially in terms of sexual selection. Indeed, even though the second half of the Descent of Man is thought of as Darwin’s fullest explication of sexual selection, Darwin had actually been thinking about it for decades, even comparing the well-armed sailors of the Beagle to flashy male birds trying to attract the attention of females.
Questions of human evolution and the common ancestry of all races were on Darwin’s mind almost constantly, but it was such a complex (and loaded) topic that he held back until he had collected enough information to more fully make his case. Darwin had collected a lot of material for his large (and ultimately unpublished) manuscript, Natural Selection, but the rush to publish On the Origin of Species caused him to shift focus and excise everything he had written about humans. This was probably just as well. If On the Origin of Species had considered race and human evolution critics surely would have seized on those passages for the prospect that humans had evolved has always been central to the controversy surrounding evolution. (It didn’t matter that Darwin was cautious; his critics acted as if he had written about human evolution in On the Origin of Species anyway.)
While Darwin provides the central character of the book, though, what really makes Darwin’s Sacred Cause unique is that Desmond and Moore wander far afield to explain the social and political world Darwin was situated in. Darwin, his family, and close friends form a central point of discussion, but the dramatis personae inflates quickly. While exciting, this requires the utmost attention from the reader to catch all the changes. The book is so rich in historical detail that it can fill a reader’s appetite rather quickly, and even though it is only about 375 pages it takes much longer to read than the average popular science book of the same length. This is a good thing, but I only mention this point for potential readers who might be expecting lighter fare.
While the evolution of Darwin’s science can be viewed from multiple perspectives (Darwin as a geologist, Darwin as a young clergyman, &c.), Darwin’s Sacred Cause provides one of the most compelling. Beyond Darwin’s motivations and inspirations, Desmond and Moore aptly describe Darwin’s interaction with some of the thorniest social and political issues of the day. If you are planning on picking up any books to celebrate this special “Year of Evolution”, Darwin’s Sacred Cause should definitely be near the top of your list.