Darwin's Sacred Cause

Peter McGrath, Michael Barton and Mike Haubrich brought my attention to a new book by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. Their previous biography of Darwin is arguably the best (and there are hundreds of Darwin biographies out there, many more to be published next year as well). The new book, Darwin's Sacred Cause is a result of a lot of study by the duo, especially since the publication of all the Darwin's correspondence. The new thesis is that the driving force behind Darwin's work on evolution was his disgust with racism:

"This book, by Darwin's most celebrated modern biographers, gives a completely new explanation of why he came to his shattering theories about human origins. Until now, Desmond and Moore argue, the source of the moral fire which gives such intensity and urgency to Darwin's ideas has gone unnoticed. By examining minutely Darwin's manuscripts and correspondence (published and unpublished) and covert notebooks, where many of the clues lie, they show that the key to unlocking the mystery of how such an ostensibly conservative man could hold views which his contemporaries considered both radical and bestial, lay in his utter detestation of slavery. Darwin's Sacred Cause will be one of the major contributions to the worldwide Darwin anniversary celebrations in 2009."

From the interview with the authors:

What do you think is the most surprising element of this book?

Our revelation that much of Darwin's research over many years was about race. There was no ultimate difference for Darwin between a `race' and a `species', so his work on `the origin of species' was also about the origin of races, including the human races - `man' was never an exception for him. And while most of Darwin's research was implicitly about human origins, the extent of his explicit interest in combating racist science is a real surprise. The fact that his most intense phase of work on racial questions came as the United States hurtled towards civil war, a war that the humanitarian Darwin dreaded, adds poignancy to the moral dimension of his research.

What sort of reaction are you anticipating from the scientific community? The history community? The evangelical community?

Many scientists will welcome a `moral' Darwin' to confound his religious critics; others will resent our polluting Darwin's pure science with `extra-scientific' factors and will declare his anti-slavery beliefs irrelevant. Historians may be more positive, if only because Darwin's Sacred Cause locates Darwin for the first time on the well-trodden historical fields of transatlantic slavery, slave emancipation and the American Civil War. And those who study the history of `scientific racism' will have a new Darwin to reckon with. Evangelicals may feel distinctly queasy, not least because William Wilberforce, the Clapham `Saints' and others they revere as religious ancestors once supped happily with the freethinking Darwins and saw them as allies in the anti-slavery crusade. Darwin's words, `More humble & I believe true to consider [man] created from animals', will pose a challenge to every creationist.

Yup. I guess the Creationists will not be happy with the book. It appears to be a must-read for me, though. For you, too, I hope.

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While I think the social aspect of any scientist's work is crucial to understanding the science, Desmond and Moore in their biography of Darwin and subsequent work seem to me too eager to find this or that ideological motivation in Darwin's and others' work. The idea that a scientist may just be interested int he subject and let his or her eyes lead them to conclusions is somehow deprecated from the start. But the impression I get from reading, among others, Darwin's work and correspondence is that he was first and foremost inclined to follow his nose. And this is equally true of many other scientists involved in the nascent race taxonomy. I would read them skeptically, if I were you (and when I am me and have a copy).

Oh, of course. I have read too many Darwin biographies to be easily flummoxed, I hope ;-)

I'm not an expert on Darwin bios. I have Desmond & Moore's and read it many years ago. You say it is arguably the best. How does it compare with the 2 vol. Janet Browne bio (which I have, but have not read)?


By Dave Gill (not verified) on 18 Dec 2008 #permalink

It's Not Darwin's(or Wallace's)Theory
Anyone who seriously wishes to understand the historical context of Charles Darwin will have to accept that he did not originate the theory of natural selection.Both Darwin and Wallace admitted that others(Patrick Matthew and Charles Wells) got there before them.All of the major biographies cover up this simple fact,as does Dawkins in his books and TV programmes.Additionally,as my research shows, none of the ideas given in "On the Origin of Species" are novel to Darwin(search Google for "wainwrightscience" for more details). There has been 150 years of effective cover up of these facts, and exageration of Darwin's genius. Now is a perfect time to put Darwin in his correct historical contex;expect instead falsehoods and hyperbole!
Best Wishes, Dr Milton Wainwright,Dept.Molecular Biology and Biotechnology,University of Sheffield,UK.

By Dr M.Wainwright (not verified) on 18 Dec 2008 #permalink

In his least read and least researched book "The Descent of Man", Darwin predicted that the primitive races were going to be destroyed [manu militari, of course]by the superior ones [European, of course]. If this isn't racism on the part of Darwin, give me a break! Darwin was no saint, sirs!

It is his second-most-read book. In which says no such thing. I know. I read it. The whole thing. For class.

Enezio, go read the chapter again. Darwin says that "savages," by which he means people living outside of modern cities, will encounter Europeans with guns, and despite the superiority of the savages to their places and times, the Europeans with guns will tend to wipe them out.

In short, Darwin says that aborigines are the superiors in their native lands, but guns will overcome them. And Darwin laments that observation.

Darwin based this section on his observations of what happened in Tasmania during the "Tasmanian War," of circa 1805 to 1840. When Darwin got there in the early 1830s, there were only a handful of native Tasmanians left alive, housed on a reservation-style area, and not multiplying as a free population would.

It wasn't prediction so much as observation -- but if it was prediction, he was right about Native Americans, wasn't he? As Mark Twain observed, "Civilization is slower than the Comanche, but more deadly in the long run."

My copy of the book has arrived. I hope to read it this summer.