Science, Race and Slavery

What we’re reading: Chris Evans on Darwin’s Sacred Cause

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Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins (Penguin, 2010).

The popular image of Charles Darwin is of a reclusive sage, wholly driven by his scientific interests. A rather different picture emerges in a new book by professors Desmond and Moore, whose 1991 biography of the great naturalist was highly acclaimed. In Darwin’s Sacred Cause they give us Charles Darwin as the enemy of slavery. Anti-slavery, they claim, was an abiding passion and one that influenced Darwin’s science.

His grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood, were both active opponents of the slave trade, and the young Charles grew up in a militantly abolitionist household. His epic voyage on HMS Beagle not only took him to places that influenced his evolutionary theory – like the Galapagos Islands – it took him to Brazil, where slavery was flourishing as never before in the 1830s. Darwin was haunted by the experience.

Desmond and Moore interpret Darwin’s views on evolution in this light. His insistence on the common ancestry of all human beings was a challenge to the new schools of anthropology, which were predictably popular in the slave states of the American South, that saw different races as having entirely separate ancestries.

Some of the scientific debates get a little involved but Desmond and Moore write in a lively fashion. Recommended to anyone interested in racism and anti-racism in the history of science. Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins (Penguin, 2010) is available at the LRC and from Amazon via this link.

Chris Evans researches slavery and its abolition and teaches a second-year module on The Ending of Atlantic Slavery: 1776-1888

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