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Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution Hardcover – January 28, 2009

4.4 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Bookmarks Magazine

Based on a painstaking study of Darwin's private papers -- correspondence, notebooks, journals, ship logs, and even scribbled remarks in the margins of books and pamphlets he had read -- this compelling book endeavors to redeem and humanize the often misunderstood man. Critics uniformly praised Darwin's Sacred Cause, describing it as thoroughly researched, absorbing, and even "thrilling" (Independent). Only a few had misgivings: some critics noticed that the authors gloss over evidence of prejudice -- practically a hallmark of polite Victorian society -- in Darwin's writings, and others questioned the success of the authors in proving their claims. So was Darwin a benevolent humanitarian or an impartial scientist? Readers of this articulate and engrossing book will have to decide for themselves.
Copyright 2009 Bookmarks Publishing LLC


Praise for Darwin’s Sacred Cause

"Arresting . . . confront[s] the touchy subject of Darwin and race head on . . . Adrian Desmond and James Moore published a highly regarded biography of Darwin in 1991 . . . the case they make is rich and intricate, involving Darwin's encounter with race-based phrenology at Edinburgh and a religiously based opposition to slavery at Cambridge. Even Darwin's courtship of Emma, whom he winningly called 'the most interesting specimen in the whole series of vertebrate animals,' is cleverly interwoven with his developing thoughts on 'sexual selection' . . ." - New York Times Book Review

"'Darwin’s Sacred Cause' shows that there is still new material to be gleaned from the life of a man much picked over, and who turned the world upside down." - Economist

"This book dispels the legend, long attached to retrospective accounts of Darwin’s research, that the great scientist’s interest in evolution was spurred by Galapagos finches. It was people all along . . . [Desmond and Moore] shed welcome light on lesser-known features of Darwin’s work, while also providing an exceptionally crisp account of mid-nineteenth-century debates over the origins of racial differences." - Edward J. Larson, Bookforum

"An illuminating new book." - Smithsonian

"In this controversial reinterpretation of Charles Darwin’s life and work, the authors of a highly regarded 1991 biography argue that the driving force behind Darwin’s theory of evolution was his fierce abolitionism, which had deep family roots and was reinforced by his voyage on the Beagle and by events in America." - Scientific American

"'Darwin’s Sacred Cause' is a compelling narrative, well researched and convincingly presented, offering a new understanding of who Darwin was and the passions that motivated his thought. Particularly eye opening is the surprising connection between Darwin’s theory and the Christian abolition movement as they together fought a scientific community that rejected the Christian belief that all mankind was descended from a single pair. The story of that unlikely alliance is fascinating to follow, full of colorful characters both noble and vile, revealing how science and religion were debased by the evil of racism." - BookPage

"Who better than Desmond and Moore, Darwin's acclaimed biographers, to bring a fresh perspective to Darwin's central beliefs? . . . This masterful book produces a perspective on Darwin as not only scientist but moralist . . . Desmond and Moore build a new context in which to view Darwin that is utterly convincing and certain to influence scholars for generations to come. In time for Darwin's bicentennial, this is the rare book that mines old ground and finds new treasure." — Publishers Weekly, starred, boxed review

"Rush[es] forward with the urgency of the abolitionist spirit. Magnificent. — Booklist, starred review

"[A] stimulating, in-depth picture of 19th-century scientific thinking and racial attitudes." — Kirkus Reviews

"Well researched, likely to be controversial . . . this book provides [an] enlightening glimpse into a life of seemingly infinite complexity." — Library Journal

"Desmond and Moore’s fascinating new look at Darwin forces us to revise and expand the way we look at this revolutionary figure, and to see him wrestling with moral as well as scientific questions. And it is a reminder of just how much the issue of slavery loomed over everything in the nineteenth century, including even fields that were apparently far distant." —Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost and Bury the Chains

"This exciting book is sure to create a stir. Already widely admired for their pathbreaking biography of Charles Darwin, Desmond and Moore here give an entirely new interpretation of Darwin’s views on humankind, bringing together scholarship and sparkling narrative pace to explore theories of ape ancestry and racial origins in the Victorian period. Darwin’s part in making the modern world will never be the same again!" —Janet Browne, Aramont Professor of the History of Science, Harvard University, and author of Charles Darwin: Voyaging


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; First Edition edition (January 28, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547055269
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547055268
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.1 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #384,266 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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The thoughts and thought processes of Charles Darwin can only be appreciated and evaluated within the social and intellectual context of his own era. That at least is the starting premise of "Darwin's Sacred Cause" by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. This stimulating study is not a biography of Darwin per se; the authors have already published one, titled simply "Darwin." Instead, this is a detailed investigation of the ideas and opinions concerning the origins of humanity that were current in Darwin's lifetime and the decades previous, and the implications of those ideas for the formulation and publication of Darwin's hypotheses about what we now call `evolution.'

The `Sacred Cause' to which Darwin was dedicated was the abolition of slavery. Desmond and Moore assert that Darwin was born into a family and milieu passionately committed to abolition, originally on the profoundly religious grounds of the unity of all humankind as descendents of Adam and Eve. The great abolitionist families of 18th and 19th Century England are worth reading about in their own right -- Josiah Wedgwood and his descendents, the Wilberforces, the Clarksons, Harriet Martineau, etc. They are insightfully treated in the fine study "Bury the Chains" by Adam Hochschild. Darwin's allegiance to this humanitarian cause was unshakable and surely lent emotional urgency to his efforts to `prove' that all human were of the same species and the same descent, and therefore entitled to equal human rights.

For the enlightenment of any flat-earthers and creationists who might stumble over this book in the darkness of their caves, let me explain that "evolution" was not an idea first expounded by Charles Darwin.
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Format: Hardcover
Desmond and Moore's earlier biography, "Darwin: Life of a Tormented Evolutionist", is one of my favourite books, so I was really looking forward to reading "Darwin's Sacred Cause". But I have to say that I am not convinced by the central thrust of this book.

Charles Darwin was very strongly opposed to slavery, and he argued, quite rightly, that all human beings are of one species with a common ancestry. He was very critical of the mistaken theory that the different "races" of humans came into existence separately as separate species.

What Desmond and Moore claim is that Darwin's theory of common HUMAN origins inspired the development of his view that ALL LIFE is related by common descent through evolution. The "sacred cause" of opposition to slavery inspired Darwin's science.

But in his autobiography, which was initially written for private, family consumption, Darwin nowhere says anything about his anti-slavery views influencing his evolutionary theories. In fact Darwin explicity says that it was the distribution of fossil and living species which he encountered on the Beagle voyage that first got him seriously thinking about evolution. (Though I suppose that Desmond and Moore would say there was an underlying, unstated influence.)

There is also the fact that even if Darwin's anti-slavery views influenced his theory of the common origins of all life, it certainly was not a factor in inspiring him to come up with his theory of natural selection as the mechanism for evolution. It was natural selection that was Darwin's most important idea, and both he and, later, Wallace were inspired to come up with the theory by reading Malthus on population.
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Format: Hardcover
A very worthwhile read in my opinion. The amount of material the authors have included make some of the chapters exceptionally slow and plodding, especially the early ones, but once that groundwork is accomplished, the later chapters soar. Valid criticisms have been posted of the wordiness involved, but I doubt anyone else could have done it better than these proven masters of Darwiniana, and the payoff is well worth the effort. Imagine a new Darwin book where we don't have to slog through another rendition of the death of daughter Annie, or of Spa regimens, etc, but instead are introduced so fully into the milieu of a world where slavery is the gut-wrenching topic of the day and science is the field upon which opponents fight to either justify or abolish that practice. This is the world view the authors have recreated in this book. They very effectively show how fundamentally that world view effected Darwin, and why so much of what he was grudgingly forced into producing was directly related to contradicting the arguments of his pro-slavery scientific opponents. Who knew that over such a topic he became quite angry at not just Wallace, but Lyell and Hooker and his own son William Erasmus, or that even he and Asa Gray almost had a falling out over Civil War strategy? Or that Harriet Martineau, who always previously came across as just some ugly, cigar smoking socialist who hung out with brother Erasmus, was such a valid anti-slavery champion who's ideas, promulgated through the Darwin ladies, had to have spurred on Charles in his pursuits? I certainly did not, so as a Darwin freak I thank the authors for revealing that piece of the pie.

Not an easy read by any means, nor for the first timer looking for an introductory book on Darwin.
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