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Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution Hardcover – January 28, 2009
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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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Darwin was a solid Whig, he abhorred racism. This book is less a Darwin bio than a compendium of the race related `scientific' debates and fights of the 19th century.
The irony of the plot is that Darwin, starting out from a biblical hypothesis about Adam and Eve and their offspring (ab uno sanguine), arrived at the rather more shocking theory of common descent, of not just all men, but of all life.
Core thesis: Darwin began his intellectual journey from a standpoint of strongly felt abolitionism. His anti-slavery attitude made him resist any theory that would grade different races of homo sapiens as if they were different species. He did not arrive at this conclusion at the end of his life, though he published the Descent of Man late, rather he started from there before he even left England for his formative Beagle trip.
Darwin was blessed with 2 prominent and dominant grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood. He had the good fortune to grow up with 2 large and civilized upper class families, which provided him with a solid foundation of political attitudes and material wealth.
We follow Darwin as a young student in Edinburgh and Cambridge, where he was not yet recognized as a rising star of science. He did not develop sufficient interest in medical studies, so he flopped out of that into a potential church career, which he then also avoided. What saved him was the pleasure trip on the Beagle, which took him into the real world for several years and made him what he would become: a pioneer.
The book is written in a sometimes less than compelling language. It wakes up on the Beagle, when narrative lines become simpler and the supporting material, mainly the journal, stronger.
After return to life on land, we watch CD start a family and become a recluse while working away at his life's work, his experiments and his books. He is a man of means and shuts out society as much as he can.
(As an example of the disturbing world we get Thomas Carlyle, obnoxious noisy Scotsman of profoundly chauvinist inclination, whose racism and anti-scientism CD came to hate; Carlyle was removed from the social circle).
CD's personal progress is described in parallel and in interaction with the trends and discussions of the time. A major influence on his thinking was Malthus with his thoughts on the struggle for survival. This would become a part of Darwinism and would inevitably link him to what was later called social Darwinism, a `school of thought' that he rejected, though he can be shown `biologizing colonial eradication'.
The great nemesis was Agassiz, the Swiss exile turned big man in American science, strongly aligned with the slave holders and their preferences in ethnology. The term `polygenists' was coined for those who thought that blacks and whites were different species.
Darwin focused on his experimental work in order to destroy some of the premises of the polygenists. Surprisingly, nobody else seems to have thought of testing the assumption that sea water would kill seeds (which had been the main argument against plant dispersal hypotheses). Or nobody else seems to have thought of demonstrating how a multiplicity of physical appearances in pigeons can be bred from one species.
Darwin was not very lucky in his social affiliations as far as winning brothers in arms was concerned. Greatest disappointment was Lyell, who fell far short of hopes in terms of support to evolution theory and anti-racism. Another disappointment was Wallace, who was just too different in social terms to be on the same wave length for long. Closest companions were American botanist Asa Gray (the relationship was made difficult by the Civil War and the possibility of an English entry on the side of the Confederacy) and then English biologist T.Huxley (who disappointed with his lack of enthusiasm for abolition).
What a pity that Darwin did not meet Gregor Mendel! That could have helped to some major scientific shortcuts (though politically nothing could have been gained by it).
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. Usually called "transmutation" in the 18th and early 19th Centuries, evolution was well established as a notion before Charles Darwin was born. It was observable, undeniable, barnyard knowledge available to all breeders of animals and plants. Polite society held that the definition of a "species" could be built on the question of interbreeding; hybrids of two species - obviously something that did occur - would be sterile, and thus if two breeds of cattle or two races of humans could produce fertile offspring, then they must be of a single species. Darwin's hypothesis was that transmutation could occur, over long times and in specific circumstances, by the accumulation of small variations until the descendents of a single original species could no longer interbreed. His language for this was "descent with modification." The daring corollary of this hypothesis was that all living organisms must have descended, over vast periods of geological time, from a single original life form. For this to have occurred, Darwin theorized two agents of change: 1. the Malthusian pressure of "survival of the fittest", and 2. sexual selection. Darwin of course knew nothing about genetics, about random genetic drift or mutation, etc. Nobody did, back then.
The hot button issue in the 1840s and 1850s wasn't `evolution', however. It was the theological/political/economic issue of the equality of races, aka "what to do with those pesky dark-skinned savages". Three choices? Exterminate them; enslave them; treat them as brothers. The constituencies for the first two choices far outnumbered the third. Political and social rivalries between England and America were also significant in the debate, since England had committed itself to abolition while the USA, however divided against itself, sustained and defended the peculiar instution of slavery.
The `educated' scientific community of Darwin's lifetime was aligned in two camps on the issue of human origins: the monogenecists and the polygenecists, the former maintaining the `conservative' Biblically-sanctioned idea of a single origin for all humans, and the latter amassing volumes of scholarly `evidence' that the human races were distinct species with distinct origins in different regions of the planet. The majority opinion was that species were immutable, that each geographic region of the planet was a `homeland' for a whole suite of species, including species of humans. Such ideas were most authoritatively expressed by Louis Agassiz, the `super star' of American science. Of course, Darwin was the staunchest of monogenecists, even after he had shed all his religious convictions. And of course, the concomitants of polygenecism were mightily appealing to slave owners, to the Lords of the Loom in New England as much as to the Lords of the Lash in Dixie, to the aristocracies of birth and money everywhere, to all who felt comfortable with their own racial superiority in a hierarchy established by nature itself. The core of Desmond and Moore's research in this book is the careful re-examination of the debate between these two camps.
Polygenicism, by the way, is not totally laid to rest even today. There are archaelogists and anthropologists of repute in China who aspire to show that modern humanity did NOT emerge from Africa, but rather that `races' of H. erectus evolved concurrently in several regions, one being Asia, into races of H. sapiens, which then perhaps overlapped and interbred. There are also `wishful thinkers' who jealously guard the notion that H. neanderthalis (highly regarded now that its beetle-browed stupidity has been displaced by the measurements of its larger cranium than ours) must have contributed some gentic uniqueness to European stock. And you might try reading the reviews of the infamous "The Bell Curve" here on ammy, to ascertain that nostalgia for a hierarchy of racial superiorities isn't extinct.
Perhaps I've already used too many words to summarize the matter of this hugely meaningful social history. "Darwin's Sacred Cause" is the most thought-provoking book of social history I've read in recent years. It's a book I wish I'd written myself, or even had the scholarly tools to write. Though the cause was (and is) sacred, Desmond and Moore do NOT make a saint of Charles Darwin. They depict his hesitations, his dependencies on the esteem of his peers, his clinging to respectability and allegiance to his own social class, his compromises, his limits. The Darwin they depict is a man who had to earn his own greatness by hard work and painful decisions, a Darwin less to worship and more to admire.
I'm surprised to find so few reviews of this enormously important book here on the product page. The two negative reviews, in fact, make significant points, though I think they miss the central point. Desmond and Moore do take an irritating tone of over-certainty at times, especially in their introduction. They do not, however, ignore Darwin's grudging acknowledgement that his Malthusian survival theory might be a two-edged sword, that it might justify the hateful "social Darwinism" of the succeeding decades. The drama of this detailed, conscientiously academic study is to be found in the way Darwin persisted and demolished, yes, demolished, the basis for racism forevermore.