Charles Darwin, Abolitionist


Charles Darwin, a 22-year-old dropout from medical school who subsequently considered becoming a priest, boarded the Beagle in late 1831 and spent five years on the ship, traveling the world and collecting natural specimens. Despite its cuddly name, the Beagle was a naval brig outfitted with 10 guns. Darwin was a “gentleman dining companion” whose official responsibility was to provide civilized banter with the captain.
Darwin visited Tierra del Fuego, Tahiti and Tasmania, along with other exotic locales, but he never set foot in the United States. Around 1850, charmed by popular tales of lush countryside and the exciting adventures of the Underground Railroad, and still withholding from public view his explosive theory of evolution, he flirted briefly with the idea of moving his large family, with seven children under the age of 11 and another on the way, to Ohio. The middle states, he wrote, are “what I fancy most.”
Two arresting new books, timed to coincide with Darwin’s 200th birthday, make the case that his epochal achievement in Victorian England can best be understood in relation to events — involving neither tortoises nor finches — on the other side of the Atlantic. Both books confront the touchy subject of Darwin and race head on; both conclude that Darwin, despite the pernicious spread of “social Darwinism” (the notion, popularized by Herbert Spencer, that human society progresses through the “survival of the fittest”), was no racist.
Adrian Desmond and James Moore published a highly regarded biography of Darwin in 1991. The argument of their new book, “Darwin’s Sacred Cause,” is bluntly stated in its subtitle: “How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution.” They set out to overturn the widespread view that Darwin was a “tough-minded scientist” who unflinchingly followed the trail of empirical research until it led to the stunning and unavoidable theory of evolution. This narrative, they claim, is precisely backward. “Darwin’s starting point,” they write, “was the abolitionist belief in blood kinship, a ‘common descent’ ” of all human beings.
“The Devil under form of Baboon is our grandfather,” Darwin wrote, but his human grandfathers are more central to the circumstantial case that Desmond and Moore assemble. The poet-physician Erasmus Darwin and the industrial potter Josiah Wedgwood were close friends among a circle of mechanical-minded Dissenters from the Anglican Church. Darwin and Wedgwood shared a hatred of the slave trade, contributing money and propaganda — in the form of anti-slavery verse and ceramic curios — to the “sacred cause” of abolition. Wedgwood’s cameo medallion of a chained slave, with the caption “Am I not a Man and a Brother?,” was “a must-have solidarity accessory.”
Read more

Comments are closed.