August 13, 2009
Darwin’s Sacred Cause
I’ve read dozens of books on the development of science, but Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How A Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution (Houghton Mifflin) is the first book I’ve read that puts that history squarely into the context of imperialism and white supremacy.
Charles Darwin’s family and the related Wedgwood families were important and active abolitionists, and Darwin was a passionate believer in racial equality. Unlike many other abolitionists, Darwin came face to face with slavery in the West Indies and Brazil, and the experiences only deepened his hatred of the institution, according to authors Adrian Desmond and James Moore.
Following his famed five-year, round-the-world voyage on the HMS Beagle, Darwin slowly and cautiously developed a convincing theory of natural selection. Unsurprisingly, he had to step around the biblical literalists who ran the Anglican-dominated universities. But the landscape of science was also populated with nonreligious racialists in the service of imperialism and slavery. They believed species popped up in different places independently, which meant that Africans and Europeans were unrelated species.
Darwin’s contribution was to adhere to a unitary theory of descent: species, including Homo sapiens, arose by branching off from earlier forms.
Darwin’s Sacred Cause is a must-read. Without the work of the separate species naturalists in the 19th century, white supremacy would have had a very different history.