Darwin the Abolitionist

Darwin the Abolitionist June 1, 2009

by VorJack

It’s a truism that history is done to serve the interests of the present, so it’s not surprising that we look back on Charles Darwin as the major player in the faith vs. reason debate. However, in doing so we ignore the arguments that concerned Darwin himself most of all. In Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Adrian Desmond & James Moore reconstruct the debates over race and slavery which preoccupied Victorian England, and show how Darwin’s science was influenced by his abolitionist beliefs.

Am I Not A Man And A Brother?

Pullquote: Go proud reasoner, and call the worm thy sister!
Erasmus Darwin Zoonomia

Darwin was born two years after the slave trade was abolished in England, thanks in some part to his famous grandfathers, Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin. Darwin was raised in a fiercely abolitionist family, cutting his teeth on abolitionist tracts and his grandfather Darwin’s excessive poetry. His grandfather Wedgwood bankrolled some of the abolitionist efforts and provided the famous family seal: Am I not a man and a brother? From birth, Darwin was surrounded by a cast of assertive sisters and female cousins who would descend upon him were he to set a foot off the abolitionist course.

But the world that Darwin was entering was changing. Britain was developing a race consciousness, as shown by Sir Walter Scott’s romantic epics of Anglo-Saxon history. What we now call “scientific racism” was developing alongside the subversive sciences of phrenology and crainiology. Samuel Morton was measuring brain size in his skull-strewn lab — called the “American Golgotha” by both friends and enemies — in order to rank the various races by brain power. Any question who ended up on top?

But the central argument which vexed Darwin was advanced by the British slave-holding planter class; that African slaves actually belonged to a difference species than their owners. As this argument developed it took hold amongst naturalists like Morton, Josiah Nott and Darwin’s famous opponent Louis Agassiz. This group eventually took the name “polygenists,” since they believed that mankind began as a number of different species. To the question on the Darwin family seal, the polygenists answered flatly, “No.”

The Mutability of Species

Pullquote: “… plurality of species in the human race does no more violence to the bible, than do the admitted facts of Astronomy and Geology.”
Josiah Nott

Desmond & Moore do an excellent job of showing the complexity of the argument. Christians war with Christians over interpretations of Genesis: does it support the plurality of human species? Competing naturalists study dogs and farm animals to discover just how mutable the species could be, all attempting to show how Africans could — or could not — be related to Anglo-Saxons. The potential fertility of hybrids and crossbreeds was hotly debated.

Darwin’s entry into this debate was on the issue of the mutability of the species. Some naturalists maintained that a species could only shift a certain amount. A few went so far as to suggest that all breeds of dog were descent from different species of canine (wolf, dingo, coyote, etc.). So Darwin hoped to show that natural selection, and particularly sexual selection, could account for the extreme divergence of species. Thus he could show how hominids of such apparent differences could come from the same stock.

This is Desmond & Moore’s thesis, and it’s a rough case to make at times. Darwin’s timidity is legendary, and he was not constitutionally suited for the life of a crusading abolitionist or scientist. Instead, we find Darwin’s passion showing through at odd moments. One of the most telling is his reaction to his mentor Charles Lyell, who soft pedaled the reality of American slavery in his Travels in North America. Darwin is coldly polite in his correspondence, but draws Lyell’s attention to his own, yet to be completed, Journal of Researches. There, five hundred pages in, Lyell would discover an account of Darwin’s experiences with slavery on his Beagle voyage, including the following:

“Those who look tenderly at the slave-owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter;—what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! Picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children—those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own—being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth!” (p. 499-500)

Years later, the fire-breathing abolitionist William Lloyd Garrsion would hear Darwin’s full broadside, read to him by his son. The fact that we find a late life correspondence between these two men tells us much about Darwin.

Breadth and Depth

Since Darwin was reluctant to wear his heart on his sleeve, Desmond & Moore dig deep into the archives. The work heavily with Darwin’s correspondence, both personal and professional. They pay close attention to aspects of his life that are usually glossed over, like his year studying in Edinburgh for his aborted career as a doctor. Desmond and Moore show the intellectual currents that swirled around him, yet still find time to consider his relationship with the African man who taught the young Darwin the art of taxidermy.

This is history the way I like it: rich in detail yet sweeping in scope. You explore Darwin’s personal convictions, and on the way you seem to meet everyone of interest in the early Victorian period. Darwin emerges as neither a scientific saint nor a amoral anti-christ, but a man finding a unique way to fight his family’s war: the fight for universal brotherhood.

Vorjack is a librarian/archivist and a public historian, living with his wife in history-soaked Albany, New York.

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