Book review: ‘Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins’ by Adrian Desmond and James Moore

How Charles Darwin's abhorrence of slavery influenced his science.

Darwin’s Sacred Cause

Desmond and Moore’s 1991 book Darwin [UK|US] is still, for many, the definitive biography of Charles Darwin. Meticulously researched and elegantly written, it placed Darwin squarely within the context of his time: an era of great political unrest and reform.

The central thesis of Darwin’s Sacred Cause is that Darwin’s abhorrence of slavery, and his support for abolition—the sacred cause of the book’s title—heavily influenced his scientific thinking. The book claims that Darwin’s belief, held by many abolitionists, that the various races of mankind share common descent, rather than always having been entirely separate species (a position held by many in the pro-slavery lobby), was a key driver in his later work to establish that all species share common descent. Ironically, most of Darwin’s fellow abolitionists believed in common descent from Adam and Eve—a view which would be utterly discredited by Darwin.

I must admit that, when I first read of the book’s central thesis, I was more than a little sceptical. While it seemed obvious that believing in the unity of mankind might make it easier for someone like Darwin to accept that all species are ultimately related, claiming, as Desmond and Moore do, that Darwin’s evolutionary theorising came as a direct result of his stance on slavery seemed to be over-egging the pudding somewhat. But they make a compelling case in arguing that “[t]he social context of Darwin’s offensive [against separate creations for separate species] has slipped away and been subsequently lost, but recovering it makes sense of the project in Darwin’s moral world”.

Darwin’s Sacred Cause is a detailed and fascinating study of the Nineteenth Century abolitionist and pro-slavery movements on either side of the Atlantic. Although a fervent abolitionist, Darwin could hardly be described as a particularly active member of the movement. But, as in their earlier biography, the authors place Darwin within context, showing how much of his upbringing, and his family and social connections revolved around the abolitionist cause; how his experiences aboard HMS Beagle strengthened his views against slavery; and how his abolitionist belief in human common descent steered much of his scientific work. They do, however, issue the important disclaimer that “[h]umans were not the sole source of insights into transmutation, but part and parcel of Darwin’s project”.

Although it is only hinted at in a single sentence in On the Origin of Species, human evolution seems to have been very much in Darwin’s mind when he asked many of his apparently innocuous questions about domesticated and wild animal species—and even about seed dispersal. When Darwin’s masterpiece was eventually published, both the scientific world and the general public immediately saw its implications for the history of human descent. Desmond and Moore infer that this might have been Darwin’s plan all along: make a brilliantly argued case for the evolution of animal and plant species, then let the reader come to their own logical, far more controversial conclusions about human evolution. But they also believe that Darwin was not yet able to make a strong case for human evolution, as many human racial differences did not appear to be adaptive. Darwin believed that such differences could be explained not by Natural Selection, but by his other great idea, Sexual Selection. The case for that, however, would have to wait until his later book, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex.

Darwin’s Sacred Cause is clearly an important book which will be much discussed, debated and argued about by Darwin scholars over the coming years. It will be interesting to follow the debate. Especially for someone like me, who finds himself considerably more open-minded than previously regarding the influence of Darwin’s anti-slavery views on his science.

Definitely one for your Darwin library.

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Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks
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1 thought on “Book review: ‘Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins’ by Adrian Desmond and James Moore

  1. Very belatedly: You may be interested in reading my critique of Darwin's Sacred Cause here:

    Desmond and Moore’s Darwin’s Sacred Cause: A Misreading of the Historical Record
    In their book Darwin’s Sacred Cause (2009) Adrian Desmond and James Moore purport to demonstrate that they have provided an original explanation for the inspiration behind Darwin’s determined pursuit of an explanatory theory for the transformation of species of which he became convinced as a result of his experiences during the Beagle voyage of 1831 to 1836. This, they argue, was the “moral passion” that was evoked by his encountering the horrors of slavery during the periods he was able to disembark to explore areas of South America in the years 1832 to 1835. In short, they provide what they describe as “the untold story of how Darwin’s abhorrence of slavery led to our modern understanding of evolution.” This article explores the means by which the authors seek to persuade readers of the validity of their thesis, and concludes that far from providing compelling evidence, by providing a mass of historically interesting material relating to slavery that is actually tangential to their case, they obscure the fact that they fail to accomplish their aim. There is nothing in their account of events that provides a reason for preferring their explanation for Darwin’s devotion to understanding the processes involved in the transformation of species to the known historical facts of Darwin’s early zeal for natural science, exhibited in his childhood exploits with beetles and his more organized scientific activities when he was a student at Cambridge, enabled to come to fruition by his scientific activities during the voyage of the Beagle.

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