Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins

When I asked one student whether there was any point reviewing another book on Charles Darwin (in honour of Darwin Month, there’ve been quite a few others coming out over this February alone), he replied; “There is nothing original left to say.”

But there is something new to emphasise in Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins for Darwin’s infamous biographers Desmond and Moore, who trace the evolutionary process of how Darwin’s The Origin of the Species came in to being. Though Darwin’s character takes on some importance in the book, in light of his humanitarianism, his belief in the unity of mankind and his abhorrence of racism and slavery, this book centralises more on the circumstances surrounding the germination of The Origin of Species. A spectrum of circumstance is mapped out before us, documenting Charles’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin, the staunch anti-slave campaigner who loathed cruelty and lent the cause his devastating pen, churning out a series of poems; ‘HE, WHO ALLOWS OPPRESSION, SHARES THE CRIME’. From Erasmus’s outcries we move to ‘Charley’ himself. The skill of Desmond and Moore is their ability to ‘normalise ‘Darwin, to make him a recognisable product of Late Victorian England whilst simultaneously showing how he was set apart and growing apart from the racist doctrine of the times. He is normal, ordinary, exceptional, and magnificent. The aim of the book is not to place him on a pedestal, to aggrandise him and his work as history likes to do to occult figures, but instead use a methodical, paired down and precise prose style that perfectly charts Darwin’s ideas, his thought processes, his working out like any other complex, highly intelligent mind.

{{ quote One thing is clear; Darwin’s grounding conviction was in the equality of all mankind }}

The book’s overriding emphasis is that Darwin was inseparable from the anti-slavery movement; where Darwin moves, issues of racism and slavery tag along behind. What the issue of slavery ignites is a battle for evidence, the clinical and fanatical hunt for scientific clues to prove racist dogma. As a young, impressionable student at Edinburgh in the 1820s, where racial categories were being forged, superior and inferior labels assigned, and tribal temperaments delineated Darwin remains remarkably argumentative. It was part of this obsession with ranking that led to the fascination for so many academics with Phrenology, which was being fiercely attacked at the time by a substantial body of people in Edinburgh University, Darwin’s peers among them. However there was never any real compromising choice for Darwin to make, he would ‘have no truck with craniology, no sympathy with its emphasis on the separateness and ranking of races. No skull collecting would mark his science. He would find a very different way of approaching black and white, slave and free.’

An adamant phrenology supporter was the stuffy Scottish anatomist, Charles Bell, who believed ‘the beautifully expressive face of a moral creature rested on a singular piece of anatomy,’ which was the respiratory nerve running from the ear across the face. Studying the bumps and fissures in the skull would tell you a man’s moral character and certain races were predictably according to such absurd logic, not cut out for morality. The book beautifully aligns other lines of thought about race and human origins from the likes of Bell, Lyell and Agassiz with Darwin’s own development and processes to create a lively, kaleidoscope of intellectual debate. It is one of the book’s strongest entry points and feeds into the aim of trying to present Darwin in light of his social and political context. Darwin studied, while at Edinburgh, a multitude of concepts; phrenology, philanthropy, taxonomy and taxidermy, to name a few. It was a time of discovery and assessing while also marking one of the most unfruitful periods of his life; the great scientist came away from the city a failed medic student. These disappointments and failures latch onto the binary between Darwin the ordinary and Darwin the exceptional.

One thing is clear; Darwin’s grounding conviction was in the equality of all mankind. Desmond and Moore call it the aptly named ‘tree metaphor’ which ascertains that of all mankind stem from the same essential root but divide into separate racial groups. What was the purpose of racial difference? It is this question that the authors highlight, sparked his fervent specimen gathering when abroad the HMS Beagle. These specimens signify both Darwin’s innovative investigative methods and the evidence that grounded his conviction even further.

Though Darwin’s theory of evolution is in itself of great interest, Desmond and Moore, aware of reiterating this fact, focus more on the implications for humanity burgeoning within the theory. Scientific research was crucial to the existence of slavery, fundamental to the rights of thousands of subjugated people. Scientific debate defined people’s tolerance to slavery and it is this angle that should remind us what Darwin did for the good of mankind, rather than the sin he was meant to have committed towards it.


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