Darwin's struggle against 'scientific' racism

May 2, 2009

Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery & the Quest for Human Origins

By Adrian Desmond & James Moore

Allen Lane, 2009

485 pages, $55 (hb)

Charles Darwin did not discover evolution in splendid scientific isolation, say Adrian Desmond and James Moore in their book Darwin's Sacred Cause. Rather, it was Darwin's moral passion against the enslavement of black Africans that powered his science of the unity of black and white humans from a common ape-like ancestor.

The young Darwin absorbed the opposition of his grandfathers, sisters and cousins to the slavery that, in the century to Darwin's birth in 1809, abducted 1.75 million people abducted from Africa to labour and die in the West Indies and other British colonies. Liverpool's port alone moved 30,000 slaves a year.

Darwin was never an activist like his relatives. But his detestation of all cruelty against human and other animals was sincere, despite his early love of bird-shooting.

In 1825 this hobby put Darwin in close touch with a freed slave from Guyana in the Edinburgh University Museum, who taught Darwin friendship and respect across racial lines.

Darwin's Beagle voyage years (1831-1836) as a naturalist and "gentleman" dining companion to the "Tory" ship's captain, took place in the context of the anti-slavery victories of 1807, which abolished the British slave trade, and 1833, which outlawed the use of slave labour in the colonies.

The Beagle gave Darwin a shocking personal encounter with the still global reality of slavery, which was rife in the ports and coffee plantations he visited. This is the background that influenced Darwin's development of his theory of evolution. His theory would undermine one of the ideological props for the inhuman abuses of slavery — that black and white people were separate species.

Darwin, however, was also a creature of his wealthy, conservative and religious class. He was loathe to upset the status quo with a revolutionary science — a prospect he found literally stomach-churning.

Decades of illness confirmed his dread that his social status, and his hierarchical society, would be shaken to its roots if black and white were given a shared humanity. His theory meant God, the divine authority of social inequality and racial dominance, would be replaced with evolution through natural selection.

So, for two decades after the Beagle and its window onto slavery, Darwin delayed going public with his theory and its subversive social implications. His abolitionist fervour was put on ice and the question of human evolution was dropped from his planned opus, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

The naturalist and socialist Alfred Russel Wallace, who had independently arrived at the same evolutionary theory as Darwin, excitedly asked if Darwin's rumoured book would "discuss 'man'". Darwin replied: "I think I shall avoid [the] whole subject" as it "was too surrounded with prejudices".

Darwin still held his fire after his book was launched (minus its human evolution chapter) in 1859, despite a flourishing "scientific racism" movement, which was lending its bogus science to plantation slave-owners in the US south. They followed their Confederate vice-president in claiming that "the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition".

Darwin wrote during the US Civil War that he "wished to God ... the North would proclaim a crusade" against slavery. But he still hesitated about lending his new science to the anti-slavery cause.

Finally, under pressure from critics and supporters alike, Darwin published, in 1871, Descent of Man, which made the human-ape connection to the rest of the natural world.

This book argued that, just as farmers and pigeon-fanciers were doing through artificial selection (reproductive selection, ultimately from a single ancestral species, for variations in feather or hide), so, too, natural selection was doing to the human race. It produced not separate species, but related evolutionary branches, which developed surface-level differences of physique and physiognomy, from a common ape-like ancestor.

Darwin's public delay of his revolutionary theory of human evolution, note Desmond and Moore, shows Darwin was not immune from his social conditions. The radical abolitionist movement fired Darwin's science, but his privileged social position made him slow to reveal the full social implications of evolution.

Darwin's class position also allowed his progressive "unity-of-race thesis" to admit some reactionary cousins. Darwin was heavily influenced by the grim theories of the economist and parson Thomas Malthus. Malthus saw excess mouths and scarce resources breeding war and famine as checks on population.

Darwin, albeit with heart strings tugged, theorised a science of evolution which "naturalised" the competition of (superior, civilised) white minds against dark bodies under European colonial expansion. His science normalised aboriginal people's slaughter of the "weakest" by the "fittest".

In Descent of Man, Darwin also saw Malthusian-flavoured natural selection still working at the class level, and Darwin's own British ruling class sitting at the apex of 1860s civilisation.

The book's eugenic overtones, endorsing evolutionary class and ethnic "improvements" to the human breed, were taken up by latter-day eugenicists. Darwin's application of biological "law" to human society reflected and reinforced the "survival of the fittest" rhetoric which was the catchcry of manufacturers, colonisers and "ethnic cleansers".

To these victors in the competitive life struggle went the spoils, now backed by the new "science".

These were the negative impacts of culture on Darwin's science But it was Darwin's sympathy with the humanitarian movement against slavery in 19th century culture that helped made his science revolutionary. Darwin's discovery of evolution helped to end the evil of slavery, an evil he opposed on moral and scientific grounds.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.