Tuesday, August 2, 2011


A review of Adrian Desmond and James Moore.  Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution,    Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Pub. Co. NY 2009.


John Vandermeer

In reading this eye-opening book, my feelings about Darwin changed dramatically.  The picture Desmond and Moore paint of him is quite different than anything I had been exposed to in the past.  His stature as a “pure” man of science, a devoté of blindly following where the evidence leads, has changed for me, and no doubt this is part of the intended message of the authors.  But, through the lens of someone who has been a biologist all his life, the picture of this genius in this book is not precisely the picture Desmond and Moore paint of him – very similar but not precisely the same.  There is, in this book, an illuminating message for the community of biologists.

There is no question that Darwin was a fanatic about nature.  From his hunting and taxidermy days to his father’s evaluation that he would be good for nothing but rat catching, to his voyage on the Beagle, he wonders at the natural world, especially the parts we today call geology and biology.  His famous Tangled Bank prose oozes from even his earliest writings.  So, how does a nature fanatic come to grips with the moral dilemma he lived with his whole life?  As so clearly stated in the book, abolitionism was in his DNA. 

In a sense, all human beings face the dilemma he faced, to square one’s passions with one’s sense of moral focus.  For reasons that are completely inexplicable, each human being who has the time, develops passions about some nook and cranny of the world.  But it also seems that each human being who has the time, develops a moral compass about what in the world needs to be done to create a more equitable world.  With the exception of those who obviously take the moral compass to its logical conclusion (Gandhi, Mandela, King, etc…), most people manage to construct blinders and it is even thought to be a sign of maturity when one can ignore that moral compass and focus on one’s passions.

For many reasons, approbation from his father obviously one of them, Darwin was unable to put on those blinders.  What a glorious triumph it would be, he may have thought, to demonstrate that the passion for nature he felt as a naturalist, could serve the moral compass he inherited from his father (and grandfather and family).  The question undoubtedly arose in his mind, “how can I take my passion for nature and turn it into something that benefits the cause?”   A legitimate answer to that question would put to bed once and for all his father’s inability to praise his passion.

The social conditions of the times created the background into which that question was posed.  Two major background conditions were of utmost importance:  First, the idea of evolution was not just in the air, it was everywhere.  From its modern origins in the philosophical anatomy schools of Paris, to the medical schools of Edinburg, to the radical medical schools of London, evolution through common dissent was challenging clerical and scientific establishments throughout Europe.  Second, the abolition of slavery, long before accomplished in most of the world outside of the US, was a passion among all social classes in Great Britain, indeed, even promoted as a way of exerting political pressure on the former colonies (the US was in a difficult economic position, with the slave system essential to keep the economies of the southern states viable).  These two background conditions came together in a most natural way to allow Darwin to answer his fundamental question -- how can I take my passion for Nature and turn it into something that benefits the cause? 

The coming together of these two conditions is reflected in the strong argument, gaining great legitimacy from Harvard’s Louis Agassiz, that God had made all of these different kinds of people for some kind of purpose.  Given the ultimate wisdom of God and his penchant for testing us (remember Job), who are we to question the natural state God imposed on dark skinned people.  The natural order of the world, the one God made for us in the Garden of Eden and took from us after the fall, is one we should constantly strive for as good Christians.  So given the natural order God had imposed, the slave system was not only justifiable, it was God’s will.  This point of view was dramatically countered by the new evolutionary science that had emerged from the French Revolution (and before).  All those different types of humans, just like all the different types of all animals, had evolved from a single ancestor – they were all members of the same family.  Enslaving one line of the family in service of the other, was not justifiable.

Darwin saw, in this major conundrum of the day, the answer to his question.  Could he accumulate enough evidence from his natural history passion to convincingly argue  “we are all in the same family,” thereby crushing (he thought) the argument that slavery was God’s will.  He thought that his scientific argument could serve his moral cause.  Contrary to the passionless robot who blindly seeks scientific truth through a disciplined application of the scientific method (the vision many have of the scientist today), Darwin was a passionate advocate of a political position and used his science to advance that position.  Indeed, as argued in this book, his political position actually drove his science.

The message for today is evident.  It is not that science is or should be independent of one’s moral compass.  Indeed, the drive to make the scientific endeavor “pure,” which is to say independent of political considerations, is as much a pointless exercise today as it was in the mid eighteenth century.  Agassiz’s “science” told him that slavery was nature’s way as much as Darwin’s “science” told him the opposite.  While one could never argue that Darwin in the end actually caused abolition in the US, his coupling of his personal passion with his moral compass seems to have had the dual effect of popularizing perhaps the most important scientific theory of all time, but may have indeed contributed to the demise of the foolish genetic determinism arguments of the proslavery crowd.

Desmond and Moore present an enormous amount of evidence in support of this thesis.  Their interpretation in the end is complex and nuanced and in the end not precisely the normative interpretation I have, but I suspect they would not disagree at any rate.  To simply argue, as they do, that abolitionism was a passion of Darwin is completely evident from the evidence they present.  To argue further that it was a main (perhaps the main) impetus for his persistence in pursuit of his theory is also clear from the evidence.  But the underlying interplay between his passion for natural history and his desire to merge his passion with his moral compass is a further interpretation that I believe gains support in the evidence presented in the book.  More important, it is the message that I believe is the more important one for today’s community of professional biologists.



At August 13, 2011 at 7:10 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

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