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A Failed Attempt to Turn Darwin into Wilberforce

Photo: William Wilberforce, depicted in a statue at his birthplace in Hull, England; by Steve F-E-Cameron (Merlin-UK), CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

In a series of posts, I have been commenting on a book by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery, and the Quest for Human Origins. This is the concluding Part V of the series. Look here for Part IPart IIPart III, and Part IV.

When describing Darwin’s anti-slavery views, Desmond and Moore compare Darwin to Harriet Martineau, a writer and advocate for women’s equality who was engaged for a time in a relationship with Darwin’s brother, Erasmus. Martineau was also a strong anti-slavery activist. Speaking of Darwin, Desmond and Moore write:

His grandfathers had supported the American Revolution. The enlightened Dissent so prominent among the Founding Fathers had been bred into him, and with it the same “overarching commitment” to anti-slavery that shaped Martineau’s mission (129).

By putting the phrase overarching commitment in quotes, Desmond and Moore give the impression that there is a source that uses that very phrase to describe Darwin’s anti-slavery views as they cohere with Martineau’s. 

Unfortunately, There Isn’t

The phrase comes from a 1960 book by R. K. Webb titled Harriet Martineau: A Radical Victorian (Columbia University Press). Webb writes of Martineau, “She had her own principles to apply; she did so rigorously, under an overarching commitment to abolitionism and with the support of like-minded friends” (163). Desmond and Moore have taken a phrase describing Martineau’s views and given the impression that it is describing Darwin’s! There is no evidence that Darwin was ever as strongly committed to abolition as Martineau. In fact, Darwin expressed concern (in racialized terms) to his sister Caroline that Erasmus might marry Martineau and become their sister-in-law. 

Darwin wrote:

Our only protection from so admirable a sister-in-law is in her working him too hard. He (Erasmus) begins to perceive, (to use his own expression) he shall be not much better than her “Nigger.” — Imagine poor Erasmus a nigger to so philosophical and energetic a lady…We must pray for our poor “nigger.” 

In seeking protection from Martineau becoming his sister-in-law, we can conclude that Darwin was not her biggest fan!

Lyell and the American South

As one final example, let’s consider how Desmond and Moore characterize Darwin’s attitude toward Charles Lyell’s fondness for the American South. Darwin had sent Lyell a revised version of his Journal of Researches for Lyell to read while Lyell was visiting America. Desmond and Moore write:

He had the publisher send Lyell the revised Journal for reading en route to Boston and to carry through the South like a talisman on his second trip. Opening the book, Lyell found a fulsome dedication to himself, but the sting was in the Journal’s tail, five hundred pages on. Here Darwin gave full vent to his anger (181). 

What follows this is an extended quote from the Journal where Darwin relates his experiences in Brazil observing the abhorrent treatment of slaves. But Desmond and Moore also provide a citation to a letter Darwin sent to Lyell to document Darwin’s anger toward Lyell. 

Darwin wrote the following to Lyell on August 25, 1845:

I was delighted with your letter, in which you touch on slavery; I wish the same feelings had been apparent in your published discussion. — But I will not write on this subject; I should perhaps annoy you & most certainly myself. — I have exhaled myself with a paragraph or two in my Journal on the sin of Brazilian slavery: you perhaps will think that it is an answer to you; but such is not the case…My few sentences, however, are merely an explosion of feeling. How could you relate so placidly that atrocious sentiment about separating children from their parents; & and in the next page, speak of being distressed at Whites not having prospered; I assure you the contrast made me exclaim out. — But I have broken my intention, & so no more on this odious deadly subject.

Darwin was clearly frustrated by Lyell’s recalcitrance to openly condemn slavery, but not so frustrated as to allow this to damage his scientific relationship with Lyell. Desmond and Moore do note Darwin’s statement “you perhaps will think that it is an answer to you; but such is not the case.” But they pass it off as Darwin being “coldly polite.” Perhaps, but given the extensive nature of the scientific correspondence between Darwin and Lyell, it is clear that Darwin subordinated their differences over slavery to his scientific concerns. It is simply not the case that Darwin’s anti-slavery views rose to the level of being the “Sacred Cause” of his scientific work. Darwin abhorred slavery; this is well documented. But his concern with slavery was tangential at best to his scientific work.

Well-Researched Historiography?

Darwin’s Sacred Cause is really a piece of historical fiction writing and should be read as such. It is rooted in authentic history, but the portrait it paints of Darwin is highly imaginative. Historical fiction is a perfectly acceptable genre of literature to be sure. But in this case, Desmond and Moore have presented their historical fiction as a piece of well-researched historiography by rooting their story in a massive documentary apparatus that too often fails to support the story being told. The sources cited are often taken out of context, or they are irrelevant to the point being made, or they are simply cut and pasted together from different sources, giving the impression of statements that were never made. This is a failure of immense proportions, and it raises real questions about the credibility of Desmond and Moore as world-renown Darwinian scholars (and that of the University of Chicago Press as an academic press).

But beyond this, Darwin’s Sacred Cause demonstrates the deeply entrenched character of the larger Darwinian mythology. It appears that Desmond and Moore took an academically salient issue (anti-slavery and anti-racism) and overlaid this onto Darwin, painting him in the most positive light possible. Who could be critical of a man who devoted his life to the sacred cause of abolition? Who would criticize Darwin’s species theory knowing it was intended to combat 19th-century racist discourse? If one takes Darwin’s Sacred Cause seriously, to criticize Darwin’s theory is in effect to place oneself on the side of the Southern racists.

Nice try, Desmond and Moore. But criticizing Darwinian evolution does not make one a racist. The real Darwin is a far more ambiguous and conflicted figure than Desmond and Moore paint in their attempt to turn Charles Darwin into William Wilberforce, a genuine anti-slavery hero. Readers deserve better. I will attempt to paint a more historically plausible portrait of Darwin in my forthcoming book, Only an Abstract: Rescuing the Origin of Species from the Grasp of Darwinian Mythology. For now, Desmond and Moore’s book should simply be reshelved in the fantasy section of the library.