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“Sacred Cause”? Reconsidering Charles Darwin as Abolitionist

Image: HMS Beagle at Tierra del Fuego.

In 2009, noted Darwinian biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore published Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery, and the Quest for Human Origins. They argued the radical new thesis that Darwin’s species work was primarily motivated by an abolitionist desire to combat racist polygenist views of human origins and instead draw all humans together under the umbrella of common descent. This book has been both widely praised and widely criticized. 

But agree with the thesis or not, many view the book as a premier example of historiographical research. The book contains 820 endnotes citing hundreds of primary sources, not the least of which are many hundreds of references to Darwin’s voluminous correspondence. One can always disagree with Desmond and Moore’s interpretation of the evidence, but one would be hard pressed to criticize them for not doing their homework. 

Or So I Thought

I have been reading the Darwinian correspondence myself for several years and have never seen anything in Darwin’s letters that would seem to support Desmond and Moore’s thesis about the motivating factor for Darwin’s species work. However, given how deeply their book is rooted in primary source documentation, surely I must have missed something in my own reading. Curious to figure out what, I decided to undertake a careful re-reading of Darwin’s Sacred Cause, paying special attention to places where Desmond and Moore register Darwin’s views on slavery and race. I then checked the references they cite to document this new portrait of Darwin. 

Shockingly, it turns out that these highly esteemed scholars play fast and loose with their sources and with basic tenets of historiographical research. 

Therefore, I offer a series of posts here designed to lay out the evidence in detail. It is not merely that Desmond and Moore are selective in the sources they cite, filtering out only those which support their thesis. Many historians are selective. What I found in their historiography rises, instead, to a different level. 

A Sweeping Statement

For example, let’s consider Desmond and Moore’s sweeping statement regarding the impact on Darwin of his encounters with indigenous peoples during the Beagle voyage:

Interestingly it was in Tierra del Fuego, perplexed and troubled by an alien race, that Darwin decided to spend his life studying natural science (97). 

It sounds like Darwin’s scientific work was primarily motivated by anthropological concerns. Let’s check the sources. An endnote points us to Darwin’s autobiography (p. 26) and volume 1 of his correspondence (pp. 305, and 311-12. Desmond and Moore cite the correspondence by volume and page number, never by date and addressee of the letter). 

In his autobiography, Darwin does indeed write: 

I remember when in Good Success Bay, in Tierra del Fuego, thinking, (and I believe that I wrote home to the effect) that I could not employ my life better than in adding a little to natural science.

Darwin does say he contemplated a career in science while in Tierra del Fuego, but he gives no indication that it was due to being “perplexed and troubled by an alien race,” as Desmond and Moore indicate. 

Volume 1 of the correspondence, page 305, reflects a March 1833 letter of Darwin to his sister Caroline written during the Beagle voyage. He makes several references to his growing love for geology, and his ability to withstand the difficulties of the voyage because of his increasing pleasure from natural history, but nothing about alien races. Pages 311-12 reflect a May 1833 letter to another sister, Catherine, in which Darwin says, referring to the numerous invertebrate animals in the intertropical ocean, “If it was not for these & still more for geology — I would in short time make a bolt across the Atlantic to good old Shropshire.” 

These references clearly demonstrate that Darwin’s interest in a career in science was stoked by his natural history pursuits during the voyage. The idea that he was motivated by being “perplexed and troubled by an alien race” has no support in the sources that Desmond and Moore cite, a point that undercuts their entire thesis that combatting slavery was his sacred cause.

An Emigration Daydream

As another brief example, consider their story about how Darwin bought his children a copy of Mary Howitt’s book Our Cousins in Ohio, which painted a portrait of “an English family living as neighbors to liberated blacks, their children playing in the lush countryside only miles from the Slave States’ border” (238). Desmond and Moore claim that in response to this book, Darwin also harbored an emigration daydream in which he 

plumped for the ‘middle States’ as ‘what I fancy most’ — New York, Pennsylvania, maybe even Ohio; free soil situated between New England’s snobbery and Lyell’s beloved south. 

An accompanying endnote refers to volume 4 of the correspondence (p. 362). There we find Darwin writing to his cousin William Darwin Fox in October 1850. In noting that his eighth child was on the way, Darwin made the offhand comment: 

I often speculate how wise it would be to start off to Australia, or what I fancy most the middle States of N. America. 

He then quickly changes the subject to a question Fox asked about his pear tree. 

No Connection at All

Darwin’s brief speculation about possibly moving to America is not connected at all to the difference between slave or free states and he makes no mention of Howitt’s book. But more problematic is Desmond and Moore’s gloss, “New York, Pennsylvania, maybe even Ohio; free soil situated between New England’s snobbery and Lyell’s beloved south.” Darwin neither said nor implied this. Desmond and Moore, with brief phrases actually quoted from the letter, give the impression that they are paraphrasing Darwin’s words. In reality, Darwin was simply concerned about finding economic opportunities for his many children and thought Australia or America might provide them.

These are just two of many examples of Desmond and Moore creating a portrait of Darwin as abolitionist that is poorly supported by their intimidating apparatus of primary source citations which are mostly irrelevant to their argument. Readers have a right to trust that the sources cited support the claims made in the text. But most readers will not check obscure references buried in over 800 endnotes at the back of the book. They haven’t met me!

In future posts, we will see many more illustrations of Desmond and Moore’s historiographical methodology, and how that bears on Darwin’s “sacred cause.”