Peter McGrath, Michael Barton and Mike Haubrich brought my attention to a new book by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. Their previous biography of Darwin is arguably the best (and there are hundreds of Darwin biographies out there, many more to be published next year as well). The new book, Darwin’s Sacred Cause is a result of a lot of study by the duo, especially since the publication of all the Darwin’s correspondence. The new thesis is that the driving force behind Darwin’s work on evolution was his disgust with racism:
“This book, by Darwin’s most celebrated modern biographers, gives a completely new explanation of why he came to his shattering theories about human origins. Until now, Desmond and Moore argue, the source of the moral fire which gives such intensity and urgency to Darwin’s ideas has gone unnoticed. By examining minutely Darwin’s manuscripts and correspondence (published and unpublished) and covert notebooks, where many of the clues lie, they show that the key to unlocking the mystery of how such an ostensibly conservative man could hold views which his contemporaries considered both radical and bestial, lay in his utter detestation of slavery. Darwin’s Sacred Cause will be one of the major contributions to the worldwide Darwin anniversary celebrations in 2009.”
From the interview with the authors:
What do you think is the most surprising element of this book?
Our revelation that much of Darwin’s research over many years was about race. There was no ultimate difference for Darwin between a `race’ and a `species’, so his work on `the origin of species’ was also about the origin of races, including the human races – `man’ was never an exception for him. And while most of Darwin’s research was implicitly about human origins, the extent of his explicit interest in combating racist science is a real surprise. The fact that his most intense phase of work on racial questions came as the United States hurtled towards civil war, a war that the humanitarian Darwin dreaded, adds poignancy to the moral dimension of his research.
What sort of reaction are you anticipating from the scientific community? The history community? The evangelical community?
Many scientists will welcome a `moral’ Darwin’ to confound his religious critics; others will resent our polluting Darwin’s pure science with `extra-scientific’ factors and will declare his anti-slavery beliefs irrelevant. Historians may be more positive, if only because Darwin’s Sacred Cause locates Darwin for the first time on the well-trodden historical fields of transatlantic slavery, slave emancipation and the American Civil War. And those who study the history of `scientific racism’ will have a new Darwin to reckon with. Evangelicals may feel distinctly queasy, not least because William Wilberforce, the Clapham `Saints’ and others they revere as religious ancestors once supped happily with the freethinking Darwins and saw them as allies in the anti-slavery crusade. Darwin’s words, `More humble & I believe true to consider [man] created from animals’, will pose a challenge to every creationist.
Yup. I guess the Creationists will not be happy with the book. It appears to be a must-read for me, though. For you, too, I hope.