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How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution

A-Darwins Sacred CauseAdrian Desmond, an Honorary Research Fellow in biology at University College London, and James Moore, a science historian at the University of Cambridge, coauthored the prize-winning Darwin (1991), hailed by many to be the definitive biography of the revolutionary scientist. Their latest collaboration, which coincides with Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, reveals the hidden foundations of his scientific zeal.

The Topic: His contemporaries argued that Africans, belonging to a different species of mankind, were meant to be subjugated and exploited. But Charles Darwin (1809–1882) was driven by his abhorrence of slavery to seek a common ancestor for all of humanity. Hailing from a devout, abolitionist family, Darwin grew up practicing kindness to animals, left his medical training in Edinburgh because he couldn’t bear to witness the suffering of patients, and was appalled by the brutal treatment of Africans and indigenous peoples he witnessed during his later travels. Alongside his scientific diligence and precision, Darwin’s unerring belief in the equality and brotherhood of man suffuses his work, making him "a man more sympathetic than creationists find acceptable, more morally committed than scientists would allow."
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 448 pages. $30. ISBN: 0547055269

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"A candidate for the most insightful, and perhaps the most radical [of a slew of new books and articles about Darwin], is Darwin’s Sacred Cause. In this thorough and highly researched, yet readable and even entertaining book, Darwin scholars Adrian Desmond and James Moore seek to humanize the father of evolutionary theory." Gregory M. Lamb

Independent (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Desmond and Moore resume the bravura style they employed to dramatic effect in their 1991 biography of Darwin, spurring the historical horses into a gallop, striding across far-flung shores, echoing the thunder of distant battlefields, anatomising the machinations of power, and spicing the whole with artful touches for the reader to relish. … It is frequently thrilling and intriguing, too, offering a tumult of insights into the struggles around slavery, race and science." Marek Kohn

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"If you read only one book to honor the bicentennial, make it Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution. This first-rate work breaks new ground and persuasively locates the inspiration for Darwin’s theory in his abolitionism." Ruth Padel

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
""The case they make is rich and intricate, involving Darwin’s encounter with race-based phrenology at Edinburgh and a religiously based opposition to slavery at Cambridge." Christopher Benfey

Observer (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Now, 200 years after Darwin’s birth and 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Adrian Desmond and James Moore, whose doorstop 1991 biography seemed to leave nothing more to be said, offer a new vision of the architect of evolution by natural selection. … The Darwin who emerges from this meticulous analysis is profoundly humanitarian, despising slavery because he abhorred cruelty to any creature." Philip Ball

Guardian (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"They marshal an admirable and exciting mass of research into Darwin family history and Darwin’s early life. … Although there are times where Desmond and Moore’s assiduity in finding side-references to slavery becomes somewhat oppressive, the authors do succeed in demonstrating the degree to which current events merged into Victorian scientific inquiry and inflected its findings." Gillian Beer

St. Louis Post-Dispatch3.5 of 5 Stars
"Darwin’s Sacred Cause is a fascinating book whether you buy its central thesis or not. … The book is less persuasive in arguing that these fervent beliefs were the strongest motivation in his search for the roots of mankind, stronger than the obsessive curiosity of a brilliant scientist in pursuit of a world-shaking truth." Harper Barnes

Critical Summary

Based on a painstaking study of Darwin’s private papers—correspondence, notebooks, journals, ship logs, and even scribbled remarks in the margins of books and pamphlets he had read—this compelling book endeavors to redeem and humanize the often misunderstood man. Critics uniformly praised Darwin’s Sacred Cause, describing it as thoroughly researched, absorbing, and even "thrilling" (Independent). Only a few had misgivings: some critics noticed that the authors gloss over evidence of prejudice—practically a hallmark of polite Victorian society—in Darwin’s writings, and others questioned the success of the authors in proving their claims. So was Darwin a benevolent humanitarian or an impartial scientist? Readers of this articulate and engrossing book will have to decide for themselves.