Charles Darwin, Cautious Advocate of Racial Equality and Human Rights

Charles Darwin has long been recognized as one of the world’s greatest scientists and the founder of scientific biology: at the same time, and for the same reason, he has been persistently attacked by religious conservatives for expelling the gods from the workings of nature. In recent times he has been further denounced for allegedly providing an intellectual justification for eugenics and the racist policies of the Nazis, and even accused of being some sort of white supremacist. In view of these charges, it is worth emphasizing an aspect of Darwin that is not so often discussed: his humanitarianism. Far from endorsing racial hierarchies, Darwin was a bitter opponent of slavery who hoped that his theory of human origins (common descent, one species) would lay a firm intellectual basis for the principle of racial equality.

In the early nineteenth century, the idea of evolution, implying the mutability of species rather than the fixity guaranteed by Holy Writ, was such a dangerous one that Darwin kept his thoughts on the question secret for twenty years. Evolution smacked of French materialism, a threat to the monarchy, the church and the entire social order. When the Origin of Species was eventually published in 1859 these fears were found to be justified, for the book was attacked by conservatives on precisely these grounds. The clergyman to whom the publisher, John Murray, sent the MS for an opinion described it as “a wild and foolish piece of imagination” and recommended that it be rejected. When Murray nonetheless went ahead, reviewers damned it for its “unflinching materialism,” its denial of divine creation and its alarming implications for man’s place in nature. Writing in the Quarterly Review, Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, presented what might be called the establishment critique: such notions as these, he warned, were “absolutely incompatible not only with single expressions in the word of God, but with the whole representation of that moral and spiritual condition of man.” Wilberforce emphasized the subversive character of Darwin’s argument by mocking his silence about his radical grandfather, Erasmus, and quoted a satirical passage in the ultra-Tory Anti-Jacobin magazine that attacked him for his own dangerously French evolutionary ideas.

It is not, therefore, a great surprise to find Darwin and the scientific biology he initiated being assailed from the Right. To this day, we see religious conservatives and fundamentalists, particularly among Muslims and some Christian sects, reviling his name and rejecting his teaching in the name of faith and revelation. But it does come as a bit of a shock, even in our topsy-turvy world of bizarre political alliances, to find Darwin attacked from what might broadly be called the Left. To be sure, as a wealthy English gentleman with a private income, he is highly vulnerable to the sneers of soapbox socialists (though Marx and Engels admired him), and particularly to the disapproval of contemporary academics anxious to prove their woke credentials by identifying with whatever oppressed Other happens to be the victim of the month. But it is an even greater shock to find Darwin accused of being a racist or even some variety of white supremacist, as alleged by A. N. Wilson in his recent biographical survey. According to Wilson, Darwin’s scientific efforts were little more than an attempt to justify the English class structure: in a typical flight of rhetoric he writes:

Darwin offered to the emergent Victorian middle class a consolation myth. He told them that all their getting and spending, all their neglect of their own poor huddled masses, all their greed and selfishness was in fact natural. It was the way things were. The whole of nature, arising from primeval slime and evolving through its various animal forms from amoebas to the higher primates, was on a journey of improvement, moving onwards and upwards, from barnacles to shrimps, from fish to fowl, from orang-utans to silk-hatted Members of Parliament and leaders of British Industry.

As Morten Høi Jensen comments in his review:

Wilson wants to persuade us that Darwin’s worldview was … blackened with the soot of Victorian iniquity, yet he does so by painting a picture … that is plainly a caricature. “The Malthus-Darwin picture of killer apes fighting their way to the top is simply untrue,” he writes. Well, of course it’s untrue: it doesn’t exist. No such picture is to be found anywhere in Darwin’s work.

It is true (and well known) that Darwin got the idea of the struggle for existence after reading Malthus’ work on population (as did Alfred Russell Wallace), but it does not follow that he was necessarily a Malthusian (whatever that is), and it is even less true that he was in favor of eugenics. (Since Darwin consistently deplored any form of birth control, it is difficult to see how this accusation could be made to stick.) Even more improbably, in Wilson’s jaundiced view, Darwin was a racist, even a white supremacist whose ideas led directly to—yes, you guessed it—Hitler and the Nazis. Referring to Darwin’s book on human origins, The Descent of Man, he writes:

For here in all its fullness is an exposition of his belief that in the survival of the fittest, by which he meant the white races of the globe in preference to the brown-skinned ones; and, among the white-skinned races, the supremacy of the British; among the British, the class to which Darwin happened himself to belong; and among that class, the Darwin family, and himself, in particular.

Wilson concludes his relentless prosecution with the claim that, “Darwin was a direct and disastrous influence, not only on Hitler, but on the whole mid-twentieth century political mindset.” This is the argument of, and nearly a direct quote from, Richard Weikart, a senior fellow with the creationist Discovery Institute, in his book From Darwin to Hitler (criticized here by Robert Richards).

These accusations are so far from the truth, and so contradicted by well-known or easily-found facts about Darwin’s life and opinions, that one is astonished that the publisher allowed them to pass. In reality, Darwin was a life-long critic of slavery in the southern United States and South America, and an advocate (in his own quiet, gentle way) for the principle of racial equality. He could easily have spent his life happily doing nothing more than describing the habits of pigeons, earthworms, barnacles and orchids; but, as James Moore and Adrian Desmond have argued, in a comprehensive study evidently overlooked by Wilson, he was driven to study human and animal origins and species transformation not merely by scientific curiosity, but also by a moral concern: his abhorrence of slavery. If he could demonstrate that all humans were members of the same species, descended from a single common ancestor, he could undermine the intellectual case for black inferiority and thereby assist the campaign to emancipate the slaves.

Wilson’s polemic has been rightly panned by all critics who know anything about the topic, but there is a curious, basic error in his earlier book on Victorian England that reveals something about the degree to which he had mastered his subject, and which (more significantly) raises interesting questions about Darwin’s own motivations and intentions. In his chapter on Darwin in The Victorians, Wilson writes that the Origin of Species was an expansion of several essays on evolution that Darwin had already written—which is exactly the wrong way round. In fact, the book was a radically condensed abstract of a much longer but unfinished work-in-progress on variation, transmutation and sexual (as well as natural and artificial) selection, which was to have included a chapter on the origin and descent of humans. Darwin had conceived this project soon after his return from his travels on the Beagle, but kept his thoughts hidden in private notebooks because he well knew how subversive they were. Premature exposure—before he had established his scientific credentials and amassed an incontrovertible mountain of evidence—would have been fatal to both the theory’s chances of acceptance and his own standing as a gentleman. The plan for a large book was derailed by the bombshell sent by Wallace, announcing a very similar theory of species transformation to the one on which Darwin had been sitting for years, and which threatened to deprive him of his originality.

The Political Context of Darwin’s Researches

These facts, as well as the solution arrived at, are well known to most educated people; but what is less well known—or which was less appreciated, until Moore and Desmond told the story in Darwin’s Sacred Cause—is that the political context for Darwin’s study of transmutation and his determination to find and prove a common origin for all life (and humans especially) was the then-raging debate over slavery and the status of the Negro and other colored races. It is well known that Darwin had always hated slavery, but Moore and Desmond go further and argue that he began work on his “big species book” because he wanted to combat the growing scientific orthodoxy that the various races of mankind were actually separate species, and by extension that there was a hierarchy of races (whites/Caucasians at the top, blacks/Negros at the bottom), thus giving the appearance of scientific legitimacy to the idea that slavery was natural and proper. Darwin was not going to take to the streets to demand justice and equal rights for black people, but he believed that if he could show that humans were all a single species, descended from a common ancestor, he could at least destroy the scientific justification for theories of black inferiority and for slavery as an institution, thus striking a blow for the cause of human equality and, by implication, human rights. In Moore and Desmond’s view, this ethical imperative lies behind many of Darwin’s maneuvers and equivocations, from the publication of the Origin of Species in 1859 to the moment when he reluctantly bit the bullet and published his thoughts on humans in The Descent of Man (1871). These considerations also help to explain the odd features and somewhat unsatisfactory character of that book.

The political context in which The Origin of Species and Darwin’s later books were written was the continued existence of slavery in the southern states of the United States and in South America. Whether humans were a single species, descended from a common ancestor, or several species, having different origins in different places and at different times, was a burning issue with vast implications for social morality and national policy. Within the scientific community, the two schools of thought on this question came to be known as the monogenists and the polygenists, and the struggle between them was one of the most bitterly fought scientific controversies of the century. The monogenists were the original orthodoxy, mostly British, closely associated with the campaign to abolish the slave trade, and supported by the authority of both Genesis and St Paul.

The influence of the monogenists declined as the century wore on, particularly as skepticism spread and the authority of the Bible was challenged by the higher criticism and by an advancing materialist outlook. By the 1850s, the polygenist faction, with its rejection of biblical narratives, was generally regarded as the more up to date and scientific position, and the monogenists were increasingly derided as sentimental humanitarians who could not accept the cold, hard facts about the inferiority of the colored races.  The hidden motivation behind Darwin’s quest to establish that life originated in a single common ancestor, and that variation into species arose through descent with modification, was his passionate revulsion from slavery and consequent desire to prove that all humans were a single species, descended from a common ancestor, modified by environmental pressures. As we shall see, the origins of the various breeds of pigeons, poultry and dogs was central to this debate, because whatever was shown to be the case with animals had obvious implications for humans.

Darwin’s Family Background

He might have been buried amid the odor of sanctity in Westminster Abbey, but Darwin’s childhood milieu was radical dissent. His grandfather Erasmus was a freethinker whose opinions and writings were, by the 1840s, as Victorian respectability solidified, regarded as dangerously libertine and unmentionable in polite society—the sort that reminded Lady Bracknell of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. His other grandfather, Josiah Wedgewood, founder of the famous pottery label, was a Unitarian at a time when denying the Trinity was a criminal offence. Both families were fervent opponents of the slave trade and generously supported the campaign for abolition. Darwin absorbed these humanitarian attitudes with his mother’s milk, but it was what he learned about the realities of slavery, in the course of his five-year voyage around South America on the Beagle (1831–36), that hardened his attitudes into active opposition and turned him into a lifelong champion of human equality. As he wrote in his account of that journey:

I thank God I shall never again visit a slave-country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house in Pernambuco [Brazil], I heard the most pitiable moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate … It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty.

At university in Edinburgh (studying medicine) and at Cambridge (learning to be a clergyman), Darwin was exposed to contrasting influences: radical materialism and the new “science” of phrenology in the first case, orthodox Christianity and the argument from design in the second. He came to reject most of this, particularly the claims of phrenology and craniology to gauge human intelligence and character by measuring skulls. For all his enthusiasm for collecting natural specimens, he never collected human skulls—unlike the polygenists and other scientific racists, who relied on them for evidence of superior white intelligence. As Moore and Desmond comment, “The young Darwin would have no truck with craniology, no sympathy with its emphasis on the separateness and ranking of races.” A friend from university days later recalled that Darwin had “the deepest sympathy” for suffering humanity: “It stirred one’s inmost depths of feeling to hear him descant upon and groan over the horrors of the slave trade.” Darwin was equally resistant to the new theories of racial hierarchy and cultural exclusivity that were emerging as part of the Romantic reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment. The anti-slavery atmosphere in which he had been reared, along with the religious tenets he had studied at Cambridge, disposed him to view the human races as siblings sharing a common parentage. “The metaphor in which he visualized these ideas at the beginning of his evolutionary journey was of a genealogical tree—many branches meeting in the past in a joint ancestor.” As early as 1838, in a secret notebook entry, Darwin referred to “our origin in one common ancestor [through whom] we may all be netted.”

Wedgewood Antislavery Medallion

Humans: One Species or Many?

The unitary origin of humans was taken for granted by the anti-slavery movement, based on the story told in Genesis and the words of St Paul: “He hath made of one blood all nations of men.” The scholarly version of this position was most elaborately set out by James Prichard, an abolitionist Quaker from Bristol, in Researches into the Physical History of Mankind (2nd edition 1826, and many later enlarged editions). By the 1830s, however, the Prichard/Christian view of a single origin was being undermined by accounts which proposed separate creations of the various races. This group, known at first as pluralists, argued that these had no common ancestor, but that each had been created (or had emerged) in its geographical home and could trace a separate bloodline back to the beginning. An early critic of Prichard, Charles Caldwell, argued in Thoughts on the Original Unity of the Human Race (1830) that the Genesis account should be rejected and human origins studied from a secular and strictly scientific perspective. At a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1841, he advanced the pluralist theory of human origins to support his contention that the Negro was a separate and inferior species, which was not capable of civilization and was therefore appropriately kept in slavery to those who were. As proof, he cited ancient Egyptian records, which depicted Ethiopians as looking exactly the same as they were in his own day, showing that they could not have evolved their physical characteristics in response to climate, as Prichard and the Unitarians contended. In the United States, the foremost pluralist was Samuel Morton, a fanatical collector and measurer of skulls, who became vice-president of the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1840. His argument for the separateness and inferiority of the Indian and Negro “species” was supported by information from George Gliddon, United States consul in Cairo, who confirmed Caldwell’s claim about the Egyptian records: tomb paintings showed that “the Caucasian and Negro races were as perfectly distinct in that country upwards of 3000 years ago as they are now.” Equally significantly and rather conveniently, even in those early days Negros were kept as slaves.

A further exponent of the pluralist thesis was Josiah Nott, a medical doctor from Alabama, who published many articles on the inferiority of colored races in southern journals. He agreed with Morton and Gliddon that the Egyptian evidence was definitive proof of the Negro’s separate creation, and cited Morton’s craniology as proof of their mental deficiency. By the late 1840s, therefore, it appeared that science was on the side of the pluralists because they were willing to discard the Genesis story and even question other aspects of biblical authority, such as the story of Noah’s flood and the short age of the earth. In his Natural History of the Human Species (1848) Hamilton Smith was daring enough to suggest that primitive humans had actually lived alongside mammoths and woolly rhinos. At the same time, he asserted that the various races had emerged as separate species in different places and at different times—whites, being the latest, were obviously the most advanced. The pluralist faction received a further boost when their case was endorsed by Louis Agassiz, Professor of Zoology at Harvard, and the most eminent American scientist at that time. He admitted to a visceral recoil from black people, denounced Unitarians as evolutionists and became an eloquent advocate of the separate species thesis, based on the hypothesis of eight primordial types, each created by God in its appropriate place. Unlike the more secular pluralists, Agassiz remained committed to a creationist concept of human (and all animal) origins and vehemently rejected the possibility of transmutation and Darwin’s theory of evolution.

The book that became the bible of the pluralists was Nott and Gliddon’s Types of Mankind (1854), a text whose iconoclastic rejection of biblical authority and masses of data on skull measurements seemed to put their case on a thoroughly rational basis. Even the young Thomas Huxley (not yet Darwin’s bulldog) was impressed by the argument about Negros not having changed in the 4000 years since their depiction in Egyptian tombs—a point that proved the permanence of species rather than the possibility of their transmutation. To his anti-religious mind, Types of Mankind came across as “advanced secular thought.” Nott and Gliddon published a further massive tome, Indigenous Races, in 1857, introducing the terms monogenist and polygenist, and containing fold-out maps purporting to illustrate the geographic spread of monkeys and the different species of humans that had supposedly evolved from them (delicate east Asians from gracile east Asian monkeys, thickset Africans from large apes etc). Unlike Agassiz, they were quite happy to have humans evolve from lower animals—but only on the basis that numerous different species evolved from different animal species in different places. When the polygenists found an instance of red ants capturing smaller black ants and keeping them as slaves, they delightedly hailed this as proof of the natural inferiority of the black races and thus the naturalness of slavery. What is interesting about this gambit is that this sort of extrapolation from animal behavior to human social arrangements is often called social Darwinism; but it was not Darwin who advanced the analogy, it was his opponents – the very people against whom he was directing his researches.

By the late 1850s, therefore, as Moore and Desmond explain:

Monogenism came to be tainted with the “religious dogma of mankind’s unity.” It was a morally worthless myth to which “a trembling orthodoxy clutches like sinking mariners  at their last plank.” … Modern science supported polygenesis, a dispassionate and fearless exegesis of the rocks and tombs which pointed to a separate black and white ancestry.

The theory of unitary origin was still supported by some, mainly British, authorities, such as W. B. Carpenter, eventually Professor of Physiology at University College London, and an ally of Darwin’s, but it was a rearguard action, running against the strengthening tide of the new scientific thought. Prichard and his followers were facing derision as sentimental do-gooders, rather than the sort of hard-headed anatomists demanded by the new age of data and steam.

Darwin’s Place in the Monogenist-Polygenist Controversy

Although they are now largely forgotten, these works of early anthropology constitute the intellectual context in which Darwin wrote The Origin of Species and subsequent works on variation and descent. Whether he named the authors or not, these were the arguments to which he was responding and which he sought to refute in the big book on species, with its intended chapter on man, that he was writing when interrupted by Wallace’s alarming letter. Shy, retiring, anxiety-prone and frequently ill, Darwin hated controversy and did not even appear at the meeting of the Linnaean Society at which extracts from his earlier sketches and Wallace’s letter were read. He was not going to risk his peace of mind and social standing by vulgar public brawling with over-confident Americans; but he recognized white supremacism (it was genuine white supremacism back then) when he saw it, and he was determined to oppose it. But it would not be a direct assault: he would outflank and defeat them with massive quantities of evidence drawn from detailed studies of other animals and plants, above all, humble, abundant and vastly variable pigeons.

Darwin knew about variability because he had spent eight years studying barnacles, thereby becoming the world expert on the subject and securely establishing his scientific credentials. Among the many useful things he learned in the course of these investigations  was that species were highly variable, a fact that led him to realize that many of the supposedly distinct species identified by the polygenists were often no more than variants within the same breeding group. Indeed, it was the inherent variability of species that made transmutation (descent with modification) by natural (or artificial) selection possible. Through his own breeding program, information from other breeders and study of old books on pigeon fancying, Darwin proved that, despite their multifarious appearances, all domestic pigeons were still a single species, descended from the common rock dove. This demonstration of the power of selection (in this case artificial rather than natural) over time had obvious implications for human evolution, and deeply impressed skeptics such as Huxley and the geologist Charles Lyell. A political side effect of the exercise was to undermine the theories of Morton, Nott, Gliddon and the other polygenists, for if unity of origin could be shown for pigeons there was good reason to suspect unity of origin in humans.

The book that really made Darwin famous had a similar effect. Although he left humans out of the Origin of Species (apart from one tantalizing reference) the implications of his argument were quickly appreciated. Picking these up, a reviewer in the Athenaeum condemned the book as so dangerous that circulation should be restricted to “Divinity Hall, the College, the Lecture Room and the Museum.” Captain Fitzroy wrote that he could not find “anything ennobling in the thought of being a descendent of even the most ancient Ape.” The British Quarterly entertained readers with a fantasy in which a monkey proposed to a dainty young lady in crinolines—“ a notion guaranteed to strike horror into the moral heart of Victorians,” as Janet Browne comments in her biography of Darwin; and which was surely intended to arouse fears of miscegenation and other sexual connections between black men and white women. In the United States the book was bitterly denounced by Agassiz and the polygenists, not merely because it threatened to eliminate the agency of a divine creator, but because it provided a scientific basis for the unitary origin case, and thus for the equality of the black and other colored races. The champions of the book were opponents of slavery such as Asa Gray, Professor of Botany at Harvard, by then Darwin’s most important American confidante and ally, and James Russell Lowell, who published Gray’s lengthy, laudatory review in the Atlantic Monthly. Both sides understood that the monogenist theory undermined and, if proved, demolished the case for polygenesis, and thus also the case for the genetic inferiority of Negros, along with the justification for keeping them as slaves.

The polygenists might have been down, but they were certainly not out. In the USA, they supported the Confederate side in the Civil War, and in Britain they regrouped in the Anthropological Society, a new organization formed in the early 1860s by polygenist rebels from the old Ethnological Society. (This had grown out of the Aboriginal Protection Society, established by humanitarians of Prichard’s stamp to try to save native races from extinction as European settlement advanced.) The Anthropological Society, by contrast, supported the South in the American Civil War and conducted propaganda in London, with a view to swinging British public opinion towards the Confederates. One of its leading figures was James Hunt, another medical doctor, who became chair of the anthropological section of the BAAS and attacked Darwin at a meeting of the association in August 1866. “Illogical darwinism,” he asserted, had misled men of science to the “inference of the original unity of the human species,” but “a more accurate scientific age” would reach the conclusion that “the polygenist hypothesis [was] the more probable.” He indicated the politics at stake in all this when he referred to his opponents as suffering from “the religious mania and the rights-of-man mania.”

Question of Human Origins Addressed At Last

It was this attack, combined with his outrage at the heavy-handed suppression of a riot in Jamaica by the governor, Edward John Eyre, that finally provoked Darwin into doing what he had been putting off for over twenty years: completing and publishing his book on man. The Eyre case was one of the great causes célèbres of the 1860s, particularly among British liberals, who wanted him held to account and punished for what they regarded as his brutal suppression and “judicial murder” of hundreds of black Jamaicans, including a mixed race magistrate, in the course of what he claimed was a violent rebellion. When a royal commission exonerated Eyre, Darwin joined J. S. Mill, Huxley and other prominent liberals in a campaign to launch a private prosecution for murder. He was extremely distressed to learn that his eldest son William had actually been among the guests at a banquet in support of Eyre (though William denied being there), and later when he made a tasteless joke about the anti-Eyre committee. As William himself recalled:

Two subjects which moved my father perhaps more deeply than any others were cruelty to animals & slavery—his detestation of both was intense, and his indignation was overwhelming in case of any levity or want of feeling on these matters. With respect to Governor Eyre’s conduct in Jamaica, he felt strongly that J. S. Mill was right in prosecuting him. I remember one evening at Uncle Eras’ we were talking on the subject, and as I happened to think it was too strong a measure to prosecute Governor Eyre for murder, I made some foolish remark about the prosecutors spending the surplus of the fund in a dinner. My father turned on me almost with fury and told me that if those were my feelings I had better go back to Southampton.

The outcome of these pressures was that Darwin finally revealed his cards and sat down to complete what was eventually published in 1871 as The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Along with The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868) and the Origin itself, this was really the third installment of the big species book on which he was working when Wallace’s bombshell forced him to change his plans. What drove Darwin to complete these labors, despite chronic ill-health and advancing age, was not ambition for scientific fame (as alleged by Wilson), but his determination to refute the polygenists and thus strike a blow for the principle of racial equality and the abolition of slavery. Without this political and moral context, many of Darwin’s efforts during these years can be only partially understood. As he wrote in The Descent:

All the races agree in so many unimportant details of structure and in so many mental peculiarities, that these can be accounted for only through inheritance from a common progenitor; and a progenitor thus characterised would probably have deserved to rank as man.

Not much was heard of polygenism after this, but since Darwin found this progenitor not in the Garden of Eden, but rather among the great apes of eastern Africa, a whole new series of conflicts with conventional religious belief lay ahead.

It is often said that Descent of Man was really two books—one on sexual selection and one on the origin of humans—and that neither was as inclusive, detailed or up to date as might have been expected. It is a somewhat awkward bundle, a situation partly explained by its long gestation, and partly by Darwin’s overall intentions. He sought to combine the two topics because he thought sexual selection was necessary in order to explain the different racial features that were not obviously explicable in terms of adaptation to the climate and other environmental influences, thus replying to the argument about the Egyptian tomb paintings. By the 1870s, this difficulty had been largely overcome because it had been recognized that both world and human history were far longer than the 6000 years or so allowed by traditional biblical chronology, and thus that there had been plenty of time for gradual modification by descent to have taken place. Nonetheless, there were differences between races that could not obviously be explained in adaptive terms, and in order to deal with these he brought in the agencies of male competition, female choice and questions of (subjective) aesthetic taste. Much of this was speculative, but it still laid the foundations for a science of cultural difference and in recent times has inspired the insights of evolutionary psychology.


You might wonder whether it is really necessary to bring up all these forgotten theories in our own modern, scientific age: surely nobody in these enlightened days still adheres to polygenist theories about separate racial creations or emergences.  Maybe not (though plenty of people say they believe in the story of the divine creation of man in the Garden of Eden), but it must be remembered that, at the time, these theories were not the speculations of cranks or the pieties of religious fundamentalists, but something close to scientific orthodoxy. The polygenists occupied key positions in the emerging scientific establishments and used their networks and political allies to advance their case. At one point, the Anthropological Society had over 500 members. In this situation, it was Darwin who was the outsider and potential crank, with few allies, and nobody who fully agreed with him, until the Origin had been considered and digested. A further reason to revisit the controversy is to disprove slurs such as Wilson’s claim that Hitler and the Nazis were Darwinians: on the contrary, as Coel Hellier demonstrates, Nazi ideology was avowedly creationist and polygenist, asserting that the Aryan race had been separately created as “God’s highest handiwork” and that the others (all separately created) were inferior or sub-human. Among the books burned in the great purge of 1933 were “writings of a philosophical and social nature whose content deals with the false scientific enlightenment of primitive Darwinism and Monism.”  If these vicious ideas have been discredited and disproved, it is Darwin’s work that can take much of the credit for this outcome.

It is probably true that—if Darwin’s conscience had not been exercised by emotional revulsion from slavery and he had confined himself to descriptive natural history—somebody else would have come up with a theory of species transformation by natural selection. Evolution (as the example of Wallace emphasizes) was an idea very much in the air in the early nineteenth century. Just as both Leibniz and Newton invented calculus in the late seventeenth century, and Robert Hooke came up with the inverse square rule as the key to gravitational force, somebody other than Darwin would eventually have made the theoretical breakthrough and done the research necessary to prove it. But in the real world it was Darwin who nailed it, laboring to produce the empirical evidence and formulating a workable (which is to say testable) theory. Darwin himself made no bones about the provisional nature of his case. As he wrote to Asa Gray:

Let me add that I fully admit that there are very many difficulties not satisfactorily explained by my theory of descent by modification, but I cannot possibly believe that a false theory would explain so many classes of facts as I think it certainly does explain. On these grounds I drop my anchor, and I believe that the difficulties will slowly disappear.

Although, as Darwin recognized, his own evidence for evolution, the origin of humans in central east Africa and sexual selection was suggestive rather than conclusive, later research has indeed revealed the mechanisms by which all these processes are possible and abundantly confirmed the prescience of his insights. Darwin has long been recognized as a great scientist; it is time to acknowledge that he was also a sincere humanitarian and an advocate of universal human rights.


In this essay, I have sought to summarize the argument of Darwin’s Sacred Cause, without any attempt to criticize it or assess its validity. In a fair-minded review of the book, the eminent Darwin scholar Robert Richards argues that the authors fail to make a convincing case as to Darwin’s motivations and, at best, produce only a suggestive hypothesis that his researches were driven by moral revulsion from slavery. There is no dispute about the basic facts: Darwin did produce a theory of species transmutation, and he did argue that humans are all one species, descended from a common ancestor. He also abhorred slavery. The question is the connection between these facts: did Darwin’s hatred of slavery motivate him to seek scientific support for the hypothesis of common origin? Richards argues that, although Moore and Desmond produce abundant evidence for each of the basic facts taken separately, they fail to establish the existence of a firm link between them, but have to rely on inference. It is just as likely, he suggests, that Darwin’s researches were motivated by “scientific ambition, the excitement of getting to the bottom of things” and “the desire for adventure and recognition that led him to leave England in the first place” and equally that his detestation of slavery was “simply that he thought the institution unmitigatedly cruel.” Even when people explain their motivations we cannot always be sure that they are their real motivations, and the problem of ascribing them is all the greater when people, as with Darwin, remain silent about them.

I am not an authority on Darwin, merely an informed fan, and will not try to pronounce judgment on this issue. Nonetheless, Darwin’s Sacred Cause is a fascinating and rewarding account, acknowledged by Richards as “a book of deep scholarship  which considerably expands our appreciation of Darwin’s accomplishment.” I would certainly not wish to be understood as arguing that Darwin’s theories are correct because they have desirable political or moral implications (in this case, the principle of racial equality, meaning that people of all races have the same potential for achievement). The facts of nature, as revealed by scientific investigation, along with the technologies based on them, are morally neutral; whether such knowledge and know-how are used for good or evil will be determined by the political values and ethical principles of the societies in which they are deployed. The corollary of this principle is that, even if Darwin’s theories had inspired the Nazis this would not in any way invalidate them as science—though the association would obviously discredit them and make many people inclined to reject them. It is precisely for this reason that most claims for the Darwin–Hitler axis are generated by religiously motivated creationists, who don’t really care much about the Nazis, but who are really anxious to refute, or at least discredit, Darwinism. The irony here, as the links provided and Richards’ brilliant essay convincingly demonstrate, is that the Nazis rejected Darwinism in favor of creationism and immutability with just as much fervor as the creationists who try to pull the guilt-by-association trick. It would seem that this particular tactic can backfire.

My final thought is that, while Darwin’s researches were probably driven primarily by scientific curiosity and the desire to unlock “the mystery of mysteries,” the reflection that he could also make a contribution to the cause of anti-slavery might well have inspired and sustained him in those dark moments when anxiety and ill-health made him wonder whether his research program was worth the effort and the pain.


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1 comment

  1. This essay/article is superb in the truth and fairness regarding a remarkable human being who is deserving of respect for what he sought to accomplish in abolishing slavery: Charles Darwin.

    Darwin’s findings continue to be maligned and misunderstood by creationists. The Bible, by God’s own instructions (written by ancient men, of course) explains how to manage slaves.

    The first universities were built and supervised by religious foundations who to this day champion antiquated creationist dogma over current scientific knowledge.

    There’s a vast difference between religious dogma and science. Religion has quick answers based on blind faith, whereas today’s science demands many avenues of research finding before becoming valid.

    The article is truthful about early science practitioner’s limited research protocols. There’s a history lesson there concerning early science’s mistakes done by mere mortals. Yet, science admits errors, demands empirical study/results but religions never do, never will based on the belief of an omnipotent god. If you’ve read, studied the Bible/New Testament didn’t you ask why a kind of all-knowing god would advocate, give instruction on slavery?

    Charles Darwin’s initial studies received further research scrutiny which have since unequivocally affirmed the origins of man, inspired by his repugnance of slavery. Darwin’s findings remain a threat to this day to religious beliefs. Religions have and will eventually concede to scientific findings to keep remaining relevant.

    Great article. Thank you, Robert Darby.

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