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Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins Paperback – 7 Jan 2010
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About the Author
Adrian Desmond has written seven other books on evolution and Victorian science, including an acclaimed biography, Huxley. An Honorary Research Fellow in the Biology Department at University College London, he is editing (with Angela Darwin) The T. H. Huxley Family Correspondence.
James Moore's books include The Post-Darwinian Controversies and The Darwin Legend. He is Professor of the History of Science at the Open University and currently researching the life of Alfred Russel Wallace.
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Charles Darwin was very strongly opposed to slavery, and he argued, quite rightly, that all human beings are of one species with a common ancestry. He was very critical of the mistaken theory that the different "races" of humans came into existence separately as separate species.
What Desmond and Moore claim is that Darwin's theory of common HUMAN origins inspired the development of his view that ALL LIFE is related by common descent through evolution. The "sacred cause" of opposition to slavery inspired Darwin's science.
But in his autobiography, which was initially written for private, family consumption, Darwin nowhere says anything about his anti-slavery views influencing his evolutionary theories. In fact Darwin explicity says that it was the distribution of fossil and living species which he encountered on the Beagle voyage that first got him seriously thinking about evolution. (Though I suppose that Desmond and Moore would say there was an underlying, unstated influence.)
There is also the fact that even if Darwin's anti-slavery views influenced his theory of the common origins of all life, it certainly was not a factor in inspiring him to come up with his theory of natural selection as the mechanism for evolution. It was natural selection that was Darwin's most important idea, and both he and, later, Wallace were inspired to come up with the theory by reading Malthus on population. (It is ironic that Malthus could be so reactionary and wrong about human population and society, and yet inspire a correct theory of natural selection.)
I find it quite plausible that Darwin's anti-slavery views were ONE influence on his evolutionary theory of life's common ancestry. But Desmond and Moore are overstating their case when they argue that it was THE influence on his theory.
In their earlier biography Desmond and Moore did a wonderful job of putting Darwin in the context of Victorian society. In this book they have homed in on one aspect of Darwin's social and political world, made a lens out of it, and then looked at everything through that lens, thus giving a distorted picture of a more complex reality.
This book is certainly worth reading - but with a critical eye. And for an alternative view of how Darwin's ideas developed, I recommend Niles Eldredge's book, "Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life".
But what should have been a good book is let down by appalling writing. The florid, frequently pretentious prose clogs up the narrative and makes the development of events difficult to follow. It is as if the authors are consciously attempting to mimic the purple prose of Victorian writing. The actual thesis, while convincing enough, does not merit a very long book. One gets the impression that the book is padded out to spin it out. The overall effect is to make for quite a stodgy read. After the description of the formative experiences of Darwin's epic voyage on HMS Beagle, the narrative pace begins to slacken and does not recover. The book became a chore to read and it was a relief to finish it. That's not a great way to feel after one has finished reading a book, especially if one is in great sympathy with the arguments the authors make. This disappointment is felt even more greatly because both authors have previously teamed up to produce an excellent (and very well written) biography of Darwin. One expected better.
Despite the interesting subject matter, I felt let down by the book's dreadful writing style and would not recommend it.
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