How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution
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Co-authors of the massive Darwin (1992) offer a new take on the impetus for his theory of evolution: It was “moral passion,” rather than the force of observed, recorded and analyzed facts, that fired his work.

Darwin grew up in an abolitionist culture, Desmond and Moore demonstrate. Both of his grandfathers, Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin, were ardent supporters of the antislavery movement, and his older sisters firmly instilled its message in him. Add to this the impact of his teenage apprenticeship in taxidermy to a freed slave, “a very pleasant and intelligent man,” and his shocking encounters with the brutality of human bondage during his years on board the Beagle. Drawing heavily on unpublished correspondence and Darwin’s notes about and early drafts of On the Origin of Species, the authors argue that it was abhorrence of slavery that led this country gentleman to risk his reputation in a conservative society by linking all races to a common, more primitive ancestor. They show Darwin working out his theory of sexual selection as the means by which human races became differentiated. In recounting the development of his theories, and his reservations about presenting them and exposing himself to society’s wrath, the authors supplement the history of science with the history of slavery and racism in the 19th century. They cite and quote from the work of James Cowles Prichard, John Bachman, Sir Charles Lyell, Asa Gray and Louis Agassiz, among others. Modern readers may be startled by Victorians’ openly racist language and the general assumption—among men of science as well as religious figures and political leaders—that whites, especially Englishmen, were superior. Championing the abolition of slavery did not mean accepting blacks as intellectual or cultural equals, and Darwin was apparently no exception to this general rule.

Stimulating, in-depth picture of 19th-century scientific thinking and racial attitudes.

Pub Date: Jan. 28th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-547-05526-8
Page count: 456pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2008


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