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Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's View on Human Evolution (review)
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Just when we thought that surely everything possible had been said about the great man and his ideas in the 2009 Year of Darwin, Desmond and Moore once again offer us a novel perspective. As with their earlier Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (1994) and in their other works, these two exceptionally creative authors have teamed up to tantalize us with a compelling and readable story based in their meticulous engagement with archival sources.

The book's message is clear from the title. Though the fact has not been widely nor often enough discussed, the authors make the case that Darwin hated slavery and the cruelty that slavery often brought. Furthermore, Desmond and Moore argue, Darwin's views about slavery shaped his views about human evolution. What they offer in this book is a fascinating look at Darwin's ideas on slavery, plus glimpses of his ideas about human evolution. Yet they provide very little evidence that the first actually shaped the second in any very direct—or perhaps even in documentable indirect—ways. Thus, their thesis about the importance of Darwin's views on slavery is intriguing and worth presenting, yet in the end not persuasive.

Perhaps surprisingly, the fact that the argument is not persuasive and seems at time almost willfully to ignore alternatives does not dull the luster of the authors' accomplishment. For Desmond and Moore, once again, make us think. They ask old questions in new ways and offer new materials for us to consider. As always, the narrative is fascinating and the writing vibrant and compelling. Desmond and Moore make us want to know what Darwin thought about races of man and their relative hierarchical relationships, and in particular how we can piece together his attitudes from the many bits of evidence at hand, given that he did not leave one clear full statement. Of course it is intriguing to guess at intentions behind important ideas, as Desmond and Moore do here. They offer informed guesses that everyone interested in the history of ideas about human evolution should consider as part of the story.

The book is laid out in 13 chapters that introduce Darwin's views insofar as the evidence reveals them, but that more often interweave bits of Darwiniana with the ideas and events of the day. This all takes up many pages; so do discussions about the various views of races among animals and humans, including Darwin's and also those emerging from studies of ethnology and anthropology.

Desmond and Moore want to argue that this swirl of ideas substantively as well as psychologically shaped Darwin's views of the descent of man and of human variation. The authors give us a Darwin strongly committed to a view of life that should not sanction cruelty and unfair treatment of others, a Darwin supportive of anti-slavery political action, a Darwin horrified by the actions of some of his fellow men against others. This Darwin surely held ideas that could be seen as consistent with the origin of species by natural selection and the descent of man by common descent from a single lineage. Desmond and Moore provide us with a rich context in which evolution by natural selection could find a comfortable place, and they even make it seem likely that all these convictions for abolition of slavery were part of the background that shaped Darwin's views.

Yet there was more to Victorian society, as Desmond and Moore have themselves shown elsewhere. And there was much more to Darwin's own experiences than thinking about slavery and its social roles. Of course these two excellent historians know that perfectly well. They need nearly 500 pages just to make their case about this one factor's influence on Darwin's views; it would have been difficult to have tied thinking about slavery to the many other factors. The authors can be forgiven for focusing on one story and one set of emphases. Even though their argument is not ultimately persuasive, they present a story that is compelling in other ways, and they challenge us all to think differently about Darwin's works. Desmond and Moore might have achieved even more...



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