Thursday, May 13, 2010

Darwin's Theory of Evolution: Weapon against slavery?


What drove Charles Darwin to his extraordinary ideas on evolution and human origins? Adrian Desmond, with co-author James Moore, argue in a new book that the great scientist had a "sacred cause": the abolition of slavery.

"It makes one's blood boil," said Charles Darwin.

Not much outraged the gentle recluse, but the horrors of slavery could cost him a night's sleep.

He was thinking of the whipped house boy and the thumbscrews used by old ladies in South America, atrocities he had witnessed on the Beagle voyage

The screams stayed with him for life, but how much did they influence his life's work? [...]


  1. Darwin was certainly an abolitionist. As an Englishman, this is to be expected. Abolition was the law of the land in Great Britain (the slave trade had been outlawed in Great Britain before Darwin was even born, and slavery was entirely outlawed when he was still a young teenager).

    It is possible that Darwin's work was, in some way, partially motivated by his anti-slavery views. He may have been pleased to provide a scientific counter-argument to those secular academics who believed that the different human races had completely separate origins, based upon a pre-Darwinian version of evolution. Darwin's version of evolution disagreed with this approach.

    It is, however, unlikely that this was a major motivation on his part. The main argument against slavery was religious, based upon humanity's common ancestry from Adam and their shared creation in the image of God. Far from helping the abolitionist cause, Darwinism actually undermined this argument. While some extreme racists may have been offended by the idea that the "white" races might share any kind of ancestry with "black" people, Darwinism still allowed plenty of room for scientific arguments in favor of racism.

    As an aside, the connection between racism and slavery was a very late development. For most of history, slavery was ubiquitous, and needed no justification on racial grounds. Indeed, in many (possibly most) slave societies, such as ancient Greece, the slaves were of the same racial and ethnic background as the slave-owners.

    It was only after Europeans became morally uncomfortable with slavery that racism was used (and, for the most part, invented) to justify it. This was only possible because, at that point in time, European countries no longer permitted their citizens to be enslaved (again, largely for religious reasons - the idea of fellow Christians being enslaved was seen as morally unacceptable), and slaves were only available for purchase in Africa.

    Contrary to popular perception, racism was not the cause of slavery but the product of the growing opposition to it.

  2. The BBC articles continues to say, "...Darwin's unique approach to evolution - relating all races and species by "common descent" - could have been fostered by his anti-slavery beliefs."

    Various Christian groups quoting different parts of the Torah was a central feature of the debates regarding abolition of slavery in England and the US. I felt it rather unfair (though not surprising) that the BBC article neglected to mention that the idea of the common origin, and thus the shared nobility, of all humanity was not a completely new idea, but is one that is resident in the Torah.

    I just came across a passage from "Israel and Humanity" by R' Elijah Benamozegh (1822-1900, Italy), which I think expresses this idea particularly well (although it does not directly address slavery).

    "Men everywhere, impelled as much by ignorance as by pride, have attempted to trace their ancestry all the way back to our primal parents, while denying other peoples this same distinction of origin. If generous, they may permit these less favored groups to be mentioned in an appendix to their own history, where they themselves appear as the principal race of men. The foreigner or barbarian is thus presented as an inferior being whose nature remains coarse an whose development is incomplete. In refusing him the honor of common origin, we justify fighting with him, despoiling him, even killing him, as soon as our interest requires it. So it was in ancient times; so it is today, even among peoples who nevertheless pride themselves on their civilization.

    The ethnology of the Jews rested on more liberal ideas, and their holy books are as interested in the ancestral origins of the other peoples as of Israel itself. To be sure, their Bible is intended especially for Jews, and except for a certain period of the early history of mankind, it neglects the other peoples in order to focus upon Israel. But it is also true that in its first chapters it sketches an outline of human history, before and after the Flood, which is so disinterested that it embraces all the peoples of the earth in a spirit of absolute equality. But even in in its various parts which deal with Israelite history it is not unusual to meet with small digressions about some pagan people which show that for the biblical authors, there was no inclination to ascribe a contemptible origin to foreigners. Israel is so far from having been indifferent to the origin of the Gentiles, and to their historical development, that it can be said ... than in reading through her history, we find not only the story of a single people but that of the entire human species.

    In declaring that all mankind shared an original unity, Hebraism's conception of man rose to a lofty height. It put man on the very throne of God..."

    - (Part II, Chapter 1: The Origin of Mankind)


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