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Darwin and Slavery

kcofrinsha's picture

Keely Cofrin-Shaw

February 13, 2009

On Charles Darwin and Slavery


     With the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth upon us, many articles and books about Darwin have recently been published.  One common question is the origin of Darwin's ideas.  Was Darwin a foundationalist or a non-foundationalist?  Did Darwin's theory or evidence come first? Both the New York Times and BBC News featured reviews of the new book Darwin's Sacred Cause by Adrian Desmond and JamesMoore, which argues that Darwin's ideas stemmed from his hatred of slavery.  Although many people have opinions, the process through which Darwin came to his famous theory of evolution will never be completely understood because Darwin is not alive to explain his thinking to us.  The two book reviews set forth compelling evidence that Darwin's ideas were formed based on his opposition to slavery. However, I wonder about the holes in the argument set forth by these two book reviews.

     Both the New York Times and the BBC News book reviews of Darwin's Sacred Cause point out the strong links between Darwin and the abolitionist movement.  Darwin wrote in his diary that he was horrified by the brutal slavery he witnessed in South America (Benfey).  Darwin's grandfathers were both well-known abolitionists.  One of Darwin's grandfathers, Josiah Wedgwood, created a medallion with the now familiar image of a kneeling slave and the words "Am I not a Man and a Brother?" above him (Benfey). As a teenager, Darwin became good friends with a freed slave("Darwin's Twin Track: 'Evolution and Emancipation'").  He described his friend as "'a very pleasant and intelligent man'" (Benfey).  The evidence that Darwin opposed slavery is very strong, however, his opposition to slavery does not necessarily prove that he created his theory to support his abolitionist views. 

     In the view set forth by the book reviews, Darwin came up with a theory of common descent and just happened to find evidence that supported his theory.  In the New York Times review Benfey asks this question, "But what if Darwin's evidence had led to conclusions that did not support his belief in the unitary origins of mankind? Would he have fudged the data?"  Benfey did not find the answer to this question in Darwin's Sacred Cause and was "left with the impression that Darwin was amazingly lucky that his benevolent preconceptions turned out to fit the facts".  I find the idea that Darwin came up with this revolutionary theory and then was able to find strong evidence that supported his theory in the Galapagos hard to believe.  Did Darwin set out on his journey wanting to find proof of common descent? I would be hard pressed to believe that he did; however, the BBC News review presents this issue in a different light.  This review presents Darwin's theory of evolution as related to his opposition to slavery, but not necessarily foundationalist.  The BBC review emphasizes the dual observations of slavery and nature that Darwin made while aboard the Beagle.  The review concludes that Darwin's theory was probably formed "on his arrival home" but was influenced both by the animals he witnessed and the screams of slaves being tortured that he heard.  The BBC review resolves the inconsistency pointed out by the New York Times review, however, other inconsistencies not addressed by the reviews seem to exist.

     Darwin was not in a hurry to publish his findings.  I think that if Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species as an argument against slavery he would have wanted to publish it as soon aspossible.  Darwin knew that every day new children were being born into slavery all around the world.  Why would Darwin keep his book a secret for so long if he wanted to use it to make an argument against slavery?  Darwin knew that many of his colleagues disapproved of previous theories about evolution.  According to the BBC News article one "naturalist called it 'abominable trash vomited' out by revolutionaries."  In such a hostile environment Darwin may have reconsidered the risk he was taking by publishing a theory that was likely to attract a lot of criticism. However, Darwin saw slaves being tortured in South America ("Darwin's Twin Track: 'Evolution and Emancipation'").  I think that if he wanted to use hisbook to argue against the slavery he witnessed he would have published his book much sooner.

     The language Darwin uses in On the Origin of Species is not revolutionary.  His language does not give the impression of a man trying to put forth his theory to fight against injustice.  I am not sure if Darwin's language is discussed in Darwin's Sacred Cause but his language is not discussed in either review.  Darwin is constantly apologizing for not providing more evidence and admitting that there is much he does not know.  Near the end of his introduction he states that there is "much remaining as yet unexplained in regard to the origin of species and varieties" (98).  Darwin does not claim to know everything or to be right about everything.  He does not seem to be trying to convince his reader to agree with him.  Rather, he presents his data and allows his reader to agree or disagree.  If Darwin were trying to convince readers that humans have common ancestors and thus should not enslave each other he would use persuasive language.  The passion for the abolitionist cause that is discussed by these two book reviews seems to be missing from On the Origin of Species. 

     I believe that Darwin detested the slavery that he witnessed in SouthAmerica.  However, I am not convinced that he wrote his most famous book as a response to that slavery.  If Darwin was inspired by his abolitionist leanings then I believe this inspiration came in combination withthe evidence he found while aboard the Beagle.  I find the idea that he came up with his theory before he went to the Galapagos, and before he saw the slaves in South America, farfetched.  How could he have come up with a revolutionary theory before finding any evidence?  There is no way to know for certain Darwin's thought process.  All we can do is consider the evidence put forth by his words and weigh the possibilities.     















Works Cited

Benfey, Christopher. "Charles Darwin,Abolitionist." The New York Times. Updated

1 February 2009.<


Cited 11 February 2009.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. Ed. JosephCarroll. Toronto: Broadview

Press, 2003. 

"Darwin's Twin Track: 'Evolution andEmancipation'." BBC News. Updated 29 January

2009. <>. Cited 11 February2009.



Anne Dalke's picture

Darwin's Sacred Cause

We discussed the NYTimes review of Darwin’s Sacred Cause in class last week. The point of that discussion was the contrast between the widespread view of Darwin as empiricist and the story, told in both the reviews you discuss, that he started, instead, with an abolitionist’s fervent belief in blood kinship. The point here is that these are not only two different stories, but two different KINDS of stories: one bottom-up, one top-down; one “emergent,” one “foundational” (i.e.: Darwin either started with data, and built up a theory from there, OR he started w/ a theory about kinship, and then found evidence to support it).

I take both your points that, if Darwin were impelled by outrage about slavery, he would have hurried his book into print, and he would also have used more passionate, revolutionary language, which foregrounded questions of social justice. But I’m not sure that I agree with your suggestions that, were Darwin alive, we could “completely understand” the process through which he came to his famous theory.

I wonder: do we really know, ourselves, the processes whereby we work? Can we be trusted to give an accurate account of those processes? Do we really understand ourselves, our motives and behavior, better than those who study us from the outside?

(And if not☺ how then arrive @ an answer to the questions you pose here?