Evolution and Emancipation
February 8, 2009 8:31 PM   Subscribe

Darwin the abolitionist. "The theory of evolution is regarded as a triumph of disinterested scientific reason. Yet, on the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species, new research reveals that Darwin was driven to the idea of common descent by a great moral cause." [Via]
posted by homunculus (24 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yes as an esteemed scientific historian I shall take as confirming evidence Darwin's complete lack of any mention of slavery that it was the guiding light to his theories. My next book shall be about Einstein's theory of general relativity and its genesis in his vehement moral opposition to off-shore drilling.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 9:14 PM on February 8, 2009


I'm totally down with Darwin as abolitionist, but I don't see why they have to package it in anti-science rhetoric. "You thought natural selection was a triumph of reason, but really it was all about ONE MAN'S PASSION-STERS OMG"
posted by grobstein at 9:40 PM on February 8, 2009


Creationists often try to portray Darwin as a racist, but they don't really have much to go on, although they did find one quote. I didn't know that common decent was a common belief among abolitionists during Darwin's time.

Yes as an esteemed scientific historian I shall take as confirming evidence Darwin's complete lack of any mention of slavery

Here's at least one section on slavery from Decent of man that I found
The following case, though relating to savages, is well worth giving for its curiosity. Mr. Winwood Reade informs me that the Jollofs, a tribe of negroes on the west coast of Africa, "are remarkable for their uniformly fine appearance." A friend of his asked one of these men, "How is it that every one whom I meet is so fine looking, not only your men but your women?" The Jollof answered, "It is very easily explained: it has always been our custom to pick out our worst-looking slaves and to sell them." It need hardly be added that with all savages, female slaves serve as concubines. That this negro should have attributed, whether rightly or wrongly, the fine appearance of his tribe to the long-continued elimination of the ugly women is not so surprising as it may at first appear; for I have elsewhere shewn* that negroes fully appreciate the importance of selection in the breeding of their domestic animals, and I could give from Mr. Reade additional evidence on this head.
And from the article:
With a Wedgwood wife and mother, Darwin saw abolition as a "sacred cause" too, and in his culminating work, the Descent of Man (1871), he placed Clarkson at the moral apex of humanity and called slavery a "great sin".

posted by delmoi at 9:45 PM on February 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


Here's another mention in Decent of man
It has been urged by several writers that as high intellectual powers are advantageous to a nation, the old Greeks, who stood some grades higher in intellect than any race that has ever existed,* ought, if the power of natural selection were real, to have risen still higher in the scale, increased in number, and stocked the whole of Europe. Here we have the tacit assumption, so often made with respect to corporeal structures, that there is some innate tendency towards continued development in mind and body. But development of all kinds depends on many concurrent favourable circumstances. Natural selection acts only tentatively. Individuals and races may have acquired certain indisputable advantages, and yet have perished from failing in other characters. The Greeks may have retrograded from a want of coherence between the many small states, from the small size of their whole country, from the practice of slavery, or from extreme sensuality; for they did not succumb until "they were enervated and corrupt to the very core."*(2) The western nations of Europe, who now so immeasurably surpass their former savage progenitors, and stand at the summit of civilisation, owe little or none of their superiority to direct inheritance from the old Greeks, though they owe much to the written works of that wonderful people.
He mentions slavery in passing quite a few times. He seems to be more bothered by women being treated as slaves then slavery itself.
posted by delmoi at 9:54 PM on February 8, 2009


Um, what? By the time Darwin was writing the Origin of Species, slavery had been abolished in Britain for over 30 years, and the slave trade for 50. It's no surprise he found it revolting.

This is basically like pointing to a scientist in the 1980s and oohing and aahing that he was opposed to segregation. The fact that the United States had a wildly anachronistic stance on slavery doesn't make everyone else's opposition to it in any way remarkable.
posted by nasreddin at 10:55 PM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Or, I should say, had published the Origin.

Yes, the article talks about retreats from abolitionist euphoria in the 1840s, but that's hardly comparable to actual support for slavery. There were racist backlashes against Brown in the '80s, but that doesn't mean resegregation was a real possibility.
posted by nasreddin at 11:04 PM on February 8, 2009


Saudi Arabia didn't outlaw slavery until 1962.
posted by delmoi at 11:36 PM on February 8, 2009


I was just at an exhibit about Darwin's voyage on the Beagle at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. Apparently Darwin almost left the voyage early on because he had such a serious argument with the captain over slavery when the ship was in Brazil. The captain said, over dinner or something, that he thought the slaves in Brazil were "happy," and Darwin couldn't contain his disagreement. The fight was bad enough that he prepared to leave the ship, but Captain FitzRoy apologized before that happened.

So, yes, Darwin hated slavery. But to say that that is what led him to develop his theory is to do a huge disservice to one of history's greatest scientists. Darwin spent years painstakingly observing and cataloging the plants and animals he encountered, then years more thinking about and developing his theory. The idea that this was politically motivated cheapens the scientific achievement. Maybe that's the way these authors do their science - decide what results accord with their political beliefs then set out to find the evidence for it; that's certainly the way many people seem to approach science. But it's not the way Darwin did.
posted by Dasein at 12:22 AM on February 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


Darwin's complete lack of any mention of slavery

You haven't read "The Voyage of the Beagle", have you? Not only does Darwin mention slavery, he's also quite emphatic about what he thinks of it.

In fact, far from being a racist (which was pretty much the default mindset at the time), Darwin comes across as a surprisingly sympathetic and "modern" person in his dealings with people of other races.

That he saw his theory with some satisfaction as supporting "common origin", and thus debunking much racist bullshit of his time, isn't exactly breaking news either, and I don't see how it detracts from its scientific rigour. On the contrary, it shows, besides the ground-breaking scientist, the concerned philosopher and human.
posted by Skeptic at 3:01 AM on February 9, 2009


Darwin was driven to the idea of common descent by a great moral cause.

I doubt this. The moral implication could have driven him to developing the idea, or (finally) writing it down or defending it more tenaciously. But history clearly shows that he was driven to the IDEA by the evidence along with his experience in breeding, e.g., pigeons.
posted by DU at 4:24 AM on February 9, 2009


I read an extensive biography of Darwin about 8 years ago. I can't remember the author, but a lot of it related to the context and philosophy of the times. The radical element to The Origin of the Species wasn't the conflict with religion, it was the conflict with politics. His theories promoted a meritocracy when kings and potencies insisted they had been granted their posts much like the way God created other species.
Survival of the fittest (a phrase Darwin didn't himself use) was not about survival of the most brutal. It was about the most competent predominating. And yes this is anti-slavery because the hierarchies of humans were based on contrivances such as "the sin of Ham."
Religion was attacked only indirectly. It (should be) a minor matter to religion how speciation occurs, and Darwin couldn't begin to describe how life assembled from non-life. Darwin didn't put God the creator out of work. But he did attack the concept of Jesus as "King of Kings" and "Lord of Lords."
Ironically, the Church with the most hierarchy, the Catholic Church, had the least problem with Darwin.
Modern religions that entwine God and nationalism would be the enemies of Darwin. Today they insist on war as being part of the package of "God and country." Yesterday it was slavery.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 4:57 AM on February 9, 2009


It's a little-known fact that Newton was actually trying to call attention to the damage done by apple maggot infestations.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:28 AM on February 9, 2009


This is basically like pointing to a scientist in the 1980s and oohing and aahing that he was opposed to segregation.

This isn't really accurate. You need to add that a very large portion of the population believes that the scientist personally caused segregation.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:45 AM on February 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I wish we could do away with the Cult of Darwin. Science is the collective work of mankind, gradual and inexorable. It's not built by lone geniuses in isolation. Elevating one person above their contemporaries and colleagues in such a way is, well, unscientific. It also smacks of religious idolatry. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's pretty hypocritical coming from those who claim themselves as champions in some imaginary* fight between science and religion.

* HINT: it's really just dogma vs. dogma; nothing to do with either scientific or spiritual exploration.
posted by Eideteker at 7:28 AM on February 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


You do Darwin a disservice if you suggest his theories were motivated by anything but the pursuit of truth.

Moreover, pointing out that humans are in fact animals is logically more likely to bolster the moral case for treating them like animals, ie as slaves, than the reverse.

Thirdly, Darwin's most famous opponent, 'Soapy Sam' Wilberforce, was the son of the legendary anti-slaver William Wilberforce.

In short, bollocks.
posted by Phanx at 7:30 AM on February 9, 2009


The good thing about science is that it doesn't really matter if one person is or is not on a moral mission because we continuously double check and retry past studies and theories.
posted by Knigel at 8:40 AM on February 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I wish we could do away with the Cult of Darwin... ...it's pretty hypocritical coming from those who claim themselves as champions in some imaginary* fight between science and religion.

Umm... what cult? What champions?

Darwin is a famous scientist because of his rigor as a naturalist, lucidity as one of the first evolutionary theorists, and persuasiveness as a writer. He's much admired, because there is much to admire, same as we admire Einstein, Hubble and Newton.

We're more than a hundred years beyond Origin of Species, and the science clearly shows he was wrong or hazy about many details... but that's science. Einstein, Hubble and Newton have all had their most famous breakthroughs revised and corrected by scientific progress.

I don't think anyone believes the ideas of Darwin are sacrosanct and perfect through all eternity, worshiped by scientists as a god-replacement... except for creationists trying to conjure up a strawman.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:04 AM on February 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is an effort--part of our unending effort--to construct a useable past. We need our historical heroes to hew to our values, whether they did or not. If they aren't remade in this way, then they become inconvenient.

A good example is how we talk about Lincoln. "Lincoln fought the war to liberate the slaves..." Well, sort of. "Lincoln believed all men were created equal..." Well, maybe. "The Civil War was inevitable as it was the only way to end slavery..." If you say so. "And of course the sacrifice of 600,000 lives was worth it..." Of course it was.

We've re-made Lincoln in our image, so why not Darwin?
posted by MarshallPoe at 10:04 AM on February 9, 2009


How Lincoln and Darwin Shaped the Modern World
posted by homunculus at 10:15 AM on February 9, 2009


Moreover, pointing out that humans are in fact animals is logically more likely to bolster the moral case for treating them like animals, ie as slaves, than the reverse.

I think it's more likely to bolster the moral case for not mistreating animals.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:30 AM on February 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


You're an optimist about human nature, PG (and good for you).
posted by Phanx at 6:11 AM on February 10, 2009


Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live, NY Times Essay
posted by Eideteker at 2:17 PM on February 10, 2009


PZ Meyers responds.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:45 PM on February 10, 2009


Reinventing Darwin: Quotable things he never said
posted by homunculus at 1:19 PM on February 11, 2009


« Older Radical Graphics...  |  "For the first time in history... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments