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Darwin's Sacred Cause

Adrian Desmond and James Moore
Allen Lane, 512pp, 9781846140358

Darwin's Sacred CauseIn one of the more remarkable moments in his A Dsevil's Chaplain: Selected essay, Richard Dawkins writes, 'If I am asked for a single phrase to characterise my role as Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, I think I would claim Advocate for Disinterested Truth.'

Putting aside the fact that not even Professor Dawkins' most ardent supporters could call him 'disinterested', the comment is interesting in the way it adheres to the discredited idea that science is some kind of disinterested discipline which interrogates reality unencumbered by any corrupting agenda.

Historians of science have long since shown this to be a pious fiction, and Adrian Desmond and James Moore have hammered yet another nail into its coffin in this detailed book.

Their fundamental idea is that Darwin's scientific achievements were powered by a moral engine - indeed a moral engine that was originally built, if not actually fuelled, by Christian conviction. Darwin's Christian faith was never deeply rooted and withered away early on, but his family's abolitionist commitment survived in him and, if anything, strengthened as the years passed. Neither the Darwins nor the Wedgwoods (his maternal clan) were orthodox believers but both families funded, admired and worked with the evangelical 'Saints' who fought against the slave trade with such vigour.

The young Darwin showed little moral fervour (about anything) but did spend many hours as a teenager in Edinburgh being taught taxidermy by a freed slave. The experience, coupled with the moral energy of his family and, subsequently, his fellow ordinands at Cambridge, appears to have left a deep mark on him.

Darwin's time on the Beagle deepened that mark, his experience of slavery in South America haunting him for years. Significantly, his account of the voyage describes slavery as a 'scandal to Christian Nations'. He became utterly convinced that the coloured man was indeed 'a man and a brother' (in the words of the famous Wedgwood medallion) and his life's work became to prove the fact.

The need to do so had became more pressing after slaves were finally emancipated throughout British territories in the 1830s. The energy was going out of abolitionism. Worse, the biblical story that had once powered it was gradually becoming discredited in thinking circles.

In its place there emerged a racial (pseudo-)science which 'proved' that, in the words of the Southern Quarterly Review, 'the highest grade of civilisation [the Negro] ever reaches is in a state of slavery'. The 'monogenesis' of Genesis no longer convinced. Scientific 'polygenesis' was all the rage.

Darwin could not accept this. 'Racial denigration symbolized by slavery provided an emotional powerhouse to drive him on'. His study of pigs, pigeons, and poultry - and virtually everything else -"'was motivated ultimately by a desire to show that 'the races were united by blood'.

This isn't quite as extraordinary a claim as it sounds. Desmond and Moore show that most people who wrote on these scientific subjects in the 1840s and 1850s had the question of human origins somewhere in the back of their mind.

Nor does it suggest that Darwin was prepared to sacrifice scientific truth for moral ends. He admitted in The Origin of Species that different breeds of dogs were probably descended from several, rather than one, wild species. A friend pointed out to him that that this was exactly what slave-owners wanted to hear, offering scientific succour for their racism. Darwin responded that although he would much prefer a single canine origin, the facts would not allow it.

In spite of his deep, humanitarian drive, and to their credit, Desmond and Moore do not deify Darwin. Indeed, they clearly show how 'by biologizing colonial eradication, Darwin was making racial extinction an inevitable evolutionary consequence'.

Darwin's science was becoming 'emotionally confused and ideologically messy', not least in his adherence to Thomas Malthus's idea that life was an inevitable conflict. He 'began to naturalise the genocide' of uncivilised races. 'It is very true what you say about the higher races of men, when high enough, replacing & clearing off the lower races. In 500 years how the Anglo-saxon race will have spread & exterminated whole nations,' he wrote to Charles Kingsley in 1862.

Closer to home, he believed that natural selection still worked on classes in society. 'The reckless, degraded, and often vicious members of society, tend to increase at a quicker rate than the provident and generally virtuous members,' he wrote in The Descent of Man, the book in which he finally went public with his ideas of human origins. Thus, 'the careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishman multiplies like rabbits [whilst] the frugal, foreseeing, self-respecting, ambitious Scot….marries late, and leaves few behind him'.
Darwin thus succumbed to the naturalist's most natural sin: biologising human nature, understanding and explaining it wholly in the (deterministic) terms of his own discipline. Those popular science books that claim to 'solve the mystery of our existence' remind us that it is a weakness shared by some of his most prominent modern disciples.

Darwin's Sacred Cause is not the book to read if you want to learn about Darwin's life. Many important events are passed over and it dwells in considerable detail simply on contextual issues (there are chapters that hardly mention Darwin). But for those who want some evidence to show that even the greatest scientists are not advocates for 'Disinterested Truth' it is an valuable resource.

Nick Spencer