Darwin's Anti-Slavery Views May Have Guided His Theory of Evolution

By Eliza Strickland | January 29, 2009 2:16 pm

Wedgwood medallionCharles Darwin‘s theory of evolution may have been shaped by his abhorrence of slavery as much as by his keen observations of Galapagos finches, a new book argues. Darwin’s Sacred Cause, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, notes that slavery propaganda of the time often claimed that different races belonged to different species, a notion that Darwin’s work obliterated. The book suggests that Darwin’s unique approach to evolution – relating all races and species by “common descent” – could have been fostered by his anti-slavery beliefs [BBC News]. Published to coincide with Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of his publication of On the Origin of Species this year, the book is likely to stir up a new debate over Darwin’s motives.

Many members of Darwin’s extended family were deeply devoted to the abolitionist cause, including his grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, who founded a chinaware company and produced cameos distributed by anti-slavery campaigners; the medallions bore the legend “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” Darwin’s mother and wife were Wedgwoods and anti-slavery was what Darwin called a “sacred cause”. He was taught to see the oppressed black as a “brother”. This explains why, when he went to Edinburgh University at 16, he could apprentice himself to a freed Guyanese slave to learn the art of bird preservation without thinking it [beneath his dignity] [Times Online]. Darwin later described that former slave as one of his intimate friends.

During the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin saw scenes of slavery in South America that horrified him. He saw the aftermath of slave revolts and the instruments of torture, and heard of a planter who threatened to sell the children of recalcitrant slaves. “It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble,” he wrote [Times Online]. Of course, that was also the voyage when Darwin tromped over the Galapagos Islands noting the differences between the beaks of finches and shells of tortoises that lived on different islands. After returning from his journey, he began working on his theory that all animals evolve from common ancestors through the process of natural selection.

The authors of the new book say they aren’t disputing that the scientific observations he made in the Galapagos were crucial to Darwin’s thinking, but they argue that his political views must have shaped the way he saw the world, and allowed him to put the pieces together. “There’s got to be reasons why he came to common descent images of evolution when there was no precedent for that in the zoological science of his day,” Desmond [said]. “It comes out of anti-slavery” [Reuters].

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Image: Library of Congress

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Living World
  • Philip Ritter

    Ironically one of the strongest early proponents of the theory of the common origin of all human races prior to Darwin, the Rev. John Bachman, was a supported of slavery. Bachman came to his conclusions as a result of his naturalist studies (he wrote the text and edited Audubon’s book on the mammals of North America as well as helped with Audubon’s Bird’s of North America. Bachman wrote a book, The Doctrine of the Unity of the Human Race Examined on the Principles of Science in 1850, which put him at odds with major scientists of his day (especially Louis Agassiz). Although Bachman welcomed black people to his church and trained freed slaves for the ministry, he supported slavery arguing that African descendants were not ready for freedom. He led the prayer when South Carolina seceded from the union, beginning the civil war.

  • http://clubneko.net nick

    I don’t follow how they go from anti-slavery to common-descent evolution just because the zoological science establishment of the day knew of such things. That’s why he applied the scientific principle to the natural world and attempted to explain what he saw in his observations.

    “He was anti-slavery. He discovered something no one else had thought of, therefor his anti-slavery beliefs lead him to conclude common-descent evolution from his studies.”

    Einstein was an anti-war pacifist. Einstein’s theories (and, unfortunately, some unwise actions) lead to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, therefor Einstein’s anti-war pacifism leads to death.

  • George

    – Evolutionary biologists say crossbreeding between species is far more common than previously thought, making a nonsense of the idea of discrete evolutionary branches.
    – Fred Hoyle (1983), a world renowned astronomer said, that life appeared on our planet following an interplanetary travel.
    – Francis Crick, Nobel prize laureate for discovering the DNA, in his book Life Itself, its Origin and Nature, wrote that “life on Earth was brought here by micro – organisms from another planet, these micro – organisms traveling inside a spaceship sent to Earth by a superior civilization, developed somewhere else, billions of years ago”. Details:

  • Michael

    Fascinating, I never heard of that. I am so tired of Darwinism being linked to racism by fundamentalist Christians and others. While he must have been scientifically observing as well, his beliefs regarding slavery and races no doubt was in mind too. I freely admit Dawrin ended up agnostic, if not atheist, his doubts first beginning with evolution, and seeing organisms he could not understand a designer God creating. Since I’m agnostic myself his doubt is admirable and very scientific. It’s true the death of his beloved daughter was a factor as well. It really does happed in real life, and what could be more reasonable? Some things do not have satisfactory answers from God and religion. Darwin knew it, and he was right. There’s a myth that he repented on his deathbed and became Christian again, but suppose he did? It wouldn’t prove or disprove anything. In this, anti-slavery and racism, the very telling example is given of believes and nonbelievers for both sides. It doesn’t necessarily determine opinions.

  • Dennis Linthicum

    This article actually ignores the most obvious point of Darwin’s theory. The complete title of Darwin’s book is: ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.’ This title tells us more about what Darwin was thinking than these authors care to admit. The point is, Darwin believed in “Favoured Races.”

    The phrase “common decent” is meaningless for determining equality, because if all of life came from the primordial soup than all of life came from the same common beginnings. That means that the mold on the wall of your musty closet has the same origin as you. Ultimately, you both came from the same pond. Sure, there were different branches and your heritage is not identical, but never-the-less, you came from the same pond. Why then, would you kill it, as though it was not your equal, with some toxic cleanser?

    With Darwin’s view, the mold has been built for survival. It has undergone millions of years of natural selection and has developed the highest levels of survival mechanisms, given it’s random circumstances. Please realize, this same sentence describes you. Therefore, what is the difference? Are you not equal? If not, why not? Is your non-equality based upon specie, race, achievement, athletic ability, or intelligence?

    I’m hoping you realize that there is nothing equal in the physical make-up of humans. There are different degrees of intelligence, athletic ability, height, weight, and skin color. If equality is not found in physical characteristics, then, where does equality come from? It actually comes from the Judeo-Christian understanding, that all of mankind is created in the image of God. This may be a tough pill to swallow, but it makes a far more reasonable explanation for our equality. The concept of physical heritage, or common decent, falls short of an appropriate explanation because the strongest, toughest, and those most randomly suited for survival are clearly “better” than those who exhibit inferior physical characteristics.

    This is exactly what Darwin meant when he titled his work with the phrase, “the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” So much for equality…

  • Dario Raggio

    Dennis: The theory of equality, and as that of morality in general, is emergent. They emerge out of everybody’s preference to live in a peaceful world.

    If all of us agree to defend each other against aggressors, we give up the potential benefit of initiating violence against someone, for the constant, huge benefit of not having to worry about being attacked all the time.

    Similarly, if some group wants to oppress another, everybody has a strong incentive to prefer that this doesn’t happen, for living in the type of society that attacks people based on arbitrary or inconsequential differences creates a large risk of you, or someone you care for, being in the group currently under attack. Not to mention, it incites retaliation against innocents who are labeled as being a part of the group under which the attackers are labeled into.

    Other animals and other lifeforms are not developed enough to understand morality and thus are not able to take part of this agreement.

    With this line of thinking, you can think of morality as not something set in stone by God, but as a natural process that emerges and evolves with time as understanding and cooperation increase.

    This is just my personal opinion, but I think this is when you can start seeing the true beauty of it.

  • Dennis Linthicum

    Dario: Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

    However, the concept of emergent morality doesn’t satisfy the questions we are addressing. It doesn’t because in emergent morality there would be no stasis. The evolutionary perspective regards continual change as the norm. The norm is not a peaceful, stable, and satisfying environment. Remember, everything is striving for survival–not peace. Your assumption is that peace is the best method for achieving survival, but this would be true only if I (in my personal preference) wanted your companionship during my survival. If my preference happened to be for something else, then you would naturally walk the earth in a fearful and defensive posture.

    For example, in our modern era we witness a robust terrorist mentality that prefers “paradise” over “peace on earth.” The emergent view would lack the ability to comment if this worldview “emerged” as the dominant perspective. It would lack the ability to critically assess right or wrong because the terrorist’s perspective would be the dominant view that “emerged.” Should we assume that it is beautiful simply because it “emerged?”

    In emergent terms, the mistake is viewing the current environment as normal, or imagining it can get “better.” In this context “better” is a moral term. Yet, because of the lack of stasis it is without standard; it has no meaning.

    Imagine New York city as the World Trade Center buildings are being contructed. Everyone can see the plan, and understands the beauty of the evolution, as raw materials form a fully funtional miniature community. Now, imagine as the buildings inherit this fully functional form and imagine the community growing to fully appreciate the grandeur before them. In your view this is the beauty of evolution. But, you don’t know what will emerge in the next evolutionary phase. Unfortunately, your view is forced to choke out a phrase that says, “that’s the beauty of it. It is a process of emergence,” even when what emerges is a pile of rubble.

    However, if a designer were responsible, then we could actually express concern about what is right, good, and moral. In this case, I could always lean on a design that was meant to be beautiful. With a design, I can assess and critically analyze what exists before me. I can even comment about beauty in a meaningful sense because my standard for beauty would be a reliance on the underlying design.

    This is why the design perspective presents greater explanatory power, over the emergent theory, when attempting to explain equality. This is also what makes the US Declaration of Independence so powerful. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

  • Dario Raggio


    There never was a stasis. 50 years ago, racism was the norm. 300 years ago, slavery was the norm. Morality moves forward as people come up with new understanding of what is the best way to associate with each other.

    To the extent that we derive morality from scripture, we are cherry picking. We can find verses in The Bible that support some of the ideas of today’s morality, but we can also find those that support things that we now consider the antithesis of freedom.

  • Dennis Linthicum


    You make a couple of good points.

    However, do your really think that 50 years ago racism was the norm? Be careful here, I’m not denying that racism is real. Also, I’m not saying that it did not exist 50 years ago or that it does not exist today. I’m questioning the normalcy of it and the supposed evolution, or emergence, of a greater moral understanding. For example, take a look at this video from WGBH PBS Television. [http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/polio] I think this slice of the American Experience is a good historical sampling (black and white footage) of life in the 1930’s through 1950’s. I think it is unbiased, with regard to race, because the subject is the outbreak and treatment of Polio and there is no racial bone to chew. If you have the time, watch it. It is a great story (in it’s own right) and then ask yourself if you can see blacks and whites, in the American Experience, exhibiting any racism in their everyday existence. I realize that this video doesn’t prove anything, but it is a powerful statement against a naive historical understanding.

    Also, slavery was less prevalent 300 years ago than it is today. For the record, today there are more than 27 million slaves in the world. [http://www.freetheslaves.net/Page.aspx?pid=183] National Geographic Magazine states, “There are more slaves today than were seized from Africa in four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The modern commerce in humans rivals illegal drug trafficking in its global reach—and in the destruction of lives.” [http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0309/feature1]

    So the weakness in the emergent perspective is not an inappropriate view of right and wrong, but a view that exhibits a lack of moral appropriateness (“oughtness”). It lacks any authority to describe the way things ought to be. Just because policies exist, it doesn’t follow that they ought to exist. Slavery being a good example. And, contrary to what many think, the Bible does not endorse slavery. The Bible recognizes slavery, just like you and I recognize slavery. It then encourages men to live lives that excel in truth, integrity, peace, patience, kindness and self-control. That admonishment stems from the design side of the equation. It represents how things ought to be. This is what makes it difficult for the slave-trader to express the moral superiority of his view. Here it is obvious that his personal preference for the slave trade is simply wrong.

    My trouble with the emergent perspective is that we would be bound to whatever emerges. There can be no confident disagreement because it is what it is. So, your right about cherry-picking; we tend to argue for what we believe is correct and accurate. Yet, the real question you might ask is, “Why did you assume that the idea of slavery is totally invalidated in our new emergent moral system?” The evidence clearly says otherwise.

    While we both agree that slavery is antithetical to freedom, the emergent view is powerless to describe why we abhor slavery. My confidence stems from a view of moral appropriateness, by design. This is what gives me the power to confront the slave-trader. I do not think the emergent perspective contains any moral authority. For example, if the slave-traders were to overpower the abolitionists, then Darwin would describe the result as “the preservation of a favoured race.” After all, the emergent view wins.

  • Schwa

    “My trouble with the emergent perspective is that we would be bound to whatever emerges. There can be no confident disagreement because it is what it is.”

    I can’t speak for Dario, but there are certain truths which are self-evident: I am like other people, and I am unlike things which are not other people (to varying degrees, to be sure). Since I can identify with other people, I can use my own preferences and empathy as a guide to correct behavior: I do not like being hurt, and neither does anyone else I know, so I generalize that most people don’t like being hurt and I shouldn’t hurt others. Arguing that there are differences between yourself and most other people on the scale of the differences between a yourself and a mold takes such profound alienation and lack of empathy that it borders on psychopathy.

    There is a danger that this view can lead into what Peter Singer terms ‘speciesism’, but just because dogs and cats fall into a grey area where they are enough like and unlike us that there’s some question to their exact moral significance doesn’t invalidate utilitarian or deontological ideas as useful guides to ethical behavior. I can stand up to an 18th century slave trader because black people are empirically like me in so many respects that the variance that is there makes no significant difference.


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