Darwin’s Sacred Cause Offers Little New and Nothing of Importance

Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution By Adrian Desmond and James Moore
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009, 448 pages)
Reviewed by Michael Flannery

Although not perfect, Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s earlier biography, Darwin: the Life of a Tormented Evolutionist is, in this reviewer’s opinion, the best descriptive biography in print (those seeking a more analytical and critical biographies should read Gertrude Himmelfarb’s Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution and Benjamin Wiker’s The Darwin Myth: The Life and Lies of Charles Darwin). Outshining even Janet Browne’s more recent two-volume study in analysis and assessment, Desmond and Moore’s 1991 biography should be read by everyone interested in the Down House patriarch.

This is why the present work is such a sad disappointment. Desmond and Moore attempt to make two points in this book: 1) Darwin ended, once and for all, the polygenist/monogenist debate on human origins and in so doing established a “brotherhood science” based upon man’s common descent; and 2) this (plus a family tradition of anti-slavery sentiment) lay at the heart of his abhorrence of slavery, which establishes Darwin as a “caring, compassionate” man whose theory was drawn from that impassioned concern.

Do Desmond and Moore’s two claims hold up under scrutiny? As to claim #1, it is true that Darwin was able to settle the old monogenist/polygenist debate once and for all. The mono-genists viewed human development on earth as emanating from a common pair—this was, for some, most eloquently described in the opening chapters of Genesis. But there were non-biblical monogenists as well. Polygenists, however, believed in multiple origins for humanity. As America headed towards Civil War, the polygenists held the upper hand. The biblical monogenism of James Cowles Prichard (1786-1848) looked antiquated against the “scientific” racism of Josiah Clark Nott (1804-1873), George R. Gliddon (1809-1857), and others. Desmond and Moore describe in detail how Darwin sought to establish a viable counter to the polygenists with an explanation of human origins that was at once naturalistic and based upon a common descent — in effect, a science of human oneness and brotherhood. They describe how the publication of Darwin’s Origin in 1859 tipped the scale permanently in his favor, citing the example of Charles Loring Brace (1826-1890), a New York abolitionist firebrand who claimed to have read the book thirteen times.

All this is true. Darwin was adamantly opposed to slavery, Darwin did end — eventually — the polygenists’ claim to scientific respectability. But this alone would hardly warrant a book. Historians have long known of Darwin’s consistent antipathy towards slavery, and as for his role in settling the monogenist/polygenist dispute, that too has long been known (see, for example, Herbert H. Odum, “Generalizations on Race in Nineteenth-Century Physical Anthropology,” Isis 58.1 [Spring 1967]: 4-18).

As to their point #2, the essential problem with Desmond and Moore’s effort is their naive assumption that anti-slavery somehow means egalitarian and humanitarian. This is a conceptual problem that haunts the book throughout. There really is no reason to assume an immediate and direct relationship between the one and the other, and the example they themselves give of Charles Loring Brace on p. 328 is misguided and shows the selective treatment they give to this whole subject. Brace was indeed a vocal opponent of slavery and also an ardent Darwinist. What Desmond and Moore do not tell the reader is that Brace viewed blacks as inherently inferior and was himself a vocal opponent of miscegenation. In the words of historian George M. Fredrickson, Brace made “the Darwinian case for differentiation of the races by natural selection . . . [and] ended up with a view of racial differences which was far from egalitarian in its implications” (see his Black Image in the White Mind: the Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914, p. 234). Fredrickson quite accurately points out that “Brace’s pioneering effort to develop a Darwinist ethnology in opposition to the American School, although animated to some degree by antislavery humanitarianism, had demonstrated that most of the hierarchical assumptions of the polygenists could be justified just as well, if not better, in Darwinian terms” (p. 235).

The example of Josiah Clark Nott underscores this point. Desmond and Moore spend considerable time showing how the Alabamian’s rabid polygenism formed the basis for an extreme racism and justification for slavery; they fail to point out that in the end Nott was able to reconcile with Darwinism. Nott recognized at once that he had been outdone by Darwin’s irreligious formulations. Writing to Ephraim Squire in the summer of 1860, Nott quipped, “the man [Darwin] is clearly crazy, but it is a capital dig into the parson — it stirs up Creation and much good comes out of such thorough discussions.” In the end, Nott came to accept Darwin’s theory of man’s common descent. Indeed he claimed nothing of what he wrote on the race question was negated but simply refined by Darwin, and who was not to say, Nott suggested, that even in Darwin’s world races might not be “permanent varieties.” The point, of course, isn’t whether or not any of this is true—it was all so much codswallup aimed at justifying racism—but whether Darwin’s defeat of polygenist theory and its replacement with his common descent really made any difference in the end toward establishing a science of brotherhood. Brace, Nott, and many others who could embrace common descent precisely because it suggested nothing close to racial brotherhood suggests that it did not.

This poor conceptualization of anti-slavery as ipso facto humanitarian is compounded by a misunderstanding of Darwin himself. Desmond and Moore correctly point out the crucial impact that the Edinburgh freethinkers had upon him and his theory, but they are simply wrong in contending that he distanced himself from their emerging racial craniology. The authors’ denials notwithstanding, there were indeed skulls in Darwin’s science. In his Descent of Man (1871) the craniometry of Paul Broca (1824-1880) is referenced approvingly. While Darwin was careful to avoid the implication that “the intellect of any two animals or of any two men can be accurately gauged by the cubic contents of their skulls,” he seemed to give accumulated aggregate cranio-metric data some evidentiary weight. “The belief that there exists in man some close relation between the size of the brain and the development of the intellectual faculties,” wrote Darwin, “is supported by the comparison of skulls of savage and civilized races, of ancient and modern people, and by the analogy of the whole vertebrate series” (Descent, chapter II, p. 42). Citing the work of physician/craniologist Joseph Barnard Davis (1801-1881), who had himself amassed a collection of crania of some 1,700, Darwin noted that Europeans had a cranial capacity of 92.3, Americans 87.5, Asiatics 87.1, and Australians 81.9 cubic inches. Clearly, if Darwin did in fact believe in a brotherhood of man it was a very unequal brotherhood. Desmond and Moore confess as much when they write, “racial genocide was now normalized by natural selection and rationalized as nature’s way of producing ‘superior’ races. Darwin ended up calibrating human ‘rank’ no differently from the rest of his society” (p. 318).

So what, in the end, can be said for Darwin’s Sacred Cause? To Desmond and Moore’s credit, they do a fine job of explaining how Darwin ended, pretty much once and for all, the old monogenist/polygenist controversy over human origins. But, as mentioned earlier, this was already known. Their critical thesis, namely, that Darwin’s anti-slavery views were integral to the development of his evolutionary theory remains questionable, but perhaps more significantly, irrelevant. None of it was translated into anything that lent itself toward actually facilitating a greater brotherhood of mankind; in fact, quite the opposite. That famous—or infamous—review attributed to Samuel Johnson would seem most fitting here:

Dear sirs,

“Your book is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”