Human evolution
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Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin

Darwin the Abolitionist and Author of the Descent of Man Published at

On February 12, 1809, both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born, a rather interesting coincidence. There are other odd concurrences in their two lives: Both of their mothers died quite early, within a year of each other — Charles’s mother, Susanna, in 1817 and Abraham’s mother, Nancy, in 1818. Both lost three children.

Even more interesting, both were adamant abolitionists, Charles perhaps more so than Abe. To say the least, Darwin was hot-headed for the North to win the Civil War and drive slavery into extinction. As he wrote in a letter, “Some few, & I am one, even wish to God, though at the loss of millions of lives, that the North would proclaim a crusade against Slavery. In the long run, a million horrid deaths would be amply repaid in the cause of humanity. . . . Great God how I shd like to see that greatest curse on Earth Slavery abolished.” He admired Lincoln, but thought him much too timid.

Darwin’s hatred of slavery was not casually or fashionably adopted. The abolitionist cause was taken up with great fire and indignation by Charles’s grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood. Erasmus and Josiah fought side by side with the great William Wilberforce against the British slave trade. The Darwin-Wedgwood family alliance, fused in the marriage Charles’s parents, Robert Darwin and Susanna Wedgwood, produced a united front of aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings, all sternly and solidly anti-slavery.

Today, noted Darwin scholars Adrian Desmond and James Moore argue, in their Darwin’s Sacred Cause, that Darwin’s hatred of slavery “shaped Darwin’s views on human evolution.” Certainly an appropriate and timely addition to Darwin scholarship on this, the 200thanniversary of Darwin’s birth.

But before we do too much celebrating of birthdays and morally upright causes, we’d better take a closer look at Darwin’s views and his legacy. Darwin hated slavery, and Darwin confirmed slavery as natural. He hated racism, but his theory of human evolution was fundamentally racist. His heart and head were in complete contradiction.

The heart and head. Read Desmond and Moore’s well-documented book, and you’ll be in no doubt about where the Darwins stood on slavery. But read Darwin’s own Descent of Man and shudder.

The Descent of Man was the book Darwin didn’t write when he penned the Origin of Species. He was well aware of the implications of his theory of evolution for human beings, but he held off, and so he spoke only of plants and animals in the Origin. This, itself, was an act of self-preservation. He knew that if the Origin contained the implications of applying natural selection to man, he would be howled out of England as a gutter atheist and a subverter of morality.

What Darwin didn’t see, what he refused to see, was that his own theory entirely undermined his cherished moral stand against slavery. Even worse, it demanded an abominable kind of racism, a racism he blithely accepted.

Let’s trace all this out. As a hearty abolitionist, Darwin was originally convinced that human slavery was a purely human and strictly artificial (i.e., unnatural) institution. But then he was astounded to witness for himself the “rare Slave making ant.” As he crowed to one of his friends in a letter, he had seen “the little black niggers in their master’s nests.” Darwin was both shocked and delighted to find that there was such a thing as slave ants, where larger red ants capture smaller black ants, and the little black ants then do their master’s entire bidding. According to his theory, the only explanation for slavery among ants was, of course, natural selection, and that is the explanation he gave it in his Origin of Species, calling it both an “odious” and “wonderful” instinct — odious according to his heart, wonderful according to his theory, but natural nonetheless.

But if (as he argues in the Descent) natural selection explains everything about human beings, from the shape of their heads to the shape of their particular societies, then wouldn’t it be the case that the existence of slavery among human beings was due to natural selection? If so, then human slavery would be as natural as ant slavery. Darwin shied away from drawing this obvious conclusion in his Descent; in fact, he said precious little about slavery. Perhaps he understood all too well the implications and couldn’t face them. What little he did say was, however, damning for his abolitionist cause — namely, that the “great sin of Slavery has been almost universal.” In terms of his theory, that means only one thing: Human evolution has found slavery even more useful for the survival of the fittest than ant evolution.

Desmond and Moore try to smooth away the obvious implications. They argue that Darwin proposed that all human beings have a common evolutionary ancestor precisely because that would mean that Africans and Europeans would come from the same branch in the evolutionary tree, and hence share a kind of evolutionary brotherhood.

But here’s the problem. Common ancestry doesn’t keep slavery from being natural. “Natural” means “according to the principle of natural selection.” There is no doubt that all ants, slaving and non-slaving, have a common ancestor, and that natural selection produced both variant species — not by taking a wrong turn and a right turn, but simply by branching off. According to Darwin’s theory, there is no doubt that all men in all human societies, slaving and non-slaving, have a common ancestor. Natural selection has produced these social variants, not by taking a wrong turn and a right turn, but simply by branching off. There is no wrong or right turn. Whatever contributes to a society’s self-preservation is affirmed by natural selection. That is the core argument of Darwin’s Descent of Man.

Even more lamentable, common ancestry didn’t keep Darwin from the most pernicious racist conclusions, either, because what is really important in human evolution is what happens after the races branch off. While human beings may have a common ancestor (“a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in its habits”), “since he attained to the rank of manhood, he has diverged into distinct races, or as they may be more appropriately called sub-species.” The races themselves reflect divergence, not commonality. “Some of these, for instance the Negro and European, are so distinct that, if specimens had been brought to a naturalist without any further information, they would undoubtedly have been considered by him as good and true species.”

That natural selection works different wonders in each race; that is, the effect of natural selection in picking some “favoured races” to climb higher is expressed in the differences between the races themselves. The “lowest” races remain most apelike in appearance and most savage in mental and moral appearances; the “highest” look like, well, good Englishmen and have the most developed moral and mental abilities.

And here’s the kicker. Since human evolution goes forward by the very same means that it climbed to its present state, the struggle between, and extinction of, existing human races must continue. “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races,” Darwin wrote in the Descent of Man. “At the same time the anthropomorphous apes” — that is, those that look most like the human sub-species lowest on the evolutionary scale — “will no doubt be exterminated. The break [between human beings and apes] will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.”

A simple, detached scientific description of evolution at work — and this, from a fervent abolitionist. On this vision, people like “the negro or Australian” were something like intermediate species, less evolved from the ape, and hence more likely to lose in the relentless struggle of the fit against the unfit. The struggle cannot itself be blamed, for it is this very struggle between tribe and tribe, race and race that had driven human beings above the level of anthropomorphous apes. That same struggle pushed hard enough to produce the Caucasian, eventually creating a man capable of formulating a theory of evolution.

He was born 200 years ago today. Happy birthday, Charles Darwin.