Saint Darwin

Debates about Creationism and evolution continue to spark. Recently, as a part of some personal conversations on this subject, I had cause to revisit a 2009 book review discussion regarding the role slavery and abolitionism played in the thought of Charles Darwin and his moral agendas in writing The Origin of Species.

This is a story I wish more Christians knew about. So let me remind you:

The story is told in the remarkable book Darwin's Sacred Cause, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. Desmond and Moore are the authors of what many critics believe to be the best modern biography of Darwin and they don't disappoint in their follow-up book.

One way of approaching Moore and Desmond's book is to contrast the bland and quiet personality of Darwin with the revolutionary audacity of his theory of natural selection published in The Origin of Species. How could such a mild-mannered, reclusive and non-confrontational person produce the most revolutionary scientific theory in the history of the world? Where did the creative fires burn within Darwin? So little was shown on the surface of his life. What was going on inside him as he penned the Origin? What drove Darwin?

Desmond and Moore's claim is that Darwin inherited a fierce anti-slavery abolitionism from his family, on both his side and his wife's. Both the Darwin and the Wedgwood families (Emma Wedgwood was Darwin's wife and the Darwin's and Wedgwood's frequently intermarried) were active participants in the movement to end English participation in the slave trade and ending slavery in the English colonies. For example, Josiah Wedgwood, the famous English pottery manufacturer, was Emma Darwin's grandfather.  Josiah mass produced a famous cameo of the seal for the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Here is the seal:


It shows a slave in chains with the words in the banner reading, "Am I not a man and a brother?"  Here was the cameo Josiah produced:


This, then, was the moral climate Darwin was raised in. This was Darwin's "sacred cause," the ending of slavery. In Darwin's own words, in a letter to the anti-slavery activist Richard Hill:
I was quite delighted...to hear of all your varied accomplishments and knowledge, and of your higher attributes in the sacred cause of humanity.
Eventually, Darwin began to have personal experiences as a young man that solidified the moral commitments he imbibed as a child, where hot abolitionist conversation was daily fare. Specifically, during his years in medical school (which he eventually aborted, having no stomach for the surgery room) Darwin took taxidermy lessons from an ex-slave named John. The sixteen-year-old Darwin spent many hours with John learning to stuff birds, a skill that would, fortuitously, come in handy years later on his Beagle journeys. One can imagine this young white boy learning a skill from this older black man, sitting together hour after hour. How could such an experience not affect the moral sensibilities of a young man on the question of slavery?  Eventually, Darwin and John became, in Darwin's words, "intimate."

What is striking about this early adolescent experience is that the memory of John remained with Darwin as kind of defining moral lesson. Forty-five years later, when Darwin published his definitive take on race in The Descent of Man, those lessons with John make a poignant reappearance. In the thick of describing how the mental abilities of the races are equivalent Darwin initially appeals to his observations during his travels on the Beagle. But the crowning piece of evidence is more personal and biographical. At the end of this argument about the intellectual equivalency of the races Darwin writes: so "it was with a full-blooded negro with whom I happened once to be intimate." Desmond and Moore comment: "That was the 'blackamoor' John, now a warm, distant memory for Darwin: the ex-slave bird-stuffer who taught the boy week in, week out, during those lonely, frosty days in Edinburgh."

The other defining moral experience upon Darwin's attitudes concerning slavery occurred during his HMS Beagle journey. During the journey Darwin stayed in many slave nations and was able to observe the experience of slavery firsthand. The most poignant passage of Darwin's Beagle Journal comes toward the end and captures how his contact with slavery affected him:
I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernamabuco, I heard the most pitiful moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate. I suspected that these moans were from a tortured slave, for I was told that this was a case in another instance. Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have staid in a house were a young household mulatto, daily and hourly was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. I have seen a boy, six or seven years old, struck thrice with a horse-whip (before I could interfere) on his naked head, for having handed me a glass that was not quite clean; I saw his father tremble at a mere glance from his master’s eye…It is claimed that self-interest will prevent excessive cruelty; as if self-interest protected our domestic animals, which are far less likely than degraded slaves, to stir up the rage of their savage masters. It is an argument long since protested against with noble feeling, and strikingly exemplified by the illustrious Humboldt. It is often attempted to palliate slavery by comparing the state of slaves to our poorer countrymen: If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin

Those who look tenderly at the slave-owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter; -- what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope for change! Picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children--those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own--being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbors as themselves, who believe in God, and pray His will be done on earth! It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty: but it is a consolation to reflect, that we at least have made a greater sacrifice, than ever made by any other nation to expiate our sin.
When Darwin returned home from the Beagle the tides were shifting in the race debates. Suddenly, science, and not religion, was becoming the authoritative voice on the subject of racial origins.

There had always been two schools of thought on the issue of racial origins. Specifically, there were the monogenists and the polygenists. The monogenists believed in a single (mono) origin (genesis) of racial descent. By contrast, the polygenists believed in multiple (poly) origins. Polygenesis was the racist theory, contending that the white and black races were separate biological species. Blacks were not fully human. They were an intermediate species between apes and Europeans. Generally speaking, slave traders and owners preferred polygenist theories as they provided justification for slavery.

In the generations before Darwin the monogenist versus polygenist debate was waged biblically and exegetically. Monogenist theologians argued for a "common descent" from Adam and Eve. In this view, all of humanity was the same species. We all shared a "common ancestor." By contrast, polygenist theologians pointed to biblical texts suggesting that humans (and human-like) species had multiple, distinct origins.

Waged on biblical grounds, the monogenist camp tended to come out on top. A plain reading of the bible suggested that all humans were decedents of Adam and Eve.

But the rise of biological science was beginning to shift this debate in the other direction. Specifically, influential biologists were beginning to argue that Negroes and Europeans were, indeed, separate biological species. Most of these scientists were working in America, namely Louis Agassiz and Samuel Morton. Morton's infamous Crania Americana cognitively ranked races based upon cranial measurements, with whites on top and black on the bottom. (For a penetrating analysis of the racial bias at work in Morton's data collection see the late Stephen J. Gould's masterful book The Mismeasure of Man.)

In short, when Darwin began his Notebooks on the origin of species it appeared that the racial debates were going to be won by the polygenist camp, with the help of science. The only arguments in favor of "common descent" were from the bible. But the bible was no longer credible in the Age of Science. Appeals to a mythical Adam and Eve were just not persuasive to scientists waving tables of hard data on cranial measurements. Polygenesis was scientific and empirical. Monogenesis was superstitious and mythical.

Given this situation, was it possible to provide a persuasive scientific account of "common descent"? Could science fight science in the race debates?

Desmond and Moore argue that one of Darwin's prime motivations in exploring the origin of species was to provide a scientific account of "common descent" to combat the scientific racism of the increasingly popular polygenist theories, theories that were supporting the institution of slavery.

In short, the motivations behind The Origin of Species were moral. The Origin was published during a time when scientific racism was on the rise and Origin was the work that decisively demolished polygenist thinking in favor of "common descent." All through Darwin's Notebooks, where he hatched the basic ideas in the Origin, his guiding idea was the genealogical tree, where all of humanity was seen as one, big branching family.

The breakthrough moment in the Notebooks occurs when Darwin sketches a genealogical tree to show the relationship between the species. Over one of the most influential doodles in world history Darwin wrote the words "I think":


In short, Darwin's thinking about shared human relationships, a shared family tree with common grandparents, inspired both his thoughts about race and provided him with the perfect metaphor to think about the Tree of Life. Darwin's "sacred cause" both pushed and pulled his thinking about the origin of species. Each fueled the other.

Darwin's Sacred Cause is a fascinating book because, I think, it decisively reshape how Christians should approach Charles Darwin. Properly understood, The Origin of Species was a moral document. A document that, more than any other, ended the era of scientific racism and helped bring global slavery to an end.

Further, The Origin of Species came to the aid of bible, lending scientific support to the growingly defunct biblical notion of "common descent."

All of this should give Christians pause before they attack Darwin. A reevaluation is in order in Christian circles given the moral impulses within Darwin's work.  I encourage thoughtful Christians to pick up Darwin's Sacred Cause and reconsider the man that many Christians have come to demonize.

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15 thoughts on “Saint Darwin”

  1. The irony is that many of the Christians who attack Darwin, accusing him of presenting human beings as less than the creation of God, hold to the view that the master/slave passages in the New Testament infer that slavery does not necessarily have to be an evil. That if a nation, either through war or other upheavals, found itself a slave holding society, Christians could be slave holders as long as they followed Paul's admonition to treat their slaves kindly.


    This view is widely held among evangelicals, though carefully and discretely spoken, for two reasons that overlap. One being they do not know what else to do with these passages if scripture is authoritative, and especially inerrant, which most hold them to be. Also, it gives divine approval to the prejudice that says whites are more capable in leadership and in governing. After all, the Christians I have known who hold a literal view of these passages are white.


    I grew up hearing these this view spoken among family and close friends, all Christians. But I also heard it from a number of preacher students at the Christian college I attended, and I am sure some of these individuals are still in the pulpit. What I have experienced about "Christian" racism, which I thank God I found the grace to leave, is that it baptizes itself with the rationale of "As long as I believe that the different races that are Christian are 'one with me in Christ', then my social and political beliefs cannot be labeled racist". In this way it becomes easy for them to be angered by any criticism of their views.


    Again, I came out of this, I heard it all, and I know it is still there in the generation that reveres the one before it. Maybe it is time that many who try to hold the church together by "understanding from where those with such views have come", simply walk away. Sometimes that is our only choice.

  2. One other thing most Christians don't know about Darwin is that he was a lifeling patron of South American Mission Society (Anglican) because of their work with mapuche indians in Chile

  3. As I read this, I can't help thinking that it's probably not a coincidence that the most fervent resistance to the teaching of evolution has come from those whose theological roots were planted by slave holders who used Christianity to justify their evil ways.

  4. Perhaps the connection (that is, what Christian slave holders and opponents of evolution have in common) is a similar approach to using scripture to guide one's life.


    The problem with this idea, though, is that evolution, with its reliance on "the survival of the fittest," can and has been used to justify slavery and oppression (e.g., Social Darwinism). Could it be that human beings in general are exceptionally capable of rationalizing their wants and beliefs?

  5. I'm thinking along similar lines as you, Anthony.


    Here we have the 19th century secular polygenist finding scientific justification for slavery teamed up with the American religious slaveowner who is appealing to Genesis 9 to defend a monogenist conception of racial superiority. Meanwhile, we have Darwin linking arms with religiously fundamentalist abolitionists, contributing a scientifically-grounded case for abolitionism.


    As you point out, later the European scientific establishment will champion Darwin's monogenist evolutionary theory in support of racism and eugenics. And we can't forget South Africa's National Party, which found a way to reconcile anti-enlightenment Dutch Reformed theology with Nazi social theory.



    Is it just a general human capability for rationalization? Or is it that there is something about our core convictions about the social order (especially race) that are buried deep enough in the mind to determine the shape of religious or scientific intellectual/analytical thinking.

  6. As this post illustrates, even Darwin's thinking about origins was shaped by his beliefs about slavery (and the social order), and not the other way around.

  7. Interesting. This explains the rising tide of people who just cannot bring themselves to admit that any person who looks and thinks like them could possibly be racist and claim that people who call out/criticize racist behavior are the real racists. It is always an education to hear from former evangelicals.Thank you.

  8. Irony of ironies - many Christians who demonize Darwin have no clue they themselves perpetuate a spiritual "survival-of-the-fittest" model of salvation / access to God, the stakes of eternity in the balance.

  9. Here is a different perspective. Darwin's morality was about whether a person had the capacity of foresight. http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/y2005/PeartLevymalthus.html

  10. I posted this on FB and got this comment:

    "Is this absolute sarcasm? Because it sounds completely bonkers.

    #1. If evolution is true, there's no such thing as "morality".
    #2. "The Origin of Species..." (much longer title) is an EXTREMELY racist document.
    #3. Christianity brought slavery to an end. William Wilberforce..... yeah.
    #4. This insidious book of bad science, refuted theories & false claims has been used to justify Nazi ideology, atheism, racism, abortion, antisemitic, antichristian rampant secularism in the culture, university & public school as well as influencing legislation.

    It needs to be debunked and die. It is one of the biggest & most influential lies of the last millennium. :-( rant over, I promise. It just seems like this guy can only possibly be sarcastic...."

    Any responses?

  11. Here's a great quote from NT Wright in "Surprised by Scripture:".
    .....the great irony is that often those who are most opposed to Darwin when it comes to reading Genesis 1 are in fact most deeply in thrall to him, or to the wider application of his theories, when it comes to social and international policy."

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