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Darwin's Sacred Cause

The evolutionist wanted his theory to prove slavery wrong.

By / February 3, 2009

Who would have guessed it? The bogeyman actually had a heart of gold. Two hundred years after his birth, and 150 years after the publication of his book that would appall much of the Christian world, Charles Darwin is a specimen under a microscope himself, the subject of a slew of new books and articles.

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A candidate for the most insightful, and perhaps the most radical, is Darwin’s Sacred Cause. In this thorough and highly researched, yet readable and even entertaining book, Darwin scholars Adrian Desmond and James Moore seek to humanize the father of evolutionary theory. His drive to uncover a single common ancestor for humans, they say, was prompted squarely by his opposition to the great social evil of his day: slavery.

Darwin, ironically, shared that passion with abolitionist Christians, with both declaring the brotherhood and essential equality of all humans, regardless of race. While Christians found their justification in the Bible – all humans as the children of one God – Darwin sought evidence in nature, gleaning it from years of collected data in the field and piecing together the meaning, a process that persuaded him that humans were indeed a single species derived from a common ancestor.

Those ideas were not universally held in the mid-19th century, either among Christians or scholars. Darwin’s scientific contemporaries were proposing that mankind was made up of from two to 63 distinctly different species: Louis Agassiz at Harvard University, one of the most respected scientists of the day, thought there were eight.

Such conclusions led some to the belief that human rights didn’t extend to Africans, who could be treated as lesser beings.

“Destitute of morality, incapable of civilization, black people were hardly above the ape themselves,” was a common planter attitude in the US South and Latin America, the authors say.

A compassionate upbringing
During Darwin’s boyhood, his devoutly religious older sisters “taught him respect for life and sympathy for God’s creatures,” Desmond and Moore write. He learned to dip worms to be used as fish bait in brine, a humane killing that would spare them suffering on the hook.

“Compassion and anti-cruelty were paramount in the family,” the authors write. Darwin “devoured” antislavery pamphlets and expressed great admiration for the American abolitionist agitator William Lloyd Garrison.


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