The evolution of an anti- slavery crusader
IN 1858, on the brink of publishing his theory of evolution, which I discussed here three weeks ago, Charles Darwin took a hydropathic rest cure at Moor Park, near Farnham in Surrey. While walking on the sandy heath, he caught a glimpse of the rare slave-making ant and saw the little black creatures in their masters’ nests. A certain species of red ant kidnaps the young of a smaller black ant and rears them as unwitting slave workers in the service of the red queen. Darwin had heard about this phenomenon but had not until then seen it.
Darwin’s upbringing had been steeped in the anti-slavery movement. One grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had thundered poetically: Hear, oh, BRITANNIA! potent Queen of
isles, On whom fair Art and meek Religion
smiles, Now AFRICS coasts thy craftier sons
invade With murder, rapine, theft — and call it
Trade! — The SLAVE, in chains, on supplicating
knee, Spreads his wide arms, and lifts his eyes to
Thee; With hunger pale, with wounds and toil
oppress’d, ‘‘ ARE WE NOT BRETHREN?’’ Sorrow
choaks the rest.
The other grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, had bankrolled much of the fight against the slave trade and had minted the famous medallion of a shackled slave saying ‘‘ Am I not a man and a brother?’’ Now their grandson was on the brink of proving that black and white people were indeed brethren, not separately created races, let alone one destined to serve the other. And here he was staring at a slavetrading insect.
It is an extraordinary moment, captured in Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s new biography, and one made more potent by the fact that the same month Darwin had cheered Samuel Wilberforce’s tirade in the House of Lords against the Spanish slave trade to Cuba.
Darwin and Wilberforce, a bishop, had been on the same side of the great moral issue of the day since birth — indeed it had been a family business for both — and they still were: the Bible asserted the common descent of mankind while American scientists asserted black and white races had been created separately. Yet within two years Wilberforce would lead the church’s condemnation of Darwin’s heresy.
It is the argument of Darwin’s Sacred Cause that the issue of slavery and the issue of race, reverberating through Darwin’s consciousness from his earliest years, played an underappreciated role in forming his views on evolution. The reason this has been missed is that Darwin chose ( very late on) to leave human beings out of The Origin of Species altogether, hoping perhaps to win the battle first on less controversial ground.
Darwin was brought up by Wedgwood women, passionate in their rage at slavery; he was educated in Edinburgh at a time when phrenology was all the rage and was starting to transmute into racial ethnography; he was in Brazil when it was still a slave state and he never forgot the cries of a beaten slave; he was in Argentina when Juan Manuel de Rosas was completing a genocide of natives; he was writing his theory when America and much of the world was in thrall to Louis Aggasiz and his convenient theory that species ( including races of mankind) had been created in separate places.
Even Darwin’s enthusiastic diversion into pigeon fancying was all about proving to the pluralist consensus that races could indeed be bred from a common ancestor.
While others in his circle, such as Robert FitzRoy, Charles Lyell and Thomas Carlyle, would apologise for slavery, Darwin never compromised in his hatred of the institution.
He is remarkable for a 19thcentury gentleman in his utter lack of prejudice. At the age of 17, he paid a freed Guyana slave in Edinburgh by the name of John Edmonstone to teach him taxidermy. ‘‘ I used to sit with him often, for he was a very pleasant, intelligent man.’’
The Spectator Matt Ridley has written several books on evolution and genetics. Darwin’s Sacred Cause will be published in Australia next month.
Force of equals: Evolutionary egalitarian Charles Darwin