The evo­lu­tion of an anti- slav­ery cru­sader

Matt Ri­d­ley

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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