Home » Biography, Biology, Culture, Darwinism, Evolution, Intelligent Design, Philosophy, Religion, Science, The Design of Life » Saving Darwin’s Soul: Does His 21st Century Fate Rest on Fighting 19th Century Battles?

Saving Darwin’s Soul: Does His 21st Century Fate Rest on Fighting 19th Century Battles?

This week marks the publication of the Darwin book that has so far received the most advance publicity in the UK, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore (Allen Lane). Desmond and Moore, both together and separately, have written some of the best histories of the Victorian life sciences, including a best-selling biography of Darwin. You can get a sense of the book from this excerpt currently featured in Prospect Magazine. 

 

Desmond and Moore always wade very deep in the archives but also with an eye to what might attract today’s reader about their subject. Not surprisingly, then, this is a book that documents the link between Darwin’s more general doctrine of common descent and his belief that all humans descend from a common ancestor and hence are members of the same species. A lot of stress is placed on Darwin’s revulsion at the brutality of slavery that he saw while voyaging on the Beagle, and the fact that it was common among the natural historians of his day to believe in several species of ‘man’. The reader can easily get the impression that this was some kind of triumph of evidence over prejudice. However, this impression would be very misleading.

 

One reason abolitionism did not immediately meet with widespread approval was that it was seen, from a naturalistic standpoint, as based on a sentimental attachment to Christian notions of the ‘brotherhood of man’, despite the evidence that was accumulating for the vastly different lives and dispositions of the races. Darwin was immune to such knee-jerk naturalism because his mind was ‘prejudiced’ by a very healthy dose of Unitarianism and non-conformist Christianity on both sides of his family. Desmond and Moore talk about this too but I guess the book wouldn’t appear so sexy if the headline read: “Darwin Saved from Racism by Christian Upbringing”.

 

To make their case, Desmond and Moore are smart to confine their argument largely to Darwin’s early years, since as he grew older he tended to stress the hierarchy of the races and downplay the distinctiveness of the human condition in natural history. In other words, as Darwin’s lost touch with his Christian roots, Darwin’s science lost touch with humanity. He began close to believing in the natural equality of all humans and ended close to believing in the natural equality of all species. Instead of reassuring us of the former vision, future Darwin historians should critically explore the emergence of the latter vision, a legacy of Darwin that will increasingly concern us in the 21st century.

  • Delicious
  • Facebook
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Twitter
  • RSS Feed

9 Responses to Saving Darwin’s Soul: Does His 21st Century Fate Rest on Fighting 19th Century Battles?

  1. One reason abolitionism did not immediately meet with widespread approval was that it was seen, from a naturalistic standpoint, as based on a sentimental attachment to Christian notions of the ‘brotherhood of man’, despite the evidence that was accumulating for the vastly different lives and dispositions of the races.

    Another reason, of course, was that some Christians believed that slavery was endorsed by the Bible. In the case of the Baptists in the United States, the belief was so strongly held by some that in 1845 the church split into the northern and southern conventions over the issue.

    And while the principle of “the brotherhood of man” is rightly held up as a shining example of a commitment to equality of treatment, the persecution of Jews by Christians throughout European history indicates that it was sometimes more honored in the breach than in the observance.

    Darwin was immune to such knee-jerk naturalism because his mind was ‘prejudiced’ by a very healthy dose of Unitarianism and non-conformist Christianity on both sides of his family. Desmond and Moore talk about this too but I guess the book wouldn’t appear so sexy if the headline read: “Darwin Saved from Racism by Christian Upbringing”.

    That Darwin held views that today we judge to be racist is not in dispute. He was a child of his times as we all are, he could not be otherwise. But in his opposition to slavery, his sympathy with the plight of others when confronted with it and his recognition of the essential humanity of peoples that Europeans of the time otherwise regarded as primitive place him firmly at the liberal and humanitarian end of the spectrum for that period.

    And while his attitudes may indeed owe much to the faith in which he was raised, the examples given above suggest that such an upbringing is no guarantee of tolerance and compassion. It is also likely that he was informed by the rationality of the ‘naturalistic’ or scientific enterprise to which he chose to commit himself and which requires that its practitioners abandon knee-jerk prejudices whatever their religious credentials might be.

    To make their case, Desmond and Moore are smart to confine their argument largely to Darwin’s early years, since as he grew older he tended to stress the hierarchy of the races and downplay the distinctiveness of the human condition in natural history. In other words, as Darwin’s lost touch with his Christian roots, Darwin’s science lost touch with humanity. He began close to believing in the natural equality of all humans and ended close to believing in the natural equality of all species. Instead of reassuring us of the former vision, future Darwin historians should critically explore the emergence of the latter vision, a legacy of Darwin that will increasingly concern us in the 21st century.

    My impression from my admittedly distant reading of Origin is that, like any good scientist, Darwin was primarily concerned with describing and explaining what he saw. Whether or not humans or species were in some way ‘naturally equal’ – whatever that might mean – simply did not come into it. It was not that he was unconcerned by moral questions, his opposition to slavery showed that he could care deeply about such issues, but he was presumably well aware of the difference between scientific description and moral prescription.

    Historians could and should investigate how Darwin’s views and attitudes changed over his lifetime, but their findings will make no difference to the quality of his research or its contribution to the progress of the biological sciences.

  2. Seversky,

    You seem to be missing the point of what I’m saying here, which is about knee-jerk naturalism. In the early 19th century, if you were the sort of person who followed the evidence wherever it led, you’d be inclined to racism because of the empirically obvious differences between people, which became more obvious, the more you studied them. It’s only if you had some other prior idea (of the sort supplied by Christian species-unity) that you would think that beneath the surface differences lay some underlying species unity or common cause. Darwin had the idea of common descent before he was able to show that the evidence fit the idea. Even then, it’s only with molecular genetics, long after Darwin, that the connection really gets nailed down. You seem to be confusing science and naturalism – in this case, Darwin was wise to reject what the naturalists of his day were saying by retaining his old Christian belief in species unity, which then guided his (critically) naturalistic inquiries.

  3. Seversky:

    the persecution of Jews by Christians throughout European history

    While there are clear examples of Christians persecuting Jews, you’re making a very over generalized claim here. Jews were persecuted by governments, expulsed by governments and slaughtered largely by the Roman Catholic church under the orders of power hungry popes using anti-heresy laws etc.

    Historical examples of practicing Christians persecuting Jews are not nearly so frequent as you imply.

    The same ‘church’ still using the heresy charge was also responsible for the martyring of thousands upon thousands of Christians.

    Indeed, a reading of Fox’s Book of Martyrs, and several other works, demonstrates that the great majority of religious persecutions and the slaughter of both Christian and Jew, were perpetrated by the Roman church.

    Furthermore seeing that Christ commanded us to ‘do unto others…’ and to ‘love our enemies’ it is hardly correct to say that real practicing Christians persecuted the Jews.

    Why not rather speak of the sacrifices Christians have and still make every day to save Jews from persecution.

  4. 4

    Borne, naturally I agree with the thrust of what you have written. But consider how you can make your argument better by avoiding the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.

  5. Steve Fuller @ 2

    You seem to be missing the point of what I’m saying here, which is about knee-jerk naturalism. In the early 19th century, if you were the sort of person who followed the evidence wherever it led, you’d be inclined to racism because of the empirically obvious differences between people, which became more obvious, the more you studied them.

    I agree that the people of that period would have come to the subject with preconceptions and prejudices which today we would regard as racist. But I also believe that some of them at least, if they based their approach on what we now call methodological naturalism, would have been able to distinguish between the observable physiological and cultural differences between various ethnic groups and any moral judgments we might be tempted to make about them. Calling another culture ‘primitive’, for example, might have carried pejorative connotations or it might simply have been intended to convey the message that the science, technology, medical knowledge sanitation and so on of these cultures were less developed and sophisticated than those of their European counterparts. Would that have been denigration or a statement of observable fact?

    It’s only if you had some other prior idea (of the sort supplied by Christian species-unity) that you would think that beneath the surface differences lay some underlying species unity or common cause.

    I have no evidence to support this view but I would have expected some notion of “species unity” to have pre-dated the emergence of a faith like Christianity although it is easy to see how a religion like Christianity reinforced and justified that perception.

    Darwin had the idea of common descent before he was able to show that the evidence fit the idea. Even then, it’s only with molecular genetics, long after Darwin, that the connection really gets nailed down. You seem to be confusing science and naturalism – in this case, Darwin was wise to reject what the naturalists of his day were saying by retaining his old Christian belief in species unity, which then guided his (critically) naturalistic inquiries.

    I think of naturalism as being a foundation of what we now call science, especially in the narrower sense of methodological naturalism, but I would be interested read any examples you might have of the naturalists of that period writing about other cultures in the way you have suggested.

  6. Borne @ 3

    Why not rather speak of the sacrifices Christians have and still make every day to save Jews from persecution.

    The persecution of the Jews in Europe, as I wrote, is well-documented but I would say that, given the close involvement of churches in government, it is difficult to disentangle the religious, political and economic motivations that drove it.

    But I entirely agree that due weight should be given to the sacrifices of those Christians who worked to save Jews from persecution.

  7. Both Islam and Historic Christendom are universalist religions, and both have been supercessionist—that is, though derivative of Judaism both have taught that they have replaced Judaism. Christianity has engaged in considerable introspection and self criticism since the Holocaust, not so Islam. But, as David Brog’s (2006) Standing with Israel brings out, Christians who yet maintain that the Covenant was taken from Israel and universalized in themselves—though not necessarily anti-Semitic—are still vulnerable.

  8. Christianity has engaged in considerable introspection and self criticism since the Holocaust, not so Islam.

    Societies that developed with Christianity as the basis for its ethics began the considerable self criticism about Christianity before the Holocaust. Which leads to adding one and one together.

  9. Both Islam and Historic Christendom are universalist religions, and both have been supercessionist—that is, though derivative of Judaism both have taught that they have replaced Judaism.

    Interesting. Okay…I’m going to get a bit speculative here. I think there is an essential difference between Christianity and Islam in their treatment of Judaism, even though both “succeed” Judaism. But Islam negates Judaism and Christianity in a way which is similar to how Mormonism negates traditional Christianity. That is, Islam says (about both Judaism and Christianity) “You got it wrong.” This is similar to what Mormonism says about traditional Christianity.

    But (traditional) Christianity says about Judaism: “You got it incomplete.” Accordingly Christianity incorporates the TANAKH in its scriptures, while Islam does not.

    Christianity has engaged in considerable introspection and self criticism since the Holocaust, not so Islam.

    Thank you for this, Rude. I had not considered it before, and I think you have a salient point here.

Leave a Reply