Darwin’s Sacred Cause Adrian Desmond and James Moore

Allen Lane, pp.485, 25

Darwin: A Life in Poems Ruth Padel

Chatto, pp.141, 12.99

Darwin’s Sacred Cause, by Adrian Desmond and James Moore

Darwin: A Life in Poems, by Ruth Padel

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 & saw the little black niggers in their Master’s 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 till then seen it.

Darwin’s upbringing had been steeped in the anti-slavery movement. One grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had thundered poetically:

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Hear, oh, BRITANNIA! potent Queen of
On whom fair Art and meek Religion smiles,
Now AFRIC’S coasts thy craftier sons invade
With murder, rapine, theft — and call it
The SLAVE, in chains, on supplicating knee,
Spreads his wide arms, and lifts his eyes to
With hunger pale, with wounds and toil
‘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 slave-trading insect.

It is an extraordinary moment, captured in Adrian Desmond’s and James Moore’s new biography, and one made more potent by the fact that the very same month Darwin had cheered Bishop Samuel Wilberforce’s tirade in the House of Lords against the Spanish slave trade to Cuba. Darwin and Wilberforce 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 separately created black and white races. 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 very earliest years, played an under-appreciated 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 General 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 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 19th-century gentleman in his utter lack of prejudice. At the age of 17 he paid a freed Guyana slave in Edinburgh, John Edmonstone, to teach him taxidermy. ‘I used to sit with him often, for he was a very pleasant, intelligent man.’

This moment is captured in one of Ruth Padel’s poems, which continues: ‘Sublimate of mercury, brittle feathers, avian/Anatomy. The scalpel tease-and-settling of wings.’ Padel is Darwin’s great-great-grand-daughter and the poetic Erasmus’s two greats more. Her poems are biographical, snatches from moments of Darwin’s life, captured with an economy and fluency that prosaic biographers might envy:

‘The origin of man is now proved.’ The animal
in us
has the loudest tunes. ‘Our grandfather is Satan — in the form
of a baboon!’

Darwin has been biographised many times and there could be little left to say. His letters, notebooks and even marginalia have been scrutinised to fill the gaps in his short and bowdlerised (by his pious wife) autobiography. But these two books, in their very different way, show how much more there is to tell. One fills in a great backdrop of political and scientific context; the other distils the essence of an epic life of adventure, heresy, tragedy and revolution.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: History, Non-fiction, Science