Charles Darwin was interested in the wonders of nature and how they came about; but he had another great passion, and that was a hatred of slavery.
“Darwin’s Sacred Cause” points out that Darwin married into an abolitionist family and that the notion of common descent, even before he published his theory of how it might happen, was an abolitionist’s plea for equal treatment of all men and women.
As usual, “the BBC has the story: ” Darwin’s twin track: evolution and emancipation.”
“It makes one’s blood boil,” said Charles Darwin.
Not much outraged the gentle recluse, but the horrors of slavery could cost him a night’s sleep.
He was thinking of the whipped house boy and the thumbscrews used by old ladies in South America, atrocities he had witnessed on the Beagle voyage.
Handy-dandy torture device
The screams stayed with him for life, but how much did they influence his life’s work?
…new evidence suggests that Darwin’s unique approach to evolution – relating all races and species by “common descent” – could have been fostered by his anti-slavery beliefs.
The notion of evolution had been bruited about for some time—at least seventy years—but no one had a mechanism for how it happened.
Why was Darwin’s evolution uniquely defined by common descent, the joining of races and species through shared ancestry? Darwin’s common descent image is so obvious today that we forget to question where it came from.
"Am I not a man and a brother?"
Common descent in Darwin’s younger day was ubiquitous in anti-slavery tracts. Consider the words of the famous cameo, depicting a kneeling slave asking “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” That cameo was in fact the brainchild of the pottery-dynasty founder, Josiah Wedgwood, Darwin’s grandfather.
New evidence shows how indebted Darwin was to this anti-slavery heritage.
Darwin’s uncle Jos Wedgwood sold the firm’s London showroom, and ploughed the proceeds into an anti-slavery society, and in the 1850s (with American slavery still flourishing) the Wedgwoods continued using labels showing the slave under Britannia’s banner, which read “God Hath Made of One Blood All Nations of Men”.
The anti-slavery agitator Thomas Clarkson – the man who rode 35,000 miles collecting statistics in the sea ports on the evil trade – was another bankrolled by Josiah Wedgwood.
With a Wedgwood wife and mother, Darwin saw abolition as a “sacred cause” too, and in his culminating work, the Descent of Man (1871), he placed Clarkson at the moral apex of humanity and called slavery a “great sin”.
Darwin’s theory undermined the great moral excuse for slavery: that slaves belonged to a separate species.
In addition, Darwin was horrified by the torture that he saw when he visited slave-holding nations. (Britain had abolished slavery in the Great Reform Acto of 1832.) He saw the grief and fear of parents whose owners threatened to sell their children away from them. Ah, the traditional American family!