The theory of evolution is regarded as a triumph of disinterested scientific reason. Yet, on the 150th anniversary of "On the Origin of Species," new research reveals that Darwin was driven to the idea of common descent by a great moral causeby Adrian Desmond / February 28, 2009 / Leave a comment
Shackled legs, thumbscrews used to crush the fingers of errant female slaves, a six-year-old boy horse-whipped for handing out water in a dirty glass: these sound like scenes from a modern horror story, but all were seen by the young Charles Darwin on his travels with the Beagle around the slave-owning continent of South America. You will find no mention of them in the proudly reasoned, scientific pages of On the Origin of Species. Glance at Darwin’s journals, private notebooks and family background, however, and you will find a man immersed in the rhetoric and fervent belief of the anti-slavery movement. Was the public man of science influenced by these private passions? In the light of painstaking archival investigations into Darwin’s letters, papers and notes, I believe the answer is a firm “yes.” Although he never admitted publicly to so political a motivation, anti-slavery sentiment was the handmaiden of Charles Darwin’s great intellectual achievement—the theory of evolution. The standard tale of a disinterested gentleman-naturalist’s journey of discovery will no longer wash. Rather, to understand both the man in his times and the true radicalism of his theory, we must look to the political and moral considerations that shaped his thought.
A wealthy young man fresh from the cloisters of Cambridge, Charles Darwin set sail in HMS Beagle from Plymouth on 27th December 1831. Aged just 23, a world of wonders lay before him. During the Beagle’s five-year circumnavigation of the globe he spent most of his time on the east coast of South America, studying marine life and the rainforest fauna or galloping across Patagonian plains in search of fossils. Then the Beagle tacked round Cape Horn and up the Chilean coast to Valparaiso, where Darwin climbed the Andean foothills in 1835. After visiting the “frying hot” Galapagos islands, the ship steered a homeward journey, taking in Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and the Cape of Good Hope, before berthing back in England in October 1836.
This itinerary of far-flung places is well-known. What is less generally realised is that the voyage had multiple objectives. Darwin sailed as gentleman companion to the prickly Captain Robert FitzRoy, whose first aim was to return three Alakaluf and Yahgan aboriginals (“Fuegians” to Darwin, as they came from Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago of islands at the southernmost tip of the Americas). They had been snatched during the Beagle’s previous voyage and Christianised as an…