In a meticulously-researched essay for Prospect this month, based on his and James Moore’s groundbreaking book Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Adrian Desmond argues that Darwin’s development of his theory of evolution was crucially catalysed by his personal and family commitment to the abolitionist cause. Based on new analyses of his letters, papers and private notes, Desmond paints a picture of Darwin that is far more complex than the traditional vision of an impartial scientist fighting against his society’s traditional beliefs (and his own innate conservatism). Behind the rational self-presentation was, Desmond argues, a shocked and deeply-felt aversion to those brutal realities Darwin had himself witnessed on his far-from-picturesque travels with the Beagle.
Perhaps most tellingly of all, Desmond’s account also teases out one of the saddest ironies of Darwin’s thought: that this brilliant advocate of the common humanity of all races was also, in his later years, resigned to the ethnic cleansings of colonial expansion as a matter of Malthusian inevitability. Still, if “Darwinism” was never as truly distinct from “social Darwinism” as advocates of the purity of his original theory might claim, it is nevertheless high time that, 200 years after his birth, we celebrate Darwin’s life and work as a moral as well as as a scientific triumph; and his youthful ambition for its humanitarian drive and compassion as much as for its clarity of insight.