Wednesday, June 17, 2009

                Darwin and slavery

               Sam Pearson

“I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave country. To this day, if I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings, when passing a house near Pernamabuco, I heard the most pitiful moans, and could not but suspect that some poor slave was being tortured, yet knew that I was as powerless as a child even to remonstrate”.


This is a direct quotation from Darwin outlining one of the times he experienced the maltreatment of slaves during his travels in south America as a small child. He writes later in life how he lived across the street from a women in Rio de janeiro who regularly tortured her slaves and these experiences seem to have shaped the views that Darwin would have on the matter for the rest of his life.


Indeed Darwin came from a family who had worked towards the abolition of slavery as both his grandfathers where keen abolitionists. His dads father Jos Wedgewood is indeed said to be the person who created the famous picture of a slave on his knees asking his master if he were not his brother. His grandfather even sold the wedgewood showroom in London and put the proceeds into the antislave movement in particular the work of Thomas Clarkson who traveled around collecting statistics on slavery. With such strong family beliefs on slaver it seems impossible that the topic would not affect Darwins life.


It has been written before that Darwin created his theory of common descent from black africans as support to his cause of abolishing slavery. It is true that there are many instances before Darwin published this theory of him stating his hatred of slavery and it seems plausible that he would have doctored his results in order prove that we shared a common ancestory and to prove to the ruling classes that they were no better than the slaves that they emprisoned. However if you look at the evidence that Darwin collected on the matter his quote in the descent of man “it is … probable that our early progenitors lived in the African continent” seems far less biased and far more scientifically viable indeed even to this day the case that we all descended from Africans gets stronger and stronger. Indeed the place were the human race evolved is believed to have been found and human fossils 40,000 years older than anywhere else in the world have been found in Africa.


So how did Darwin’s work undermine the slave trade? It is important to note that at the time of Darwin’s writing the british empire had abolished slavery and policed its waters in an effort to reduce the trade of other countries. Darwin’s main targets were therefore the slave traders of north and south America. At the time many plantation and factory owners in America saw those of black descent as a completely different species to that of the European descended white man. They therefore saw no moral problem with enslaving this so called inferior race. Darwin’s work showed that in fact white man had descended from black Africans. This undermined the ideals of the enslavers who proposed that all none Caucasian people had descended separately and therefore could be treated differently and although it may not have directly affected the slave trade it certainly would have altered the beliefs of those who believed in Darwin’s work. It also provided scientific evidence to aid the antislave movement. Although Darwin omitted human evolution from the origin of species saying “the subject was so surrounded with prejudices” it was well known amongst the science community that human evolution was at its heart and indeed Darwin published his views on human descent in later works.


Indeed Darwin devoted 35 pages in the descent of man to ‘on the races of man’ a chapter where he outlines that the differences between different races are actually very small in the grand scheme of nature and that the physical differences are not caused by natural selection ie there are not different evolutionary pathways for all races. Instead Darwin wrote that these differences are actually caused by sexual selection whereby males compete for females and certain characteristics are desireable in different subgroups. This theory therefore proposed that the black population was equal to the white population and that the minor differences between them were definitely not due to differences in evolution.


At the time Darwin’s name was slightly tainted by subtheories of his work namely social Darwinism as proposed by Herbert spencer. Darwin had stated that sympathetic behaviour towards other humans was an important part of natural selection but he rejected the work of Spencer.


On the beagles return voyage three uneducated islanders traveled with Darwin and the crew. Although the cultural differences between the two groups where enormous Darwin noticed that they shared many mannerisms and that there were indeed many similarities between the two groups. It has been suggested that this was one of the triggers for Darwin’s brainwave that all humans descended from a common ancestor.


In conclusion Darwin’s family background and upbringing were extremely important in his beliefs on the atrocities of slavery and without these his groundbreaking work on mans common ancestor that helped undermine the racist slave traders may never have come to the fore and one of the great scientific works may never have come into being.




Darwins twin track, Adrian Desmond


Massachusetts Darwin 2009 bicentennial project, Johnathan King


Darwin’s Evolution Theory, Inspired By Abolition of Slavery? David Fierce

1 comment:

  1. A rather sketchy overview of this subject, with a few errors, I'm afraid. For example, Darwin's father's father was predictably enough another Darwin—Erasmus Darwin, the poet and physician! Josiah Wedgwood the potter was the father of Darwin's mother!