What Darwin and evangelicals had in common: hatred of slavery

June 17, 2009

Back in January we reported on a new book which argued that a hatred of slavery did much to form Charles Darwin’s views on natural selection as he sought to prove that blacks and whites had a common ancestor and were not separate species or products of “separate creations” as many of the 19th century defenders of white supremacy maintained.

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I did a blog at the time to draw attention to my colleague Mike Collett-White’s story on “Darwin’s Sacred Cause” by Adrian Desmond and James Moore and said that it had piqued my curiosity enough that I might be tempted to read it. I have done just that and think it raises a couple of issues that will be of interest to readers of this blog.

(Photo: A portrait of Charles Darwin is displayed as part of an exhibition in Darwin’s former home Down House, Kent, England, 12/02/2009, REUTERS/Stringer, UK)

For starters, much of the credit for the anti-slavery movement has been taken by evangelicals and other Christians such as the Quakers, who were indeed often the driving force behind it.  There was much excitement in U.S. evangelical circles two years ago about the release of the movie “Amazing Grace” about British anti-slavery pioneer William Wilberforce who was an ardent evangelical. Much ink has been spilled on this topic, notably in 2005 by Adam Hochschild in his superb book “Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery.”

But no one would mistake the father of modern biological science for an evangelical. Most of his biographers agree (based on overwhelming evidence) that Darwin gradually lost his own faith. Another leading abolitionist in Darwin’s day was his cigar-smoking dining companion Harriet Martineau, who was also a self-proclaimed atheist. Darwin’s own family — which had its share of religious sceptics, notably his father, as well as devout believers– was also heavily involved in the anti-slavery movement.

So it seems that the secular humanist crowd also has an old and some would say noble tradition of anti-slavery agitation  which it can draw on — and it was an issue that united it with evangelicals. Similar bridges are being built today between secular and evangelical leaders on issues like climate change, torture and even the modern slave trade.

It is also worth noting of course that Darwin and his intellectual offspring are often a favored target of conservative evangelicals, especially in the United States. This goes beyond the trouble that many biblical creationists have with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, which is more popularly known as evolution. Some conservative Christians say that Darwin’s theories helped to inspire the eugenics movement whose advocates included Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. They therefore tie Darwin to the abortion rights movement, which Harry R. Jackson Jr, a leading African American conservative evangelical, has dubbed a “black genocide” (because of the large number of black women who seek abortions).

But Darwin himself — as Desmond and Moore elegantly demonstrate in their thought-provoking book — was passionately opposed to cruelty inflicted on racial grounds and so sought to find humanity’s “common descent.” There is almost universal scientific agreement now that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa (which Darwin suspected to be the case). This is a notion that has tellingly troubled some modern white supremacists, some of whom still cling to the fantasy that blacks and whites have different roots (I had a Polish doctor in South Africa once tell me this matter-of-factly, he just could not buy the out of Africa, common descent image).

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(Photo: A replica of the remains of a more than 3-million-year-old female hominid known as “Lucy” at the National Museum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia , 07/08/2007 REUTERS/STR New)

And there are evangelical traditions in the United States which don’t have the proudest histories on the issue of race relations. America’s largest evangelical group, the Southern Baptist Convention, gets its name because it broke ranks with its Yankee brethren because of its support for slavery. And many Southern Baptists were not exactly big supporters of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. (To the SBC’s credit it is working hard to make amends on issues of race and racial reconciliation and last year elected a Native American as its president. But some of the SBC’s critics might say it shouldn’t throw too many racial stones Darwin’s way).

This is all grist for the very big mill that is the legacy of Darwin — who is getting a lot of attention this year because it marks his 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of  ”On the Origin of Species.” But Darwin saved his big surprise on humanity and evolution for the “Descent of Man” in 1871. That, it seems, has sealed him a place in the history of the struggle against racial injustice.

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