Darwin’s Sacred Cause?

Book Review

by Dr. Tommy Mitchell on April 7, 2009

A recent book claims that Darwin’s hatred of slavery was foundational to his pursuit of his concepts of evolution. But what do Darwin’s words actually show?

Darwin's Sacred Cause

This year of Darwin (it’s the 200th anniversary of his birth) has already brought a flood of books about the famous naturalist. Most of these publications are just revisiting the same old territory: his Beagle voyage, the death of his daughter Annie, his initial reluctance to widely share his ideas, and, of course, the endless barrage of praise about how Darwin’s ideas rescued us from the blind ignorance of those who had gone before.

Darwin’s Sacred Cause, however, has proposed a new view of Darwin, both as a man and as a naturalist.1 The authors, Adrian Desmond and James Moore, also wrote one of the two best-known biographies of Darwin and have spent years poring through Darwin’s publications and correspondence. In their new book, they claim that Darwin’s hatred of slavery was foundational to his pursuit of his concepts of evolution.

Darwin’s Sacred Cause portrays Darwin as a humanitarian concerned about the brotherhood of man. Darwin’s family was deeply involved in the anti-slavery movement in England. They supported anti-slavery organizations and distributed anti-slavery tracts. Charles grew to understand the horrors of slavery as the family read about and protested the cruelties inflicted on slaves by the slave owners.

During the nineteenth century, many slavery advocates justified slavery by claiming that each race was a separate species, each a separate act of creation. For these so-called “pluralists,” the races were not blood kin. This notion gave “scientific” credibility to the concept that blacks (and others) were lesser beings. Desmond and Moore hold that Darwin was driven by a desire to combat this atrocity by showing that all races descended from a common ancestor, thus proving the brotherhood of man.

Darwin’s writings soon after the Beagle voyage, before he had even had time to digest the data from the enormous collection of specimens he sent back during his travels, do show his concern with this issue. As Desmond and Moore put it, “Human evolution wasn’t his last piece in the evolution jigsaw; it was the first” (authors italics).2

Therefore, they propose that Darwin’s noble quest was to deliver the black man by showing that all men had a common ancestor. Darwin would expose the flaws in the pluralists’ defense of slavery and all its atrocities. The lesser races would be elevated by this concept, since all men are blood kin. Darwin’s Sacred Cause claims that Darwin succeeded in his mission.

Darwin’s Sacred Cause provides a detailed examination of slavery and the prominent figures in both camps during those controversial years. The book quotes many original sources, giving each person the opportunity to speak in his own words. Darwin’s correspondence with many of these individuals is referenced to support the authors’ premise.

The Flaws

In their efforts to rescue Darwin and evolution from its obvious racist implications, Desmond and Moore have tried to paint Darwin as the kindly humanitarian scientist, only seeking to release his fellow man from the bondage of oppression and ignorance. While their efforts are laudable, in the end their argument is not convincing, failing on several counts.

First, even if Darwin did intend to strike a blow at slavery by his concept of a common origin of the races, his proposal ultimately lent more “scientific” justification to the practice than was possible before. The resulting increase in racism is well-documented. Even the late evolutionist Stephen J. Gould noted, “Biological arguments for racism may have been common before 1859, but they increased by orders of magnitude following acceptance of evolutionary theory.”3

Darwin may have rescued the “lower races” from the hands of the pluralists, those who argued for separate creation for each race. However, by promoting his view of man’s descent from a common ancestor, he opened a veritable Pandora’s box. Perhaps he won the battle, but he ultimately lost the war.

Darwin’s concept of the evolution of man was that the so-called “races” were not distinct species. He wrote, “But the most weighty of all the arguments against treating the races of man as distinct species, is that they graduate into each other, independently in many cases, as far as we can judge, of their having intercrossed . . . . This diversity of judgment does not prove that the races ought not to be ranked as species, but it shews that they graduate into each other, and that it is hardly possible to discover clear distinctive characters between them.”4 However, Darwin took man down to the level of the animal. Man was no special creation; he was just a more evolved animal form.

Darwin was followed “by later thinkers who would interpret Darwin’s theory to imply that races had been evolved at different times or stages.”5 These people bought into the evolutionary view of man but argued, quite logically, that if man had indeed descended from lower animals (in this case some ape-like precursor), then not all “races” had evolved to the same level; some “races” were more evolved than others. Their idea was based on the concept that the point of divergence on the evolutionary tree was closer to the ape than Darwin had surmised.

Evolution has provided ample justification for many people’s racist views.
So, is evolution the cause of racism? Certainly not. Racism has existed from the dawn of man. Sin in the heart of man is the ultimate cause. However, evolution has provided ample justification for many people’s racist views. Australian Aborigines were hunted and killed as specimens. A small African man named Ota Benga was put in a New York zoo as an example of a lesser-evolved savage. Scientific examinations of less-advanced cultures proclaimed them to be closer to the ape than the more evolved Caucasian—all in the name of evolution. Where were the Darwin apologists then? How do they answer for this now?

Second, a more basic question comes to mind. If man is just an animal, just a higher form of ape, present in the accidental world as a result of blind chance, then what is wrong with slavery? Isn’t slavery just a form of selection? Isn’t slavery just the stronger surviving at the expense of the weaker?

The publishers indicate that the authors were attempting to “restore the missing moral core of Darwin’s evolutionary universe, providing a completely new account of how he came to his shattering theories about human origins.”6 How morality is defined in an evolutionary universe was apparently not a major concern for the authors. It was, however, for Charles Darwin.

If, as Darwin suggested, morals and religion were just products of evolution, where is the ultimate basis for determining right and wrong? What was the basis for Darwin’s moral outrage against slavery? Darwin knew the answer: “A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for the rule of his life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones.”7 So, here Darwin states that man ultimately determines truth for himself. Isn’t that what the slave owners were doing? What would make Darwin’s opinion about slavery more valid than anyone else’s?

Furthermore, though he was averse to slavery, Darwin often referred to other people groups as “savages” or “barbarians.”8 He wrote, “The main conclusion arrived at in this work, namely, that man is descended from some lowly organised form, will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many. But there can hardly be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians . . . . For my own part I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper, or from that old baboon, who descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs—as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.”9 In fact, Darwin’s godless worldview provided no justification for his condemnation of human sacrifice or infanticide. After all, in our culture, evolution has been used to justify abortion.

Third, if the abolition of slavery to be accomplished on the basis of his new scientific worldview, was indeed the great issue in Darwin’s life, why is it only now coming into focus? As mentioned, Desmond and Moore authored one of the two definitive biographies of Darwin (the other being the two volume Charles Darwin by Janet Browne).10 In this work (as in Browne’s volumes) Darwin’s opposition to slavery was noted on occasion (his rift with Captain FitzRoy over slavery during the Beagle voyage, for example). It was not, however, presented as the driving force that it seems to be in this new book. Even in his own autobiography, Darwin himself does not dwell significantly on this issue. If Darwin was so wrapped up in his sacred cause, why has it taken so long to discover it?

Darwin Was Right . . . and Wrong

Charles Darwin was right about one thing. All men are related. He was wrong, however, about the basis for this conclusion. He concluded that in the past man merely evolved from an ancient precursor. As this process continued, the different “races” appeared. Man is just a higher animal. Man does not have a special place in the world. His concept of the ancestry of man ultimately increased the justification for racism.

The Bible indicates that all men are indeed related. We are all “one blood” according to Acts 17:26. Man is not just another animal, for we were created in God’s image. All men are fully human; so, there is no need to search for a missing link. The people groups of the world are the result of the separation of the people at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 10–11). As these people groups became reproductively isolated, the so-called racial characteristics developed over time.11 So, even though we have many ethnic groups, there is only one race, the human race.

The Bible shows that men were fully human, all equal in God’s eyes from the beginning of the creation. None are lesser beings or transitional precursors. The biblical view allows us to see that the origin of racism and slavery is in the hearts of sinful man. Man’s inhumanity to man has existed from the Fall; however, there is no justification for it in a biblical worldview.

Ironically, there is much religious imagery in this book: Darwin’s “Sacred” Cause, Darwin’s “Christian” abolitionist heritage, etc. This resort to religion is perhaps an unintended (and ironic) acknowledgement that Darwin, the man who viewed a world without God, would need the moral law given by that God as the basis for his outrage against slavery.

One Last Point . . .

Darwin proponents will undoubtedly enjoy this book. They would welcome any opportunity to minimize or dismiss the racist implications of an evolutionary worldview. However, this alternative point of view comes at a cost. If the premise of the book is true, then Darwin is no longer the unbiased seeker of truth. If his hatred of slavery was a major driving force for Darwin, then the claim that the “facts speak for themselves” is invalid. Darwin’s interpretation of the evidence was colored by his preconceived ideas.

Here the double standard is evident. If the Bible is your starting point (your worldview) and you interpret your findings within that framework, then you are unscientific because you have a bias. However, Charles Darwin bringing his bias against slavery to the table as he “scientifically” examined the evidence seems to be perfectly acceptable here. Sounds like having your cake and eating it too.


  1. Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).
  2. Ibid., xvi.
  3. Stephen Jay Gould, Ontogeny and Phylogeny (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), p. 127.
  4. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection With Relation to Sex (New York: The Modern Library), p. 536.
  5. Wikipedia, “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.”
  6. Darwin’s Sacred Cause, book jacket.
  7. Nora Barlow, ed., The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, 1809–1882 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1958), p. 78.
  8. Darwin’s apologists have often suggested the Darwin was not racist and that he was only using the language of the day to describe these other ethnic groups. Somehow the “after all, everybody does it” argument seems rather shallow. It is more than a little inconsistent that he was so concerned about others and then would refer to them in these terms. One might ask: in what circumstances would you consider being called a “savage” anything less than derogatory?
  9. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection With Relation to Sex (New York: The Modern Library), pp. 919–920.
  10. Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin (New York: Warner Books, 1991).
  11. See the chart at http://www.answersingenesis.org/assets/pdf/am/v3/n2/babel-differences-chart.pdf

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