Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins by Adrian Desmond and James Moore

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Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins by Adrian Desmond and James Moore

Category: Popular Science
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: This is a hefty chunk of scientific history, with an exceedingly detailed picking at Darwin's thoughts and career developing and writing on human evolution. To the specialist it is worth its weight in the gold, to the man in the street, perfectly readable yet two times too big.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: January 2009
Publisher: Allen Lane
ISBN: 978-1846140358

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This probably won't be the only time you are told through 2009 that it would have been Charles Darwin's 200th birthday this year, and that it is 150 years since On The Origin of Species first appeared. This book however declares that second anniversary to be slightly of less importance, when you factor in the biggest section of his evolutionary thinking Darwin left out of that book – that of human evolution.

This book however feels much less like leaving anything out, and therefore we start with a very detailed history of racism as it featured in the anti-slavery campaigns of the first half of the 19th century. Darwin's family, and that of his cousin-come-wife Emma, were prevalent in abolitionist thinking. This was a world of phrenology – 'bumpology' – where people were seeing shapes in humanoid skulls and deciding they defined racially unique characteristics. This way the fad of categorising and tabulating everything scientifically reached almost a hit parade of races and their superiority.

If anything I would have expected more racism to have come from the world of the church, rightly or wrongly doing their missionary thing. But they instantly declared all aboriginal races as guilty of the same original sin as themselves, and therefore their brother in needing salvation.

To repeat, this book does not shy of giving us all the relevant information, and we also get a history of the politics, religion and humanitarian strands of life (even the birth of what becomes the RSPCA is here). And while it appears to want to redress the balance of how Darwin is remembered, with a less-read later book on human evolution to be given more importance, there is a strong case for the cast of thousands getting their bit in the limelight here being overwhelming.

The book is a lot better when it comes to reporting on the relevant formative encounters and conversations Darwin had, both home and abroad, and a selective look at the reported voyages of the Beagle. And the result of those is all here.

People elsewhere (especially in the USA, still owning slaves long after the trade's abolition, and reporting back home with horror as to the commingling of colours walking, working and marrying together in the UK of the time) were deciding the 'subspecies' of humans were quite happy to be enslaved, or on their way out and only needed a prompting before natural selection saw their way to extinction, as with the native American Indians. Many scientists were even obstinate and deciding mulattoes were sterile, or otherwise unwanted by nature. They could not of course be brother or sister to civilised, domesticated humans.

Darwin was wondering how different races were so similar yet were immune to different diseases, and may have had unique species of lice, but realising that as man's domesticated animals had been artificially bred for difference, yet still interbred, there was no way the diverse humans could be unique species with unique origins, as many claimed.

Is it any wonder then that Darwin could not declare his thoughts that humans of all kind descended from primates for many a year? Not that he had the proofs of the missing links his exacting standards were in need of. The creation of his own anti-creationist ideas were a long time coming, partly inspired by changes in Darwin's own life. What was it that was making Emma Wedgwood want to marry him? Was this sexual selection responsible through millennia for human variety, more so than climate, circumstance of diet and so on?

Well the conclusions are there in the publication of The Descent of Man, his later book, whose appraisal this hefty tome concludes with. But although the detailing of what led up to this – Darwin's early reckonings on human evolution, yet delayed revelation for fear of scorn and opprobrium – prove the moral backbone to Darwin's work in quite a unique and unusual way we can only admire, there is a problem.

The biggest conclusion I could come to is that for the layman this book is twice as long as it would appear to need be. The story it contains would I am sure still almost meet Darwin's approval at half the length. And paradoxically, at the same time, there is the second half of this book still unwritten – the introduction talks of how Darwinian biology has been distorted by racists since, and we need something as detailed as this to show us how, and when, and equally as judiciously as here, why.

This book is one of those ones that come along and defeat our star rating system. If you can believe me as a man in the street, of all things, this was at times almost laborious to get through, with no end of pertinent detail. It was authoritative, and readable, yet too much, and as a read could quite conceivably only get three stars. Yet still I was certainly impressed by the labours of these two authors, who hide the splitting of their labours and combination of them to create this sterling tome very well. For the creator of a library on the history of science, then, or those researching 19th century racism and the end of the slave trade, this is a priceless five star book.

We at the Bookbag must thank Allen Lane for our review copy. For those still with brushing up on their Darwin to be done, we can recommend On the Origin of Species: The Illustrated Edition by Charles Darwin and David Quammen (Author and Editor).

Booklists.jpg Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins by Adrian Desmond and James Moore is in the List Of Books To Celebrate Charles Darwin's 200th Anniversary.
Buy Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins by Adrian Desmond and James Moore at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins by Adrian Desmond and James Moore at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins by Adrian Desmond and James Moore at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins by Adrian Desmond and James Moore at Amazon.com.


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