Quantcast

Orchids and Lilacs: Darwin, Lincoln and Slavery | The Nation

  •  

Orchids and Lilacs: Darwin, Lincoln and Slavery

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

When Lincoln talked about Providence, he wasn't referring to the historical process or to fate but to a God who intervened directly in history. In this, he shared the religious mindset of most mid-century Americans, and the experience of war only sharpened his convictions. If Stanton did say at Lincoln's bedside that he belonged to the ages, committing him to posterity rather than to God, he was hardly representative: the country responded to the president's death with a wave of eulogies that searched for God's purpose in removing Lincoln from the scene. Some thought him another Moses, destined to die before reaching the promised land of reunion; a few suggested that he had been swept from the stage by God to make way for a politician who could tackle the very different challenges of Reconstruction. But there was no doubt among Americans that Lincoln was on the side of the angels.

About the Author

Nicholas Guyatt
Nicholas Guyatt, a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, teaches American history at the University of York in...

Also by the Author

Public sympathies and political outcomes over the Amistad Africans drifted in opposite directions.

Between a fifth and a third of the white population remained loyal to Britain in 1776. Why?

Ever since Gopnik wrote an essay about 9/11 in which he compared the smell of carnage at the World Trade Center to the aroma of "smoked mozzarella," he's been upbraided for bourgeois self-absorption. After Mayor Michael Bloomberg's decision in 2004 to make the street signs larger to assist bewildered out-of-towners, Gopnik raged against the intrusion upon his sightlines and the "Americanization" of New York City: "If you don't know where you are, you don't deserve to be here." Angels and Ages suffers from the same myopia and brittleness, especially in its pre-emptive strikes on picky historians who might be troubled by all the corner-cutting. But the book's most startling characteristic is its headlong preachiness. The presumption here is that modern life is hard, with our resigned atheism and our simultaneous yearning for something cosmic, and that we would benefit from some enchanted guidance on how to get through the day. For all his admiration of Lincoln's pithy prose, Gopnik's secular sermons sound more like fortune cookies than the Second Inaugural: "The world is round and feels flat; our lives are flat and feel round." "A life without Christmas would be a life without stars." Or, in the book's final lines, "Sunday feelings are as real as Monday facts." (Are Tuesdays still with Morrie?) By the time you reach Gopnik's conclusion, in which he makes his plea for a life of grounded transcendence, you'll either forgive the fraying connections between Lincoln, Darwin and the modern American or find yourself estranged from Gopnik. In either case, you'll discover that this book has more to say about modern life than about either of its subjects.

Charles Darwin's scientific genius has rarely been questioned, and his discreet rejection of religion has recently attracted a new set of admirers. The political implications of his theorizing have been more troublesome. Social Darwinism, the application of "survival of the fittest" to human interactions, is probably a misnomer; it was Herbert Spencer rather than Darwin who focused evolution and natural selection upon society, and Spencer's ideas had gained traction even before Origin of Species appeared in 1859. But Darwin's assault on traditional ideas about creation and the divine shaping of life has presented opportunities to racists, eugenicists and opponents of the welfare state: if the principle of "survival of the fittest" guides humanity as well as the rest of the animal kingdom, argued even his contemporaries, then perhaps there was good reason to let the poor starve, or the nations of Europe overrun indigenous peoples in Australia or Africa.

In Darwin's Sacred Cause, Adrian Desmond and James Moore want to choke off these uncomfortable associations and also (like Gopnik) breathe life into the images of a stern Darwin that come down to us from Victorian photography. Their solution is to argue that his scientific endeavors--the five years of traveling the globe in the 1830s, the painstaking and protracted experiments in his home, countless hours spent peering at barnacles or pigeon skeletons--were animated by a profound humanitarianism that ranged itself against slavery, the paramount evil of the age. Most books about Darwin mention his abolitionism in passing; Desmond and Moore claim to have unearthed "radical" evidence suggesting that "a hatred of slavery shaped Darwin's views on human evolution."

Darwin's family had a proud antislavery record. His grandfather Josiah Wedgwood pledged the support of his famous pottery company to the cause of antislavery leaders Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce in the 1780s. Darwin's wife, a Wedgwood cousin, kept alive this commitment and became an avid reader of the radical British abolitionist Harriet Martineau (a family friend), Boston firebrand William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Darwin was strongly influenced by his encounters with nonwhite people, from his student days in Edinburgh, when he received taxidermy lessons from a freed slave called John Edmonstone, to his many excursions during the voyage of HMS Beagle. Just a few months after Darwin shipped out on the Beagle in December 1831, he glimpsed the horrors of Brazilian slavery and began to record his angry objections in his notebooks. "Every individual who has the glory of having exerted himself on the subject of slavery," he wrote after seeing Brazil, "may rely on it [that] his labours are exerted against miseries perhaps even greater than he imagines."

When he returned from his epic journey in 1836, Darwin began working on species and descent in the midst of a fiery debate on both sides of the Atlantic about the origin of human races. During the eighteenth century, science and religion upheld monogenesis, the belief that humanity was descended from a single point of origin. All men were created equal, or at least from the same stock, and differences in physical appearance or intellectual achievement could be attributed to climate or social opportunity. Not everyone believed this before 1830--Thomas Jefferson was famously skeptical of black mental ability--but most people did, even in the South. In the 1820s and '30s, a new wave of scientists and hucksters challenged monogenesis, drawing upon phrenology and a zeal for promoting the permanent inferiority and superiority of certain races. The proponents of polygenesis argued that the races had been created separately: the evidence from ancient skulls, Egyptian art and other sources suggested that black people in 1000 BC looked rather like black people in the nineteenth century. (Damningly, those Egyptian pictures suggested that blacks had been slaves back then, too.)

This science found enthusiasts throughout the American South, and it made inroads in Northern states and in the British Isles before Darwin's decisive rebuttals. Polygenesis may even have enjoyed the quiet support of the Confederacy: Desmond and Moore suggest that the particularly toxic Anthropological Society, founded in London in 1863, was an arm of Confederate diplomacy during the Civil War, looking to secure British acceptance of the new slave nation by denying the unity of mankind. Darwin's Sacred Cause weaves his criticism of these ideas with the story of nineteenth-century abolitionism. At the same time, the harnessing of Darwin's scientific passion to a moral crusade makes him seem less distant and forensic than we usually imagine.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.