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


Orchids and Lilacs: Darwin, Lincoln and Slavery

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

It's tempting to rest upon the same conclusion reached by Darwin's colorful older brother, Erasmus, after reading Origin of Species: "If the facts won't fit in, why, so much the worse for the facts." Darwin hated slavery, and Desmond and Moore do a marvelous job of juxtaposing his careful research agenda with the reckless theorizing of the polygenists. But did Darwin actually embrace the "brotherhood of man"? And did his research or his writing have any impact on political debates about race and slavery?

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?

The first question is hard to answer. For such a groundbreaking thinker, Darwin was extraordinarily cautious. He secretly sketched his ideas about evolution in the late 1830s, but he wrote them up only two decades later when a rival naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, wrote an essay about natural selection that threatened to scoop his discoveries. In some ways, this meticulous approach to science bolsters the argument: perhaps Darwin really was thinking about humanity when he spent years on his barnacles and pigeons, opting for this safer scientific terrain while remaining closely attuned to debates on human origins. Desmond and Moore have taken the trouble to read Darwin's own copies of the most infamous works of race science, and they are superbly poised to interpret the scorings and exclamations with which he filled up the margins. But Darwin said almost nothing publicly about human origins, or the thorny question of race, until he published The Descent of Man in 1871. If he believed in the 1850s that he had an understanding of race that could help the abolitionists, he kept it to himself.

A bigger problem with Darwin's Sacred Cause is the uncertainty over the political consequences of racial unity. Although he believed that races were descended from the same origin, Darwin was fuzzier on differences among the peoples of the modern world. He was silent on the future of emancipated slaves in the United States, though in this he was following a more general reluctance on both sides of the Atlantic to explore the social consequences of emancipation. He read Uncle Tom's Cabin and Frederick Law Olmsted's Southern travelogues, antislavery bestsellers from the 1850s that endorsed the removal of slaves to a land in which they might receive, in Olmsted's phrase, "freedom and the most complete fair play." But there is nothing in Darwin's Sacred Cause (or in any of Darwin's published works) on the social experiment of Reconstruction and the project of enshrining black equality in law. Darwin looked ahead in Descent of Man to "some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, [in which] the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world." Unlike many of his contemporaries, Darwin didn't rush to embrace this extermination as evidence of progress; yet he did nothing to undermine its logic, or to consider the example of a previously "savage" race in America that was now, nominally at least, an integral part of the world's largest democracy.

Desmond and Moore triumphantly demonstrate that Darwin rejected the phony science of polygenesis. It's harder to accept the argument that by promoting monogenesis, he was driving a stake into slavery. The problem, as Desmond and Moore quietly admit, is that slavery did not rest upon the idea that blacks were a separate species. Although this notion quickened the pulse of some slaveholders and race theorists, it threatened venerable proslavery arguments that were based on the Bible. It also undermined religion more generally: an account of creation that brushed aside Adam and Eve would produce rationales for racism only at the expense of theological crisis. The Confederacy, for all its commitment to slavery, was hardly a godless place. (When drafting a new constitution in the spring of 1861, Confederate legislators declared that the only defect of the US Constitution was its failure explicitly to acknowledge the control of Providence over human affairs.) And so De Bow's Review, the New Orleans journal that provided a forum for polygenesis in the decade before the Civil War, warned Southerners away from their calipers and skulls in April 1861: "The man of science will see at once that it is only weakening the argument on the subject of domestic slavery, to contend for the negro a separate creation. There is no necessity for it, and to sustain it you must discard revelation." More pointedly: "'Thus saith the Lord' is far more potent in convincing men of the path of duty, or of right, than all reasoning based upon supposed hypothesis."

Desmond and Moore are more persuasive when they suggest that Darwin's objection to slavery was based on its cruelty: there was something affective rather than intellectual about his moral outrage. How to connect humanitarianism with evolutionary biology? Darwin gave some thought to this question. Perhaps, he argued in Descent of Man, sympathy for others--necessary within savage tribes for defensive purposes--had been magnified within "civilised societies." Tribes or nations able to translate this sympathy into patriotism and sacrifice for the common good "would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection." But just a few paragraphs later, he observed that propping up the "weak members of civilised societies" with asylums, poor laws and hospitals--and especially allowing these "weak members" to reproduce--"must be highly injurious to the race of man." Still, to "check our sympathy" for the weak would force us to damage "the noblest part of our nature." There is something uncomfortably (but unsurprisingly) paternalist about his conclusion: "Hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind." There may be a recognition of human brotherhood in this, but it isn't a blueprint for egalitarianism.

One of the challenges in engaging Darwin is that he was, above all, an observer: his theories and writing emerged at a glacial pace and depended on a focus that was heroically patient. He was hardly cut out to be an activist, and on the rare occasions that he nudged his friends toward abolition or professed his sympathy toward the slaves, he quickly scurried back to his study: "Heaven knows why I trouble you with my speculations," he apologized to his Harvard friend Asa Gray, after briefly pressing the abolitionist cause in a letter of 1861. "I ought to stick to orchids."

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.