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Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution
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Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution

3.97  ·  Rating Details  ·  118 Ratings  ·  25 Reviews
An astonishing new portrait of a scientific icon.

There is a mystery surrounding Darwin: How did this quiet, respectable gentleman, a pillar of his parish, come to embrace one of the most radical ideas in the history of human thought? Darwin risked a great deal in publishing his theory of evolution, so something very powerful--a moral fire--must have propelled him. That mor
Hardcover, 475 pages
Published January 28th 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published January 1st 2009)
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Dec 10, 2012 John rated it it was amazing
Three comments:
1. I am astonished at the prevalence of racist thought, to the point of obsession, among Caucasians who inhabited the Atlantic world during the 19th century. The theory of plural origins, i.e. that God made the races in separate acts of creation - in opposition to the conviction of common origin of homo sapiens, phrenology leading to cranial science by which races were ranked by cranial capacity, the religious pro-slavery argument, and on and on dominated this thoroughly revolting
Elliott Bignell
Apr 11, 2015 Elliott Bignell rated it it was amazing
We are apes. It is worth repeating that, as the debate on human origins all too often speaks of the "difference between" humans and apes. The fact is that humans are still primates. Such is the depth of the paradigm shift initiated by Darwin, and such its counterintuitive nature that this is so often missed. This is no small matter, as the debate with slavery had in Darwin's time become a shooting war in the USA and a scientific campaign to cast separate races as separate species. In a biblical ...more
Feb 19, 2009 Thomas rated it it was amazing
See my full review in the Washington Post (on the cover of the final issue of Book World, RIP):

"In Darwin's Sacred Cause, Adrian Desmond and James Moore contend that abhorrence of slavery inspired and shaped Darwin's theory of evolution. To grasp his grand project, we have first to understand one of the great scientific battles of the mid-19th century. "Polygenists," such as the American physician Samuel George Morton, held that the human races were each a distinct species, and
Jun 04, 2015 Marc rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Lisa Boileau
This was a difficult read for me, sometimes turgid and tedious, but information rich. Therefore it was worth the effort, if not always a pleasure.

I love the irony of the fact that the hideous practice of American plantation slavery was vigorously advocated and defended by the religious community while Darwin was just as vigorously against it. Science v. Religion indeed. It is a sad but humbling truth that much of the defense of slavery in America was done in the guise of science. We who practice
Feisty Harriet
Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were both born on February 12, 1809 and both men spent years of their professional lives fighting slavery in Europe and the Americas. Lincoln with politics, war, and the Emancipation Proclamation; Darwin with science, facts, and two books: "The Origin of the Species", and "The Descent of Man." Lincoln argued against slavery on moral grounds, while Darwin argued that all humans, black or white, are descended from the same ancestor and are equal, one should not b ...more
This incredibly detailed book sheds light on the physical, mental and emotional toll
Darwin's theories had on him. It explores his committement to the abolition of slavery and the drive this gave him to prove without doubt, the origin of all races came from a common ancestor.
At times, I found myself frustrated at Darwin's hesitation to publish his theories of evolution but this book shows the struggles and battles he was up against. The sheer horror of such acute racism and elitism in the majori
Sep 11, 2011 Mike rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2011-reads
An excellent book describing Charles Darwin and the basis for his rather progressive views towards other peoples, especially in regards to slavery. Some readers may carp about the fleshing out of what could have been a much shorter book, and they would be correct to do so given the inordinate amount of history about phrenology. Still, I appreciated the bulk of material as this book tries--and succeeds--to offer more than a hypothesis: it is also a somewhat decent biography of the man. As there i ...more
Shonda Wilson
Mar 30, 2015 Shonda Wilson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Scholars call Desmond and Moore's book controversial because it takes a different approach to Darwin's motivations for his evolution work, but I found the book detailed, well researched, and quite convincing. I also noticed that some scholars argued that the social atmosphere and slavery / anti-slavery debate in Great Britain and America received too much attention in the book...but I felt that when you are placing Darwin within this context, it is important to understand his influences and surr ...more
Bookmarks Magazine
Apr 15, 2009 Bookmarks Magazine rated it really liked it
Shelves: may-june-2009

Based on a painstaking study of Darwin's private papers -- correspondence, notebooks, journals, ship logs, and even scribbled remarks in the margins of books and pamphlets he had read -- this compelling book endeavors to redeem and humanize the often misunderstood man. Critics uniformly praised Darwin's Sacred Cause, describing it as thoroughly researched, absorbing, and even "thrilling" (Independent). Only a few had misgivings: some critics noticed that the authors gloss over evidence of prejud

Mar 14, 2016 Amber rated it liked it
Scholarly read. Gives an interesting perspective on how racial ideology of the day influenced Darwin in his evolutionary theories. It was interesting that Darwin believed all men descended from a common ancestor yet I get the sense he was a racist. Further proof that science and morality are in different circles of thought.
Michelle Murrain
Jan 22, 2015 Michelle Murrain rated it really liked it
It was really interesting to read this. I've been very familiar with the scientific side of Darwin's work, but not the historical side. This book lays out (in great detail) the conditions and contexts into which Darwin was born, and how he became so dedicated to the anti-slavery cause.

And, it's a good reminder that science isn't carried out by "objective observers" - science is carried out by human beings, with opinions and points of view. The work isn't invalidated by it, but enriched by it. (
Margaret Sankey
Jul 23, 2011 Margaret Sankey rated it liked it
Meant as a refutation to the "see, evolution led straight to Hitler" crowd, this additional volume by Darwin's most recent masterful biographers examines the context of Darwin's attachment to anti-slavery and common descent. This should not be a surprise, since his grandfathers were ""Lunar Men"", funders of Thomas Clarkson and odd friends of Wilberforce (whose son was Darwin's great intellectual enemy), and the Wedgwood women were staunch abolitionists, but mining the early diaries and letters ...more
May 26, 2010 THE rated it really liked it
Finally we meet the real Charles Darwin, not simply the scientist but the man who was influenced by the strong antislavery sentiments of his family (the Wedgewoods and the Darwins) and applied what he saw to interpreting evolution. Both Darwin and Lincoln were born on the same day in 1809 and were destined in a strange way to influence social and and political history. Here is the detailed study of how a naturalist became captive to the currents of history and the winds of change. This is a volu ...more
Feb 24, 2010 Nathan rated it did not like it
A brave and interesting thesis that unfortunately never gets much further than that. Moore and Desmond rescue scientific Darwinism from its (not always unfounded) reputation as racism's scientific apologia by way of biographical investigation and cultural exploration. But having established a solid horizontal framework, they never succeed in building vertically to a definite and convincing conclusion. The book is also plagued by cursory considerations of phrenology and biology that, while german ...more
Mark Jones
Nov 27, 2013 Mark Jones rated it liked it
Quite a slog to get through but worth it. It helped illuminate the challenges Darwin faced to publish, and revealed his disgust with slavery and the use of science to justify it. Part of what made it a difficult read was the vast number of people to keep track of. If I had known, I might have started a list to help keep them all straight. Overall, a good window into two of the most interesting developments of the 19th century.
Sharon Thompson
Sep 10, 2014 Sharon Thompson rated it liked it
Now I just want to read Darwin's books. I think I would rather determine what he meant for myself than have some other author do it and perhaps jump to conclusions.
Taya V
Sep 09, 2009 Taya V added it
Darwin's marriage and the love he had for his wife put a great distancer between himself and his beliefs. His wife was a faithful Christian and did not share his beliefs and cautioned him and many of his concepts and ideas were not fully expressed because of the love and respect he had for his wife during their marriage. I admire him for that.
Dec 29, 2009 Shane rated it did not like it
This book would have made a good 12 page essay. Through redundancy after redundancy the authors stretched the defense of their thesis to a 400+ page book. Yawn. The title suggests some moral imperative motivating Darwin's researches but I thought the narrative pointed more toward the motivators of curiosity and the desire to be right.
Jan 20, 2010 Shinynickel marked it as to-read
Off this review by Rowan Hooper,

The authors come up with something astonishing: a radical new explanation of the force that drove Darwin. It shows how he was motivated by the great moral cause of his day: opposition to slavery.
Apr 06, 2016 Jbondandrews rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed reading Darwin's Sacred Cause. It was good to read that Charles Darwin and his family were so against slavery, though a great shame so many were taken in by it.
Tim Martin
Sep 04, 2011 Tim Martin rated it it was amazing
Excellent revelatory book - combination of science historical biography and political activism in the mid nineteenth century anglo american politics of anti-slavery.
Kenny Taylor
fantastic insight into what drove darwin to write the origin. its an unpalatanble read due to the contextual language. but you will see that it is necessary.
May 24, 2009 Hilary rated it really liked it
It is a fascinating study of this driving force behind Darwin's researches.
Dave Russell
Aug 10, 2011 Dave Russell rated it it was amazing
I was amazed, a thoroughly thought provoking book.
Mar 24, 2009 Michelle marked it as to-read
Birthday gift!
Rashaduz Ali
Rashaduz Ali rated it it was amazing
May 23, 2016
Katie marked it as to-read
May 17, 2016
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May 16, 2016
Neil Daniel
Neil Daniel marked it as to-read
May 15, 2016
Catherine Sanchez
Catherine Sanchez rated it really liked it
May 13, 2016
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Adrian John Desmond (born 1947) is an English writer on the history of science.

He studied physiology at University College, London, and went on to study history of science and vertebrate palaeontology at University College London before researching the history of vertebrate palaeontology at Harvard University, under Stephen Jay Gould. He was awarded a PhD in the area of the Victorian-period contex
More about Adrian J. Desmond...

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