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Origin of Darwin

Book>> Darwin's Sacred Cause by Adrian Desmond and James Moore Allen Lane, London Price 25

By Pratul Raturi
Published: Tuesday 31 March 2009

Book>> Darwin's Sacred Cause by Adrian Desmond and James Moore Allen Lane, London Price 25

Tributes to Charles Darwin are in full flow. This is 200 years since his birth and 150 years since he wrote the Origin of Species. Secularists trumpet his theory of evolution, liberals find kinship with him and those who believe in the Biblical theory of creation vilify him. All agree that he changed the way we look at life.

In Darwin's Sacred Cause, Adrian Desmond and James Moore argue that the authentic Darwin is "a man more sympathetic than those believing in the Biblical version (that God created life) would find acceptable, more morally committed than scientists would allow." For Desmond and Moore, Darwin's moral impulse came from his anti-slavery politics.

The authors of a well-acclaimed biography of the 19th century English naturalist have plumbed through Darwin's unpublished family letters, his notebooks and lists of books to conclude that the idea of the "brotherhood of man underpins Darwin's work".

Darwin lived in times when phrenology--the reading of skull shapes and bumps to determine racial origin, as well as social position --was a scientific fad. But the attempt to stratify humanity through physical differences never appealed to the English naturalist. His family was stoutly against slavery and the young Darwin devoured antislavery pamphlets and cultivated great admiration for the American abolitionist agitator William Lloyd Garrison. His ardently religious older sisters "taught Darwin respect for life and sympathy for God's creatures."

On his travels Darwin saw the slave trade firsthand . He probably met more dark-skinned people in places such as South America and Cape Verde than almost anyone he knew back home in England.

Down to Earth Moore and Desmond are more concerned with Darwin's encounters with human diversity than with his notes on the finches of the Galapagos Island. In Brazil, the young naturalist was deeply affected after hearing the screams of a slave being tortured and realizing with anger and frustration that he had neither the ability, nor legal standing to interfere. He wrote in his journal, "If I hear a distant scream, it recalls with painful vividness my feelings."

Darwin's power, according to Desmond and Moore, lay in his marshalling an argument for the common pedigree for life. Darwin's family tree of life, they suggest, was in effect an extension to all animals and plants of the tree that anti-slavery ethnologists had reconstructed for human races.

Darwin, ironically, shared that passion with abolitionist Christians, with both declaring equality of all humans, regardless of race. While Christians sought sanction from the Bible, Darwin sought evidence in nature.

Pratul Raturi is working on a dissertation on The Calcutta Science Society

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