Review: Darwin’s Sacred Cause, by Adrian Desmond & James Moore

Darwin’s Sacred Cause distinguishes itself as being the first biography that I find readable, and the reason for this is probably that it is not a biography in the purest sense. Instead of chronicling the details of Darwin’s life it tell about how his two famous books Origin of Species and Descent of Man came to be.

To do this the authors has had to explain the political, economical and ideological climate of Darwin’s time and because of this the book interweaves history of the 19th century British Empire, slavery and abolition, political discourse, economic and political change, and history of science.

On reading the book my mind set off on various tangents, exploring ideas and making new connections with pieces of knowledge laying strewn about the floor and desk of my brain –

– We who grew up in the wake of WWII are, at least in Sweden, saturated with images from those wars; public service TV, which was the only TV we had, showed lots and lots of WWII documentaries. The atrocities of the concentration camps and the siege of Stalingrad was standard fare.

Until I read Darwin’s Sacred Cause I had not fully understood how intrinsic stratification and racism is to our culture, to the very social fabric holding western society together. Growing up during a period when outrage over the possibility of places like Auschwitz and Dachau was mandatory I had no real concept of a society were treating humans as less valuable than a good work-horse or a car was acceptable.

Mind you, I was well aware that the racism of the Nazis wasn’t conceived out of thin air. Intellectually I knew they were children of their time. And economic stratification is one of the most important mechanisms of capitalism. But reading this biography I got the instruments to understand how ingrained both stratification and racism is to our culture, as is now aptly demonstrated by the revival of nationalist movements across Europe. It makes the post-WWII part of the 20th century look like a parenthesis when shame forced us to at least pay lip service to the idea that every human had equal value.

Darwin, of course, did not think every human had equal value. Very few of his contemporaries did. And I did say this was tangential to the book. But as the book touches on the American Civil War, on slavery and abolition, and on the birth of anthropology and ethnography in all its colonial splendour, I could not ignore that my train of thought ran off towards personal experiences of for example LA’s South Central or downtown New Orleans, as experienced in the late 1990’s, or by segregated suburbia in present-day Stockholm.

Much as we want to be upset over the way plantation slaves were treated and much as we want to put distance between ourselves and the attitudes of Darwin’s contemporaries and their colonial mindset we – humanity as a whole – need to ask ourselves if these changes we perceive are just superficial, veneer, difference in dressing rather than context.

Much as we want to distance ourselves from the atrocities of the concentration camps we as humans have not yet managed to face why these things happen. We want those things to be the result of aberrant behaviour in individuals. We want those things to be the result of skewed minds manipulating the well-meaning and innocent.

They aren’t. They are the fruits of our blind spots, were we don’t see – don’t want to see – what consequences our theories about individual freedom as sacrosanct for the successful have on the exploited; an exploitation necessitated by our demand for more. We don’t want our well-deserved vacation to a tropical island to be possible because children labour to produce our iPhones and our Nikes.

Neither did Darwin, despite his same blindness. And this biography of his set me thinking, and that is a value in and of itself.

Easily one of the best non-fiction books that I have read in a long long time.

Highly recommended.

Some prior knowledge of the history of science makes the text easier to parse, though, because there’s lots and lots and LOTS of names and it is easy to lose track of who had what opinion.

 (…and by coincidence a friend posted a link to this New Inquiry essay the other day – related, in my view, to my musings above.)


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