As I write this three of the four main articles on the New York Times science page are related to the theory of evolution in some significant way: an article about skates (close relatives of sharks and rays) possessing the genes that help vertebrates walk, another explaining how some starfish make their own light to attract mates or find food, and last but not least there’s a story regarding beetles that often make toads regret eating them.
Evolution still stirs some public controversy, particularly within conservative religious communities. But within the scientific community, it is well and firmly established. It is a feature of every major science story even remotely related to life on our planet. From medicine to psychology and paleontology to genetics, there is very little that can be well understood without some grasp of Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection.
Most people’s image of Charles Darwin is an old grey haired man with a wizardly beard and deeply furrowed brow; the quintessential image of a Victorian Era thinker. But this Darwin, the aging respected Darwin of the 1870s and early 80s, was Darwin the articulator. The development of his theories had commenced decades earlier.
Evolution by means of natural selection wasn’t just the product of a brilliant mind capable of seeing connections others had missed or never even thought to look for. It was also the result of a life spent wrestling with the problem of suffering.
Darwin’s familiarity with suffering stretched across the spectrum from personal to universal. His mother, Susannah, died when he was eight years old. Later in life, during The Origin of Species long gestation period, he would lose three of his children. The death of his 10-year-old daughter, Anne Elizabeth Darwin, in 1851, was a particularly transformative experience for both Charles and his wife Emma.
But personal tragedy was not Charles Darwin’s only source of insight into pain and loss. Though few people realize it, both sides of Darwin’s family were activity engaged in the United Kingdom’s abolition movement. Charle’s maternal grandfather, Josiah Wedgewood I, produced at his own expense the seal for the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. His Wedgewood tableware factories were well suited for their production, and the seal itself became an iconic image for the abolition movement both in the UK the United States.
Most people probably understand by now that the struggle to survive at least long enough to bear offspring lies at the heart of Darwin’s theory of evolution. This struggle typically sucks up all the conversational oxygen, crowding out ideas about the theory’s development and the wider impact on society. For example, that the theory of evolution might have been profoundly shaped by the moral implications of slavery and the racial politics of the early 19th century is something few people have seriously considered. In their book Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution, Adrian Desmond and James Moore undertake a deep and thorough exploration of this possibility.
Instead of the stereotypical intensely cerebral and emotionless scientist, Desmond and Moore discover in Darwin a man driven as much by passion as by curiosity:
Rather than seeing ‘the facts’ force evolution on Darwin (other circumnavigating naturalists had seen similar phenomena all over the globe), we find a moral passion firing his evolutionary work. He was quite unlike the modern ‘disinterested’ scientist who is supposed (supposed, mark you) to derive theories from ‘the facts’ and only then allow the moral consequences to be drawn. Equally, he was the reverse of the fundamentalists’ parody, which makes his enterprise anti-God, inhuman and immoral.
It is rather astonishing that this side of Charles Darwin didn’t receive much attention until fairly recently. Darwin’s letters home during his famous five-year voyage on the Beagle contained references both to his disgust with the institution of slavery and his delight with political developments at home favorable to the abolitionist movement. Writing to his sister Catherine Darwin from Brazil, he expressed his happiness that reform’s prospects in the United Kingdom had taken a positive turn:
I have watched how steadily the general feeling, as shown at elections, has been rising against Slavery. — What a proud thing for England, if she is the first Europæan (sic) nation which utterly abolishes it. — I was told before leaving England, that after living in Slave countries: all my opinions would be altered; the only alteration I am aware of is forming a much higher estimate of the Negros character. — it is impossible to see a negro & not feel kindly towards him; such cheerful, open honest expressions & such fine muscular bodies; I never saw any of the diminutive Portuguese with their murderous countenances, without almost wishing for Brazil to follow the example of Hayti (sic).
Charles Darwin’s views on race were even more radical than those held by many of his contemporary abolitionists. Not every abolitionist believed in racial equality. Many felt slavery to be an abomination but still held that at least some degree of segregation was necessary.
Darwin, on the other hand, not only argued that all races were full and equal members of the human family, but that humanity itself was likewise connected to the animal kingdom. Writing in his notebook in May of 1838, Darwin articulated his growing conviction that all living things shared a common kinship: “My theory explains that family likeness [in animals], which as in absolute human family is undescribable (sic), yet holds good, so does it in real classification…I cannot help thinking good analogy might be traced between relationship of all men now living & the classification of animals.”
The realization that all life on Earth is connected biologically, as well as via the web of interdependencies that continues driving evolution onward, represents as much a moral awakening as it does a scientific revolution. Evolution’s opponents have consistently misrepresented the theory and vilified the man who first articulated it. Others have claimed to embrace it even as they distorted evolution to serve their own twisted ideological purposes through the advocacy of ideas such as social Darwinism or eugenics. In doing so neglect and cruelty were provided pseudoscientific cover while the moral ramifications of the stronger bonds between peoples and species evolution reveals were ignored. In spite of it all, Darwin’s theory has passed each test with flying colors, emerging on the other side of every controversy even stronger than before. That’s something worth celebrating. Happy 209th Birthday, Charles Darwin!!
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