“Darwin’s Sacred Cause,” “Evolution: The First Four Billion Years” and other books on Darwin.
Thank God for Evolution
How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World
Viking: 432 pp., $24.95
The First Four Billion Years
Edited by Michael Ruse
and Joseph Travis
Belknap Press: 1,008 pp., $39.95
Only a Theory
Evolution and the Battle
for America’s Soul
Kenneth R. Miller
Viking: 256 pp., $25.95
Darwin’s Sacred Cause
How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution
Adrian Desmond and James Moore
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 486 pp., $30
A Life in Poems
Alfred A. Knopf: 128 pp., $26
Two hundred years after his birth, English scientist Charles Darwin, author of “On the Origin of Species,” is a powerful global brand. To commemorate his bicentennial, the “Darwin industry” -- as Cambridge historian Martin J.S. Rudwick terms it -- has been in high gear, generating books, papers, greeting cards, T-shirts, car ornaments and, of course, fresh scholarship. Surprisingly, it has not generated much controversy -- except in the United States, which has a stubborn contingent of religious fundamentalists who maintain that the Earth is only 6,000 years old.
FOR THE RECORD:
Charles Darwin: In a Feb. 8 review of several books about the life and work of Charles Darwin, the family name of Darwin’s relatives, the Wedgwoods, was misspelled as Wedgewood. —
Yet they too may soon be won over, if Michael Dowd, author of “Thank God for Evolution,” has his way. Dowd is a Christian evangelical minister; his wife, Connie Barlow, an atheistic science writer. Their marriage evokes a Hollywood romantic comedy. After being “born again” and receiving a master of divinity at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dowd met Barlow, author of two books with “evolution” in their titles, at a cosmology lecture. Against all odds, they fell in love and found a mission: to travel around the country preaching that evolution is indeed God’s plan.
Today the couple has no permanent residence. Dowd thumps “Origin of Species” as ardently as the Bible. His movement’s logo is a Christian fish smooching a Darwin amphibian (which, if you can bear its cuteness, can be purchased on a baseball cap at ThankGodForEvolution.com).
Dowd’s writing has the cheesy tone of a self-help book; his gooiest chapter is a workbook of “Evolutionary Integrity Practices” that parallel the “steps” of 12-step recovery programs. Yet one can forgive such tackiness if Dowd persuades but a single extremist to heed physicist Sean B. Carroll: “Biology without evolution is like physics without gravity.”
A more rigorous history of the conflict between dogma and science can be found in “Evolution: The First Four Billion Years,” a comprehensive essay collection edited by Michael Ruse and Joseph Travis. For a personal perspective, Kenneth R. Miller, a biology professor at Brown University, offers “Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul.” In 2005, Miller served as an expert witness in a trial in Dover, Pa., where creationists sought to replace the teaching of science with that of mythology.
But if you read only one book to honor the bicentennial, make it “Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution.” This first-rate work breaks new ground and persuasively locates the inspiration for Darwin’s theory in his abolitionism. Adrian Desmond and James Moore, the book’s authors, published a much-lauded biography of Darwin in 1991. But after examining previously unavailable material -- ships’ logs, letters, journals, marginalia in Darwin’s library -- they rethought their conclusions. Published in 1859, “On the Origin of Species,” which detailed animal evolution, antedated “The Descent of Man” by 12 years. Darwin deliberately purged references to “human races and ape ancestry” from it. But critics knew the book was “really about mankind.”
Darwin grew up amid anti-slavery societies -- some started by his free-thinking grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin (the philandering doctor) and Josiah Wedgewood (the Unitarian industrialist). His mother’s family also worked against slavery, viewing abolitionism as a core Christian belief.
The origins of ‘Origin’
Some biographies dismiss Darwin’s first year of medical school as uneventful. Edinburgh, where he studied, was not as rigorous as Cambridge and was overrun with wacky phrenologists, who believed character was revealed by head bumps. But Desmond and Moore see that year as a turning point: Darwin apprenticed with a “Blackamoor” -- a former slave -- to learn taxidermy. He also learned respect for the intelligence and humanity of his tutor.
Darwin’s circumnavigation aboard the Beagle, from 1831 to 1835, also fueled his abolitionism. We know how his observations of animal life -- particularly from the Galápagos Islands -- led to the conclusions set out in “Origin of Species.” But Desmond and Moore uncover another pattern: how seeing slavery in the ports he visited sparked Darwin’s quest to eradicate it by affirming a common human heritage. “For the young Darwin to feel as well as understand took tropical pain, real shackled legs and sweat-soaked bodies broken in the cane fields,” they explain. “Throughout the voyage, Darwin never ceased tacking into slavery’s wind, sailing against an evil South American gale. He returned bronzed, salted, and born again.”
Darwin’s awakening began circa 1831 in Rio de Janeiro, where he watched the British navy struggle to interdict the slave trade. The authors describe the horrors of an intercepted slave ship: a “charnel house” of “diseased and emaciated bodies.” And they place their hero -- “a squeamish, humanitarian young gentleman from Cambridge” -- into this “brutal” and “black” environment: “Rio had more slaves than any city in the Americas; at noon, when the whites were indoors avoiding the sweltering heat, visitors said that it was like arriving in Africa.” Yet, far from setting himself apart from the enslaved, Darwin experienced a sense of brotherhood -- with everybody except those who traded in flesh.
Nor did Darwin merely witness the abuse and murder of African slaves. In Argentina, he had a ringside seat for the slaughter of indigenous Indians as the guest of Gen. Juan Manuel de Rosas, a “perfect Gaucho, grave, unsmiling, himself a torturer,” and the leader of a campaign to wipe out the local tribes. Like “other genocidal despots,” Rosas “had a soft spot for nature if not naturalists” and allowed Darwin to explore his vast estate, where Darwin found part of a giant fossilized armadillo.
Happily, the authors note, Rosas and Darwin had “safely extinct megafauna” to discuss -- because their viewpoints on genocide were not in harmony. Rosas, who would become dictator of Argentina, viewed Indians as “pests to be eradicated, like rats.” Darwin, who saw them as people, was aghast at the “throats slit, prisoners shot, all women ‘above twenty years old’ butchered ‘lest they breed.’ ” No stop on Darwin’s voyage was exempt from the racial slights and atrocities. Even in a remote Patagonian outpost, protocols of racial segregation were enforced -- a convention Darwin found “painful” when he was not permitted to sit down and dine with his gracious African-born host.
For Darwin, meeting people of other races offered evidence of their humanity. This sort of exposure did not, however, affect every European that way. Louis Agassiz, a Swiss-born Harvard biologist who became a fierce antagonist of Darwin’s, flipped out the first time he met people of color. “I could not tear my eyes away from their appearance in order to tell them to keep their distance,” Agassiz observed. “And when they put their hideous hand on my plate in order to serve me, I wished I were able to distance myself in order to eat my morsel of bread elsewhere.”
Unable to “quell the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us,” Agassiz concocted a bizarre theory that assigned racism to God. As he saw it, the Creator made different human species for different parts of the world. Not surprisingly, this poppycock was a big hit in the American South on the eve of the Civil War. Because of Agassiz’s Harvard affiliation, the theory was dignified as “scientific racism.”
A gaping schism
Agassiz’s bigotry galled Darwin. His anger is recorded in the margins of his copy of “Types of Mankind,” a racist tract to which Agassiz wrote the introduction. Darwin, Desmond and Moore write, “indignantly showered Agassiz’s essay on aboriginal men in the zoological provinces with angry jabs: ‘How false . . . what forced reasoning!’ ” When Agassiz concluded, “There is no evidence whatever” for “common origins,” Darwin scrawled: “Oh proh pudor Agassiz!” This translates as: “Oh for shame Agassiz!”
The broad strokes of Darwin’s life are well known. He took a keen interest in animal husbandry and studied the way breeders selected for desirable traits. From boyhood he was sensitive to animals’ pain. An ardent angler, he learned to euthanize worms with salt so they didn’t suffer being spitted. Eventually, he renounced such cruel practices as fishing and shooting, affirming a kinship with all species.
In 1839, he married his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood. They were philosophical opposites: She was a Christian, he an atheist. But they had enough DNA in common for Darwin to worry about inbreeding -- in families as well as evolution. His qualms apparently passed, and the Darwins had 10 children. Charles and Emma preferred each other’s company to that of the larger world, and Ellen’s habitual morning sickness was an excuse to refuse social invitations.
Like “Darwin’s Sacred Cause,” Ruth Padel’s “Darwin: A Life in Poems” deals with the way Darwin the scientist was shaped by Darwin the man. In a poem titled “He Doubts Humanity Is an Innate Quality,” for example, Padel, a leading British poet and critic, charts Darwin’s lingering guilt over hitting a puppy -- his “love of dogs being then, and for a long / time afterwards, a passion.”
Padel’s insights are as much emotional as intellectual; she seems to understand the legendary scientist with every cell in her body. Which is only appropriate: She is Darwin’s great-great granddaughter.
Lord is the author of “Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science” and “Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll.”
Inside the business of entertainment
The Wide Shot brings you news, analysis and insights on everything from streaming wars to production — and what it all means for the future.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.