Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin

Today is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin. There's lots of commentary floating out there about Darwin and his legacy, which stems in large part from the publication of The Origin of Species. There is, of course, The Origin Of Species: 150th Anniversary Edition.

The best commentary that I read in anticipation of this date was in last weekend's Financial Times. It was a review of several books about Darwin. Appropriate, isn't it?

I was particularly intrigued by this book: Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution

The authors argue that Darwin's opposition to slavery was not merely an adjunct to his career as a biologist, but a driving force for him. The FT:

Desmond and Moore demonstrate convincingly from unpublished correspondence that abolition of slavery was more than a background belief for Darwin. It was a sacred cause. While his relations threw themselves into abolitionist rallies and petitions, he set out to subvert slavery through science – to refute its apologists’ argument that blacks and whites were created separate and unequal. Darwin’s Sacred Cause provides an interesting link between him and the other great abolitionist born on February 12 1809: Abraham Lincoln, also the subject of a good crop of anniversary books.
The abolitionist link between Lincoln and Darwin has gone tragically unmentioned in any of the celebrations or recognitions of this historic day that I have read. That's really too bad, and I hope to do more to rectify it.

Thinking of Darwin and race, it's intriguing to remember that the term "social Darwinism" has strongly regressive and oppressive connotations; it's usually associated with justifying the victory of the strong over the weak in society. Works well for strong libertarians and hardcore capitalists. It's good to know that Darwin himself was strongly opposed to slavery.

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