Charles Darwin between the theory of evolution and slavery

Darwin's Statue in the Natural History Museum, London

In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin did not mention humans were the evolution of apes. In his diary, he wrote, "Both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact - that mystery of mysteries - the first appearance of new beings on this earth."

According to Rebecca Stefoff in Charles Darwin: And the Evolution Revolution, the sentence was spoken by Darwin to describe the Galápagos Islands. This group of islands across western Ecuador became a habitat for endemic species such as finches and giant turtles which became one of his inspirations to formulate the theory of evolution as conveyed in On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man.

The Galápagos Islands were indeed the subject of conversation for hundreds of years after Darwin died on April 19, 1882. However, few know that before arriving at the Galápagos, HMS Beagle that he was boarding stopped in Brazil in April 1832. It was in this area that he witnessed the bleak world of slavery.

When Darwin arrived in Brazil, the country was still colonized by the Portuguese whose power rested, for example, on slavery. Almost all plantation workers and house servants are slaves of African descent.

The conditions of the slaves that Darwin saw were very pathetic. He noted that there was a child slave who was beaten with a horsewhip. There was also the voice of an employer threatening to sell his slave's wife and children.

Punishing a slave at Calabouço in Rio de Janeiro, c. 1822 (Augustus Earle)

Two science historians Adrian Desmond and James Moore in Darwin's Sacred Cause recounted Darwin's inner anxiety over the situation. "I hope the day will come when they will assert their own rights & forget to avenge these wrongs," he said.

Meanwhile, according to Stefoff, in Brazil, Darwin also had an argument with the captain of the Beagle, Robert FitzRoy. To Darwin, the captain said slaves were needed to cultivate large estates, and FitzRoy claimed to have visited plantations where the slaves were happy.

A moment later, Darwin refused. According to him, slaves could not possibly say "displeased" in the presence of employers. Then, FitzRoy did not accept. He lost his temper and ordered Darwin to get out of the cabin, though a few moments later FitzRoy apologized.

When viewed from the bloodline, Darwin's grandfather Josiah Wedgwood and uncle Josiah Wedgwood II were British supporters of the abolition of slavery. The anti-slavery group is known as abolitionists. This attitude, according to Desmond and Moore, was "passed down" to Darwin.

In an article titled Did Darwin's Theory of Evolution Encourage Abolition of Slavery?, professor emeritus at the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago Jerry A. Coyne revealed that actually On the Origin of Species put aside the discussion about human evolution.

Darwin also did not mention humans were the evolution of apes. In fact, in just 12 words from the 500-page work, he alluded to the question of human evolution, "Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." The man who was born on February 12, 1809, also did not mention racial issues at all.

But clearly, there are two main arguments that Darwin put forward. First, species evolve and adapt to suit their natural state. Second, natural selection is the main mechanism by which new species form slowly.

The color change of these two moths suggests natural selection at work (Chiswick Chap)

So, what do Darwin's words have to do with the idea of anti-slavery?

According to Coyne, at the time, human origins were being debated "whether humans had a single origin or several, with each race being separately created."

To answer that, some people claimed that the human race came from a different ancestor. For them, the "first humans" Adam and Eve only passed down the generation of white people whereas other races did not originate from the first humans.

That way of thinking eventually led people to see the black race as an intermediary between humans or even as members of different species, AKA non-humans, so that it was morally justified to make them slaves.

The universe of discussion in science also provides a foundation for that. In Colonialism/Postcolonialism, Ania Loomba wrote that the father of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, distinguished between Homo sapiens and Homo monstrosus.

In addition, in 1758, in The Wild Man's Pedigree, John Burke further branched out its distinctions and linked some physical features to the psychic characteristics of a race. Check out how terrible the racial distinctions between Europeans and Africans were conveyed in that book.

Europeans: light-skinned, optimistic, muscular, yellow-brown-wavy-haired, blue-eyed, soft, smart, clever, tight-dressed, governed by law.

Africans: black, slow, relaxed, black-curly-haired, silky-smooth-skinned, pug-nosed, thick-lipped, lazy, neglectful, smearing their bodies with fat, regulated by their own will.

In this case, science clearly had a stake in racial segregation that underpinned colonialism and slavery.


White tenants seeking to prevent blacks from moving into the housing project in Detroit in 1942 (Arthur S. Siegel)

The idea that became the antithesis of the above thoughts was monogenism. Darwin and those who thought monogenisically considered humans to have a single ancestor as enshrined in the sacred books of the Abrahamic religion.

"This is perhaps one of the very few times in the history of evolutionary biology that Darwin's ideas aligned with a literal interpretation of the Bible," said Coyne.

In the world of science, this idea provides the foundation of thought that white racial superiority and slavery cannot be morally defensible.



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