Darwin the Abolitionist

The New York Times has an interesting piece about two new books on Darwin, timed to coincide with Darwin’s 200th birthday. Of particular interest is the first book which highlights Darwin’s abolitionist upbringing:

The poet-physician Erasmus Darwin [Darwin’s grandfather] and the industrial potter Josiah Wedgwood were close friends among a circle of mechanical-minded Dissenters from the Anglican Church. Darwin and Wedgwood shared a hatred of the slave trade, contributing money and propaganda — in the form of anti-slavery verse and ceramic curios — to the “sacred cause” of abolition. Wedgwood’s cameo medallion of a chained slave, with the caption “Am I not a Man and a Brother?,” was “a must-have solidarity accessory.”

Darwins and Wedgwoods mated for several generations, like an experiment in interbreeding, and the “sacred cause” was an inherited characteristic. Darwin’s mother, who died in 1817, was a Wedgwood; he himself married Emma Wedgwood, his first cousin. Concern for all things lowly was almost an article of faith for the Wedgwood cousins, who taught young Darwin to euthanize earthworms in brine before impaling them on a fishhook. Such compassion seems not to have been extended to the fish, nor to the 55 partridges that Darwin bagged in a single week of shooting. During his medical studies at Edinburgh University, he learned to stuff birds from a former slave whom he described as “a very pleasant and intelligent man.”

I’m not surprised to find a link between Darwin’s scientific work and his personal beliefs, but I see them as akin to Newton’s interest in alchemy. It helps us understand his motivations, but doesn’t necessarily tell us very much about the work itself. As the review says: “One is left with the impression that Darwin was amazingly lucky that his benevolent preconceptions turned out to fit the facts.”

3 thoughts on “Darwin the Abolitionist

  1. The article you link to is by Adam Kuper: “Changing the subject – about cousin marriage, among other things” It looks interesting.

  2. Sorry, I don’t know how I got the author so wrong. And yes, the article is very good. My favorite part is Darwin’s pro/con list regarding marriage:

    bq. He then laid out a balance sheet of arguments for and against marriage: ‘Constant companion, (& friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, – object to be beloved & played with. – better than a dog anyhow. – Home, & someone to take care of house – Charms of music & female chit-chat. – These things good for one’s health. – _but terrible loss of time’_.

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