VSL:SCIENCE // See how slavery shaped the theory of evolution

Why did Charles Darwin devote his life to the theory of evolution? The search for truth and glory must have had something to do with it. But in their new book, Darwin’s Sacred Cause, British historians Adrian Desmond and James Moore argue that the scientist’s efforts were actually rooted in his hatred of slavery.

Like many abolitionists, Darwin believed that all human races shared a recent common ancestor. (Slavery’s defenders tended to believe that the races were actually distinct species.) In time, Desmond and Moore argue, that conviction led Darwin toward the idea of a common ancestor for every living thing. And that, of course, is the organizing principle of The Origin of Species.

Given the way that Darwin’s name would be sullied by political ideologues — social Darwinists and eugenicists among them — it’s reassuring to think that in his own time, Darwin was on the side of the angels.

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