Darwin’s progress and the problem of slavery.
Progress in Human Geography, 34 pp. 555–582.
Legendary as a ‘genius’ out of time, Charles Darwin is said to have revolutionized our understanding of life on earth by explaining nature-history as the purposeless product of directionless variation naturally selected through a chancy struggle for existence. Yet, whatever may be deduced from his theory of natural selection as understood today, Darwin himself was not bound by any such conclusions. His vision of nature-history, for all its haphazardness, was directional, meliorative and hopeful. In the 1830s he went out of his way to develop privately a subversive theory of human evolution, and he pursued the subject with tenacity for three decades before publishing The descent of man in 1871. Underpinning his research was a belief in racial brotherhood rooted in the greatest moral movement of the age, for the abolition of slavery. Darwin extended the abolitionists’ common-descent image to the rest of life, making not just the races, but all races, kin. Human slavery, however, did not evolve into or out of existence. To Darwin it was a ‘sin’ to ‘expiate’ by moral action, and the Origin of species was written with a view towards undermining slavery’s creationist ideologues, most notably the Harvard professor Louis Agassiz. Intractable slavery collided with Darwin’s post-Christian progressivism in the US Civil War, clouding his hopes for humanity, but the Northern victory in 1865 enabled him to carry ‘the grand idea of God hating sin and loving righteousness’ into The descent of man, where the driving of formerly enslaved races out of existence is naturalized as a byproduct of historical progress in which ‘virtue will be triumphant’ at last.
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