I've been wanting to post some thoughts on a recent piece by Richard Gray in The Telegraph on a new book by Adrian Desmond and James Moore that details Charles Darwin's anti-slavery motivations. I've been putting it off, but I decided it would be fitting to write it up on the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth. Gray points to some journals from Darwin's voyages on the Beagle and letters of family members that reveal his disgust at the practice of enslaving fellow humans and involvement in the abolitionist movement. This is so contrary to the false portrayal of him in some circles that applies later Social-Darwinist ideas to Darwin himself, something he never endorsed and would not have tolerated.
This wasn't all that surprising to me, even though I didn't know of his outright abolitionist views. After all, Darwin was such a strong supporter of the common descent of all humans in explicit opposition to views that had different ancestries of different races without a single common ancestor population for humans. Such views were around in his day and had been put to use in support of slavery. In this way Darwin was closer than some of his contemporaries to the view found among many Christians that three races had arisen from Noah's three sons, with further divergence later on at the tower of Babel.
There were alternative Christian (or, I would argue, sub-Christian) views at the time as well, most notably the outright racist idea borrowed from Islam that the curse on Ham's son Canaan was really a curse on all of Ham's descendants (or more precisely the darker-skinned ones, in contrast to Canaan's middle-eastern descendants in what became Israel, who were the actual group referred to in the Genesis curse). This view involved a number of curse elements not in the Genesis text that mentions Noah's curse on Canaan, including intellectual and moral inferiority to other races among the darker-skinned Hamites from Africa and the moral justification of slavery (rather than the text's simple report that Canaan would serve Shem and Japheth without saying whether it would be morally ok for those who enslaved them). So not all support for slavery came from the view that humans arose in different and unrelated races in different parts of the world completely independently. But it's easy to see how Darwin's opposition to that view was part of his motivation for providing an account of human origins that resisted such a view.
Two things have occurred to me while reflecting on this and reading some people's responses to it. One is that it's a clear case of being motivated to adopt a thesis based on ideology. It's true that Darwin's support for the view ultimately is supported by his actual reasons presented in his work. He does in fact give arguments for his view, and he expects people to accept his view based on those arguments rather than because of his ideological motivation. It's probably true that he accepted it at least in part based on those arguments and not because it happened to fit with his preferred social view. At least he believed the arguments supported the view. But he did have an ideological motivation.
The irony is that his intellectual descendants refuse to allow an exactly parallel situation with supporters of intelligent design, who present arguments for their view that don't rely on ideological assumptions, expect people to accept the view based on such arguments, and probably believe the view at least in part because of those arguments. At least they see those arguments supporting the view. Yet opponents of intelligent design regularly deride intelligent design proponents for having ideological motivations to want to find arguments for their theistic view. I haven't yet seen anyone of that ilk deriding Darwin for his parallel motivation. Perhaps that's merely because they happen to agree with Darwin's motivation but don't agree with theism. If so, then it's an unfair double-standard, because it can't be in principle intellectually dishonest to believe something you have arguments for but also have ideological reason to want to be true unless that's true of every case of believing something you have arguments for and ideological reason to want to be true. But it's common among those who are anti-ID to confuse the motivation for an argument with its theoretical basis, as I've pointed out before.
The other thing I wanted to say about this has to do with some very
strange responses I've seen from the anti-religious or anti-Christian
side of things, for example here.
I would expect those who have an interest in restoring the good image
of Darwin from the misrepresentations out there to have an interest in
representing people accurately and not throwing around ridiculous
charges that have nothing remotely to do with the people they're
attribute immoral views to. But nevertheless there are people who say
they are morally concerned about justice and racial progress who would
pretend the motivations of those who oppose evolutionary theory have
something to do with ensuring the perpetuation or racial injustice.
spent a lot of time among people who don't accept very much of what
Darwin said. Some of them don't understand the view well, and others
do. Some recognize the evidence for small changes within a species and
simply deny common descent with animals. Some insist on six 24-hour
periods for creation and a 6000-year-old earth, while others accept a
much longer period of creation with an age of the earth pretty much in
agreement with contemporary science. I'm sure there are people in this
group who happen also to be racists. But to claim that the view is
inspired by a desire to further racist structures in society? And they
say this while recognizing that such people have consistently opposed
evolutionary theory by saying that Darwin was a racist, which involves
at least a presumption of anti-racism even if it doesn't recognize all
the ways racism can manifest itself.
misrepresentation all over the place when you have people who don't
actually read what they criticize. (On that note, I should register my
complaint that there are criticisms of The Bell Curve in that
comment thread that show a pretty serious misunderstanding of what the
book actually says, and this is from someone resisting the claim that
racism and anti-science are always bedfellows.) But it goes well beyond
the usual misrepresentation of your ideological opponents to say that
the only reason they hold their view is because they want to maintain
social control over other races.