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Darwin's Sacred Cause

Integral to Darwin’s vision of life’s history was the moral progress that must bring about the abolition of black chattel slavery. Yet the progress he expected could not be easily reconciled with his sense of evolutionary contingency. A man who, in the name of suffering slaves, damned the white man’s ‘arrogance’ in believing himself the ‘godlike’ goal of creation, could not rest comfortably in believing that history must realize his own highest moral goal, black emancipation. In the 1850s, Darwin’s dilemma became increasingly poignant as the conflict over slavery in the United States turned into a holocaust. He could still hope for abolition, but in a dark hour he had to admit, ‘a man cannot hope by intention’. It was only after the emancipation of America’s slaves in the 1860s, when he turned at last to publish on human origins, that Darwin’s optimism revived. In the Descent of Man, ‘the great sin of slavery’ is among the evils to be abolished as ‘the civilised races of man … exterminate and replace’ races that were formerly enslaved. ‘At some future period’, not many centuries hence, Darwin prophesied, ‘virtue will be triumphant’.

James Moore is co-author with Adrian Desmond of the best-selling biography Darwin (1991) and of Darwin Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins (2009), hailed by the London Review of Books as the Darwin anniversary year’s ‘most substantial historical contribution’. Moore’s other books include The Darwin Legend (1994) and The Post-Darwinian Controversies (1979). He teaches at the Open University and has held visiting professorships at Harvard, Notre Dame, and McMaster universities. Currently he is researching a biographical study of Darwin’s colleague Alfred Russel Wallace.



Mr James Moore | talks


Date and Time:

13 February 2011 at 11:00 am


2 hours



Conway Hall
Conway Hall
25 Red Lion Square
0207 242 8034

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