Allen Lane, £25

Darwin's Sacred Cause, By Adrian Desmond and James Moore

Did Darwin develop his theory of evolution for use as a weapon in the fight against slavery?

This is a bold book that attempts to turn our view of Darwin upside down. In the conventional picture, Darwin gradually develops the theory of evolution through the intensely detailed study of plants and animals, before eventually applying it to human beings. In Desmond and Moore's account, "human evolution wasn't the last piece in the evolution jigsaw; it was the first ... It was there in his first musings on evolution in 1837." What drove Darwin, they argue, was not a detached search for scientific truth but a moral passion: a hatred of slavery and a belief in the unity of the human race as a single species descended from a common ancestor.

To support their argument, Desmond and Moore have explored Darwin's family correspondence, his notebooks and jottings, his reading lists and marginal scribblings. The result is a fascinating picture of a man deeply aware of the racial controversies of his era but making his own contribution with extreme caution, determined to prove his findings beyond all reasonable doubt.

Darwin was born into the fight against slavery. The slave trade was outlawed in the British colonies in 1807, two years before his birth, thanks in part to the efforts of his grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood. Wedgwood, the potter, created the logo of the anti-slavery movement: a seal featuring a black slave, kneeling, and the words "Am I not a Man and a Brother?". Slavery itself would not be abolished in the colonies until 1833. Darwin's sisters and cousins were passionate campaigners on the issue, and his own hatred for the system was reinforced by the cruelties he witnessed during his travels on the Beagle.

Before then, however, he had had another formative experience. During his spell as a medical student in Edinburgh he had learned the art of taxidermy from a freed slave, spending some 40 hours in his company, later describing him as "a very pleasant and intelligent man". Ironically, Edinburgh University was in those days becoming the centre of a new racial "science" dedicated to defining the races and labelling some of them as "inferior".

Phrenology began as a way of reading individuals' characters from the shape of their skulls. But soon phrenologists began to make pronouncements on whole races, filling the museums of Britain with skulls from around the world. One Edinburgh pioneer of the technique explained Britain's success in ruling the "Hindoos" of India by identifying their "small organs of Combativeness and Destructiveness". By the middle of the 19th century, the scientific racists had their own organisation, the Anthropological Society of London, where they promulgated the idea that the white man was destined and obliged to enslave "inferior" races. "The mace which brought meetings to order," note Desmond and Moore, "was topped by a negro's head gnawing a human thigh bone." In the run-up to the American Civil War, the society's council included a paid agent of the slave states, and educated opinion was moving in his direction. Sound scientific arguments against the "polygenist" view, that the races were created separately, were lacking.

This is where Darwin found his cause. In order to show that human beings, in all their variety, descended from a common ancestor, he needed to demonstrate similar variation in other creatures. The example he turned to was the pigeon, all of whose many variants descended from the same source, the rock dove. The pigeons would form the starting point of On the Origin of Species, illustrating the revolutionary idea of "natural selection".

What the Origin of Species did not include was an explanation of human racial origins. That was because "Darwin lacked the overwhelming evidence to convince a sceptical world". A tireless and punctilious researcher and experimenter, he would not step beyond the bounds of his own findings to apply them to the human realm. But other people – quietly encouraged by Darwin – would, and did, with the result that controversy was ignited and the great debate about "Darwinism" began. It would be another 12 years before Darwin, in The Descent of Man, would make his own views explicit.

Darwin's Sacred Cause is a scholarly, dense but thoroughly readable book. As well as following every twist and turn in Darwin's researches and opinions, it offers a comprehensive account of 19th-century racial theory and a vivid picture of the era's anthropological controversies. My only reservation is about the authors' method of attributing their vast range of sources in the footnotes, making it a struggle to match quotation to source.

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot