How Darwin Thought About Slavery


This has long been a topic which I emphasize in various venues. Most audiences are surprised to learn that Charles Darwin (and others of his extended family) contributed enormous sums of money to abolitionist causes and campaigners in the USA. Indeed, royalties from On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life paid for many thousands of scripture-filled tracts by American abolitionist ministers, including reprints of the sermons of Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.)


Yet it is so easy for people to see “favoured races” in the title, and assume that Darwin a terrible bigot. The failure to to think of writings in their appropriate cultural setting seems to be a theme for people that reject evolution.


The appropriate cultural setting here is biology. “Favoured races” are not human races but animal and plant varieties. Humans are in fact mentioned in only one sentence in the Origin, and not in connection with races.


Indeed. If there is any reader here who is not familiar with the meaning of the word races in the context of 1800’s English, the closest modern synonym is probably the word varieties. This is very evident in Darwin’s book where one finds wording like “the hereditary varieties or races of our domestic animals and plants” and “the several races, for instance, of the cabbage” Only a few times in the book does Darwin refer to “races of man.” (If memory serves, all but one of those were added in later editions of the book.) Obviously, the groundbreaking book, On The Origin of Species was not focused on human evolution. Darwin took up that topic in other books years later.

It is almost humorous how today’s critics of Darwin are anachronistically prone to criticize him for using the English language vocabulary of his day by angrily stating, “There is no such thing as race. Darwin was a bigot for using the word!”

Of course, most Christians of the 1800’s spoke of race in the same way as Darwin—as did many of the heroes of Young Earth Creationism right through much of the 1900’s. Moreover, one rarely hears much said about the shortcomings and very real bigotry of many creationists of those eras.


Excellent point (that I should have considered)!


Darwin I understand was against slavery but this does not mean he COMPLETLY denied races of men were inferior to each other. Now he did some places say, insist, all races were intellectually equal. he later though seemed to move in the direction of the majority of the new evolutionists who said race/sex was a selection on intelligence.
His relatives , i think Galton, were famous for race/smarts/evolution concepts.
I think he was sincerely unsure and allowed both sides points.
He was very insistent women were innately intellectually inferior.
Remember that slavery in those days amongst europeans had come only to be done with peoples seen as inferior. so his personal opposition was trumoed by the new ecvolutionism which louder then ever justified race inferiority concepts. In fact slavery ended because of sympathy, mostly christian, with the slaves and just missed the aggresive rising evolutionist race concepts.
however darwin was hostile to slavery as he witnessed it and most people in britain were.