This article is from
Creation 33(2):44–46, April 2011

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Darwin, slavery, and abolition



Darwin’s biographers, Adrian Desmond and James Moore, have produced another book, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins, which they claim “is the untold story of how Darwin’s abhorrence of slavery led to our modern understanding of evolution”.1 So what did Darwin think of slavery? Did it have anything to do with his theory of evolution? And was he trying to counter those in the pro-slavery lobby who said that the black races originated from a different source than the white, and were therefore somehow sub-human?

A family against slavery

Charles Darwin (1809–1882) was born into a family which vigorously opposed slavery. His grandfathers, the humanist and evolutionist Erasmus Darwin2 and the Unitarian pottery magnate Josiah Wedgwood I,3 provided finance and helped form an anti-slavery lobby group in support of the work of the evangelical Christian William Wilberforce in parliament.

This resulted in the passing of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 (which made it illegal for British ships to carry slaves),4 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 (which made slavery illegal throughout the British Empire).5

Darwin’s own experiences of slavery

Charles Darwin had three very diverse experiences of slaves and slavery:

1. During his medical studies in Edinburgh, he learned how to stuff birds from a former negro slave, John Edmonston, about whom he wrote: “I used often to sit with him, for he was a very pleasant and intelligent man”.6

2. During his Beagle voyage (1831–36), he saw the brutality of slavery first-hand in the South American countries he visited, and wrote:

“Near Rio de Janeiro I lived opposite to an old lady, who kept screws to crush the fingers of her female slaves. I have stayed in a house where a young household mulatto,7 daily and hourly, was reviled, beaten, and persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal. … I will not even allude to the many heart-sickening atrocities which I authentically heard of;—nor would I have mentioned the above revolting details, had I not met with several people … [who] speak of slavery as a tolerable evil.”8

3. One day in 1858, while out walking, Darwin noticed some large red ants carrying in their jaws smaller black ants which were their slaves. He wrote:

“I loiter for hours in the Park & amuse myself by watching the Ants: I have great hopes I have found the rare Slave-making species & have sent a specimen to Brit. Mus. to know whether it is so.”9,10

“I had such a piece of luck at Moor Park: I found the rare Slave-making Ant, & saw the little black niggers in their master’s nests.”11

“I have had some fun here in watching a slave-making ant; for I could not help rather doubting the wonderful stories, but I have now seen a marauding party, & I have seen a migration from one nest to another of the slave-makers, carrying their slaves (who are house & not field niggers) in their mouths”12

©Alex Wild A slave-raiding ant (the red polyergus breviceps) with its slave Formica argentea.
A slave-raiding ant (the red polyergus breviceps) with its slave Formica argentea.

In his Origin of Species, Darwin devotes several pages to what he called the “slave-making instinct”.13 He refers to the ant species Formica (Polyerges) rufescens (of Switzerland that he had read about)14 and Formica sanguinea (the one he observed in southern England), both of which make slaves of the ant species F. fusca. Darwin begins by “doubting the truth of so extraordinary and odious an instinct as that of making slaves” (p. 220). Then after giving his own observations he says: “Such are the facts … in regard to the wonderful instinct of making slaves” (p. 223).

Darwin then suggests that

“the habit of collecting pupae15 for food might by natural selection be strengthened and rendered permanent for the very different purpose of raising slaves. When the instinct was once acquired … I can see no difficulty in natural selection increasing and modifying the instinct—always supposing each modification to be of use to the species—until an ant was formed as abjectly dependent on its slaves as is the Formica rufescens.” (p. 224). “ … it is far more satisfactory to look at such instincts as … ants making slaves … not as specially endowed or created instincts, but as small consequences of one general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die” (pp. 243–244).

Thus, for Darwin, slavery was the result of natural selection and an absolute necessity in the case of F. rufescens. He wrote: “This ant is absolutely dependent on its slaves: without their aid, the species would certainly become extinct within a single year” (p. 219).

However, if slavery is the result of natural selection, and the means by which this ant species survives, as well as being such a wonderful instinct in nature, why should it be so abhorrent to Darwin in his own species, Homo sapiens?

Did slavery influence Darwin’s theory?

If, as Desmond and Moore claim, Darwin’s abhorrence of slavery led to our modern understanding of evolution, we should expect to read something about it from Darwin himself in his two major public arguments for evolution, Origin of Species and Descent of Man. In fact, Darwin studiously avoided applying his theory of evolution to humans in his Origin.16 His hurried writing, and publication of this in 1859, was not to promote the abolition of slavery, but to forestall the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. In February 1858, Wallace, in a fit of delirium during a bout of fever in the jungles of Indonesia, had independently deduced that the fittest are those who survive, and had sent Darwin a manuscript in which he claimed he had therefore solved the problem of the origin of species.17 In his Autobiography, Darwin described this as being “exactly the same theory as mine”.18

Incidentally, in that same Autobiography, not once does Darwin mention abolition of slavery in relation to natural selection, or as a motive for developing his theory of evolution, or for writing his Origin, or his Descent of Man, or anything else.

By 1871, when Darwin published Descent, slavery had been outlawed in the British Empire for 38 years. And the US ‘Civil War’, ostensibly to end slavery in America, had finished six years before. Darwin’s target of both books is not slavery, but God and creation—to explain design in nature by natural selection and so without the need for a divine Designer.19,20 His anxiety, manifested in extreme ill-health over many years, was not because he thought his anti-purpose, anti-God theory would produce a better world, but because he knew the opposite would be true.21

The reason Darwin wrote Descent

In an 1867 letter to Wallace, Darwin said: “ … my sole reason for taking it up [i.e. writing his ‘essay on man’ that we know as The Descent of Man] is that I am pretty well convinced that sexual selection has played an important part in the formation of the races, & sexual selection has always been a subject that has interested me much.”22

In Descent, which Desmond and Moore dub “the endpoint of Darwin’s journey”,23 Darwin says almost nothing about slavery, apart from:

“The great sin of Slavery has been almost universal, and slaves have often been treated in an infamous manner. As barbarians do not regard the opinion of their women, wives are commonly treated like slaves.”24

Then, in the 2nd edition of Descent (1874), which Darwin described in his Autobiography as “a largely corrected edition”,25 he softened this statement—slavery had once been ‘beneficial’! He wrote:

“Slavery, although in some ways beneficial during ancient times, is a great crime; yet it was not so regarded until quite recently, even by the most civilized nations. And this was especially the case, because the slaves belonged in general to a race different from that of their masters. As barbarians do not regard the opinion of their women, wives are commonly treated like slaves.”26

Josiah Wedgwood helped form the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and produced a cameo medallion of a chained black slave, with the caption: ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother?’ It became the fashion to wear clothing adorned with this logo, and so helped make abolition a popular cause.
Josiah Wedgwood helped form the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and produced a cameo medallion of a chained black slave, with the caption: ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother?’ It became the fashion to wear clothing adorned with this logo, and so helped make abolition a popular cause.

Darwinism—used to justify slavery

Contrary to popular belief, racism did not cause New World slavery, but rather slavery exacerbated racism as people looked for justification for their practices.5 But by proclaiming that all human beings had descended from the same source, namely “a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in its habits”,27 Darwin gave the slavery lobby the ultimate in ‘scientific’ justification to claim that blacks were subhuman. It was simple—they had not yet evolved as far towards human-ness as whites. Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002), a leading evolutionist, Marxist, and staunch anti-racist, admitted: “Biological arguments for racism may have been common before 1850, but they increased by orders of magnitude following the acceptance of evolutionary theory.”28

In fact, some of the best arguments against slavery are ones that Darwin not only abhorred but developed his theory to combat, namely:

“God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27) and that subsequently, God “made of one man every nation of mankind” (Acts 17:26).29


It is true that Darwin hated slavery of one human being by another, but slavery that he observed in nature he described as natural selection in action, and beneficial. In no way did he use either of his two major books on evolution as an anti-slavery platform. Nor was anti-slavery his reason for developing his theory of evolution.

Desmond and Moore fail in their attempt to canonize Darwin, and whitewash the social effects of Darwinism, which led to the Holocaust,30 (if this was their motive). Darwin did indeed have a cause, but hardly a sacred one—not the abolition of slavery, but the abolition of God.

Posted on homepage: 23 July 2012

References and notes

  1. Desmond, A., and Moore, J, Darwin’s Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins, Allen Lane, Penguin Books, London, 2009, p. xxi. Return to text.
  2. Grigg, R., Darwinism: it was all in the family: Erasmus Darwin’s famous grandson learned early about evolution, Creation 26(1): 16–18, 2003. Return to text.
  3. Charles’ father, Robert, married Susanna, daughter of Josiah Wedgewood I, and Charles married Emma (his own first cousin), daughter of Josiah Wedgewood II. Return to text.
  4. Up to 80,000 men, women and child slaves were transported per year, 40,000 of these in British ships. Of the total estimated 11 million Africans, about 1.4 million died during the voyage. (Source: Hochschild, A., Bury the Chains, Houghton, New York, 2005, pp. 2, 13–14, 32.) Actually, Muslims had an even larger slave trade of white Europeans, showing that slavery was ubiquitous among all people groups. Even the word itself comes from the widely enslaved European race, the Slavs. Return to text.
  5. See also Sarfati, J. Let my people go; Anti-slavery activist William Wilberforce: a Christian hero, Creation 29(4):12–15, 2007. Return to text.
  6. Darwin, C., Autobiography of Charles Darwin with original omissions restored, Collins, London, 1958, p. 51. Return to text.
  7. I.e. the offspring of a Black person and a person of European descent (Chambers Dictionary). Return to text.
  8. Darwin, C., Journal of Researches, (now known as) Voyage of the Beagle, 1845, pp. 499–500, Darwin online. Return to text.
  9. C.D. to Emma Darwin, 25 April 1858, Letter 2413, Darwin Online. Return to text.
  10. Darwin liked to abbreviate. He often wrote “&” for “and”; “Brit. Mus” is “the British Museum”; he also liked to use capital letters. Return to text.
  11. C.D. to J.D. Hooker, 6 May, 1858, Letter 2269, Darwin Online. Return to text.
  12. C.D. to J.D. Hooker, July 13th 1858, Letter 2306, Darwin Online. Return to text.
  13. Darwin, C., Origin of Species, 1st edition, 1859, pp. 219–224 & 243–244, Darwin Online. Return to text.
  14. In the published work of the Swiss entomologist Jean Pierre Huber (Ref. 13, p. 219). Return to text.
  15. I.e. the young of other ant species, still in the cocoon stage. Return to text.
  16. Apart from one enigmatic sentence at the very end: “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” (Origin, 1st edition, p. 488, Darwin online.) Return to text.
  17. See Grigg, R., Alfred Russel Wallace, ‘co-inventor’ of Darwinism, Creation 27(4):33–36, Sept. 2005. Return to text.
  18. Ref. 6, p. 121. Return to text.
  19. Ref. 6, p. 87. Return to text.
  20. See Wieland, C., Darwin’s real message: have you missed it?, Creation 14(4): 16–19, Sept. 1992. Return to text.
  21. See Grigg, R., Darwin’s mystery illness, Creation 17(4):28–30, Nov. 1995. Return to text.
  22. C.D. to A.R. Wallace, March 1867, Letter 5440, Darwin online. Return to text.
  23. Ref. 1, p. xvii. Return to text.
  24. Darwin, C. The Descent of Man, 1st ed., 1871, vol. 1, p. 94, Darwin online. He also mentions savages treating their wives as slaves, a few times in vol. 2, including pp. 337, 343, 357, and 366. Return to text.
  25. Ref. 6, p. 131. Return to text.
  26. Darwin, C., The Descent of Man, 2nd Edit., 1874, p. 117, Darwin online. Return to text.
  27. Ref. 24, vol. 2, p. 389. Return to text.
  28. Gould, S.J., Ontogeny and Phylogeny, Belknap-Harvard Press, 1977, pp. 127–128. Return to text.
  29. Readers who may be of the opinion that the Bible supports slavery are invited to read the box Does the Bible support slavery? by Jonathan Sarfati in ref. 5, and especially his extended comments in creation.com/wilberforce. Return to text.
  30. See Sarfati, J., The Darwinian Roots of the Nazi Tree, Creation 27(4):39, Sept. 2005. Return to text.

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