by Mason Tattersall*


Last Tuesday the Horning Lecture Series was pleased to present James Moore’s engrossing lecture on Darwin’s Sacred Cause. Moore, along with Adrian Desmond, penned one of the classic biographies of Darwin (1991’s Darwin).  As Moore related in his opening remarks on Tuesday, when the two had finished with Darwin, they were left with a nagging question: Given Darwin’s reclusive, gentlemanly, and non-confrontational personality, what could possibly have motivated him to produce and publish a theory so guaranteed to bring conflict down upon his head? In his talk on Tuesday, Moore presented his answer, explained in rich detail in Moore and Desmond’s Darwin’s Sacred Cause (2009).

“Why did Darwin risk his reputation to promote an heretical theory?”

Moore argues that it was Darwin’s hatred of the institution of slavery, instilled in him from early childhood that provided the motivating passion behind the scientific breakthrough. Through expert use of textual and visual materials, Moore led the audience through a brief overview of Darwin’s progress toward his theories of evolution through natural selection and the descent of man and sexual selection from the point of view of his connections to the world of anti-slavery activism.

Darwin came from a family of tireless anti-slavery agitators and developed his theories about evolution from a common ancestor both in light of these views, and in contrast to theories that posited separate origins for the different races that

were used to justify slavery. Crucial to the development of Darwin’s theory were ideas about domestication and the effects of sexual selection. Moore further demonstrated that evolution toward diversity of human forms lay at the heart of Darwin’s biological research from the first months after his return from the voyage of the Beagle. He further argued that it was Darwin’s reaction to the turbulent events of 1866 (particularly the aftermath of the 1865 Jamaican revolt) that motivated Darwin to finally publish his theories about man that had been left out of The Origin of Species.

Moore’s talk was a delight, incorporated visuals that formed an integral part of the exposition rather than mere window dressing. And I can heartily recommend his books as both illuminating and engrossing reads. Darwin’s Sacred Cause, in particular, will appeal to all who have an interest in the history of science, particularly in regard to the deftness with which it tells the very familiar story of Darwin’s life from a new and unfamiliar vantage point – a taste of which we were treated to last week.

*Mason Tattersall is a Ph.D. candidate in History of Science at Oregon State University

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