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After Darwin

Updated Tuesday, 27th January 2009

Did the abolition of slavery lead on to a movement to abolish slavery of the mind? Jim Moore reflects on how free thinkers took a lead from Darwin - and how far Darwin would have gone along with them.

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Well, I’ll tell you something I haven't told anyone else. Now that our book has integrated Darwin and his ideas into the debate over slavery in the United States - remember, where it was passionate and where slavery wasn’t abolished until the mid 1860s after a bloody civil war. Now that we've integrated Darwin into that picture, it's possible for someone to go out and talk about the aftermath. What happened to the abolitionists who campaigned against slavery? How did they see Darwin after they’d achieved their goals? How did they understand evolution?

I think there’s a case to be made that the abolition of slavery of the mind succeeded that of the body and many of these people became free thinkers who wished to recruit Darwin for a kind of atheistic or free thinking cause. And Darwin did go along with them to some extent, and of course there are people today who want to make Darwin into an atheist without any kind of abolitionist underpinnings. And we can say to that, that Darwin was never an atheist, and he tells us so.

It's entirely possible to be an atheist and opposed to slavery, to be humanitarian, to be kind to animals, against cruelty. Perhaps many of the people today in the world who hold those values are atheists. But in Darwin’s day, in his place in time, the greatest moral movement, across the English speaking world at least, was a Christian abolitionist movement. It's all famous of course from Amazing Grace, the Hollywood movie about William Wilberforce and his friends.

These people were passionate evangelicals before they were passionately opposed to slavery. There were Unitarians like the Darwins and the Wedgewoods, Darwin’s relatives, who were involved in this movement as well. In Darwin’s day, there were radicals, there were a few atheists, there were people in France who held very free liberation views but in England Darwin himself acquired his moral premise from Christianity. And remember Christianity believed in human unity via Adam and Eve.

Darwin supposedly overturned that view of the world - well he did overturn that view of the world substantially. But the unity of human beings believed by Christians, Darwin transferred to a new evolutionary basis and then extended it to all of life.

 

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