Saturday, March 14, 2009

The roots of morality

During the twenty years I was writing a column for the Boston Globe, I naturally sometimes turned my attention to evolution, which invariably initiated an outpouring of letters from Christian fundamentalists (including two of America's most prominent young-Earth creationists) who accused me of doing the work of the devil. A general theme of these letters -- as of the preaching that inspired them -- was that scientists choose to believe in "atheistic Darwinism" so they can live dissipated lives without fear of divine retribution.

I ignored the letters, and only time will tell if I burn in hellfire, as my correspondents promised. In the meantime, we might all usefully read Adrian Desmond and James Moore's new book, Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution.

The authors begin with an account of the cultural milieu out of which Darwin came, in particular the Darwin and Wedgwood families of the British industrial midlands -- enlightened, freedom-loving, charitable, compassionate. Central to their beliefs was an abhorrence of the institution of black slavery. The young Darwin incorporated these virtues into his own life, and his commitment to them was unvarying, even as he became agnostic in matters of religion.

Desmond and Moore contend that Darwin's detestation of slavery lay behind his insistence on the common descent of all human races (and ultimately, all life). I'll have more to say about Desmond and Moore's thesis later, but this much is clear from their excellent book: Darwin's naturalistic vision of the unity of life was never inconsistent with his ethical principles; indeed, it underlay them with a firmer foundation than the pick-and-choose Biblical sources so often invoked by those who sought -- for economic reasons -- to enslave their fellow men and women.

And certainly, the gentle, unassuming Darwin would never have lashed his intellectual opponents with the same unChristian vehemence as some Christian readers lashed me for merely mentioning the great man's name.