Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Charles Darwin's research to prove evolution was motivated by his desire to end slavery

Doesn't really change what I think about Darwin or his theories, just thought it was interesting

Science historians Adrian Desmond and James Moore have compiled compelling new evidence which reveals Darwin was passionately opposed to slavery and this was the moral impetus behind his work.

Private notes and letters uncovered by the pair reveal that Darwin's opinions on slavery were far stronger than had previously been believed.

Notebooks from his five year voyage on HMS Beagle, during which Darwin first began to form his famous theories on natural selection, detail his revulsion at the slavery he witnessed in South America.

The historians have also discovered letters written by Darwin's sisters, cousins and aunts that reveal the family as highly active abolitionists. Darwin's grandfather and uncles were also key members of the anti-slavery movement.

The pair claim in a new book that Darwin partly chose to highlight the common descent of man from apes to show that all races were equal, as a rebuttal to those who insisted black people were a different, and inferior, species from those with white skin.

They say Darwin attempted to show that his theory of sexual selection, where traits seen as desirable but which give no competitive advantage to a species are passed down through generations, was responsible for differences in appearance between races of both animals and humans.

Professor James Moore, from the department of history of science at the Open University, said that Darwin originally shied away from tackling the origins of humans in his book On the Origin of Species, which was published in 1859, as it was a controversial subject.

"We are not trying to explain away all of Darwin's work as being due to his passion for emancipation, but our argument is that his passion for racial unity is what drove him to touch this untouchable and treacherous subject," he said.

"Darwin was finally goaded into starting his work on the origins of man in 1865 by a rising tide of scientific belief that the races were separate species."

The new book, called Darwin's Sacred Cause, examines notes that Darwin made during his voyage on the Beagle. After visiting Brazil he wrote of his disgust at the slavery he saw in the country.

From an entry on July 3 1832, just one year before the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in Great Britain, he said: "The state of the enormous slave population must interest everyone who enters the Brazils... I hope the day will come when they will assert their own rights & forget to avenge these wrongs."

In notebooks he used while drawing up his theory of natural selection, he also made references to slavery. He wrote: "Do not slave holders wish to make the black man other kind?... from our origin in one common ancestor we may be all netted together."

Darwin also describes the brutality of slavery in his best-selling journal about his Beagle voyage and recalls staying opposite an old lady near Rio de Janeiro who kept thumbscrews to crush the fingers of her female slaves. He also tells of how a young boy was whipped "thrice" for handing him a glass that was not clean.

Correspondence between Darwin and a Jamaican magistrate Richard Hill, a former slave who went on to oversee disputes between former slave owners and emancipated slaves, also reveals some of the naturalist's views.

He writes to Hill just a few months before publishing On the Origin of Species to congratulate him on his work for the "sacred cause of humanity".

Professor Moore claims that Darwin's family were instrumental in helping the biologist form his opinions on slavery. His grandfather was Josiah Wedgwood, who founded the famous china factory and was an active anti-slavery campaigner.

Darwin's uncles included Josiah Wedgwood II, an abolitionist MP, while his aunts, cousins and sisters wrote many letters and donated money to the cause.

Professor Moore added: "Darwin's mother died when he was eight years old, so his sisters brought him up with help from their Wedgewood cousins. He was under the influence of these highly principled and liberal thinking ladies who taught him about anti-cruelty and the sin of slavery."

Next month will mark the 200th anniversary since Darwin's birth, while in November scientists will celebrate 150 years since his seminal work On the Origin of Species was published.

Many supporters of Darwin's work have used his theories to argue against the existence of God and the need for religion, while the controversy that followed the publication of his work is now seen to have mainly been on religious grounds.

In fact, Darwin was a religious man until relatively late in his career, often shying away from speaking publicly about the controversy his research had provoked.

Professor Moore and his co-author Adrian Desmond will present their new theory at a lecture and book launch at Imperial College London on Monday 9 February.

Mr Desmond, an honorary research fellow at University College London, said: "Darwin doesn't overtly refer to slavery and racism as his motivation for writing Descent of Man and On the Origin of Species, but it is there lurking in the background.

"I don't think anyone has really looked at how strong his belief in anti-slavery was, and this could be why it has been overlooked.

"What he was saying was that if you accept evolution, then you don't accept the view that black people are a separate species. It is clear that he believed the same as his grandfathers – that slaves were men and brothers."

Professor Armand Leroi, an evolutionary biologist at Imperial College London who is presenting a documentary What Darwin Didn't Know on BBC 4 on Monday, said although the new theories outlined in the book did not change Darwin's achievements, it gave a fresh insight into his motivations.

He said: "We as evolutionary biologists tend to view Darwin as being very much motivated by the things that motivate us, which is the explanation for the diversity of all the things in the world.

"Origin of the Species is a classic scientific work as it has no obvious social agenda, although when you read the journal of his voyage on the Beagle it becomes clear he was horrified by the slavery he saw and how it weighs upon him."

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Heard

Once again we're off in our droves to the tennis with the Heard, aiming for 350 this year!
It'll be on like Donkey Kong next Thursday the 22nd, so check out www.heardtheheard.com and get amongst it!

Monday, January 12, 2009

As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.

Found this through Al Hirsch's blog, is a fascinating read.

As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God.

Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa's biggest problem - the crushing passivity of the people's mindset.
Matthew Parris

Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it's Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.

It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding - as you can - the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It's a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But this doesn't fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.

First, then, the observation. We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with others - that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.

At 24, travelling by land across the continent reinforced this impression. From Algiers to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, then right through the Congo to Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, four student friends and I drove our old Land Rover to Nairobi.

We slept under the stars, so it was important as we reached the more populated and lawless parts of the sub-Sahara that every day we find somewhere safe by nightfall. Often near a mission.

Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers - in some ways less so - but more open.

This time in Malawi it was the same. I met no missionaries. You do not encounter missionaries in the lobbies of expensive hotels discussing development strategy documents, as you do with the big NGOs. But instead I noticed that a handful of the most impressive African members of the Pump Aid team (largely from Zimbabwe) were, privately, strong Christians. “Privately” because the charity is entirely secular and I never heard any of its team so much as mention religion while working in the villages. But I picked up the Christian references in our conversations. One, I saw, was studying a devotional textbook in the car. One, on Sunday, went off to church at dawn for a two-hour service.

It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man's place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.

There's long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: “theirs” and therefore best for “them”; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.

I don't follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.

Anxiety - fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things - strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won't take the initiative, won't take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.

How can I, as someone with a foot in both camps, explain? When the philosophical tourist moves from one world view to another he finds - at the very moment of passing into the new - that he loses the language to describe the landscape to the old. But let me try an example: the answer given by Sir Edmund Hillary to the question: Why climb the mountain? “Because it's there,” he said.

To the rural African mind, this is an explanation of why one would not climb the mountain. It's... well, there. Just there. Why interfere? Nothing to be done about it, or with it. Hillary's further explanation - that nobody else had climbed it - would stand as a second reason for passivity.

Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.

And I'm afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.