Shackled legs, thumbscrews used to crush the fingers of errant female slaves, a six-year-old boy horse-whipped for handing out water in a dirty glass: these sound like scenes from a modern horror story, but all were seen by the young Charles Darwin on his travels with the Beagle around the slave-owning continent of South America. You will find no mention of them in the proudly reasoned, scientific pages of On the Origin of Species. Glance at Darwin’s journals, private notebooks and family background, however, and you will find a man immersed in the rhetoric and fervent belief of the anti-slavery movement. Was the public man of science influenced by these private passions? In the light of painstaking archival investigations into Darwin’s letters, papers and notes, I believe the answer is a firm “yes.” Although he never admitted publicly to so political a motivation, anti-slavery sentiment was the handmaiden of Charles Darwin’s great intellectual achievement—the theory of evolution. The standard tale of a disinterested gentleman-naturalist’s journey of discovery will no longer wash. Rather, to understand both the man in his times and the true radicalism of his theory, we must look to the political and moral considerations that shaped his thought.
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