As the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth arrives, along with it come three books celebrating the scientist and his revolutionary ideas. All three offer intriguing views on the man and his theories, and their mutual impact on society and science.

Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution by Adrian Desmond and James Moore places Darwin and his ideas within the context of the worldwide struggle with slavery that eventually exploded into the American Civil War. Darwin was born into a family at the forefront of the British abolitionist movement, growing up during the days of Wilberforce—British emancipation was passed while Darwin was aboard the HMS Beagle. But that was an opening salvo, and to Darwin’s horror the pro-slavery forces latched onto science as a rationalization, declaring that the various races of man were distinct species created independently—with Europeans conveniently the dominant race. This idea was anathema to Darwin on a moral level as well as a scientific one, and authors Desmond and Moore set out to show how Darwin’s fury over slavery drove his theory of the unified descent of man as much as did his innate curiosity about nature.

Darwin’s Sacred Cause is a compelling narrative, well researched and convincingly presented, offering a new understanding of who Darwin was and the passions that motivated his thought. Particularly eye opening is the surprising connection between Darwin’s theory and the Christian abolition movement as they together fought a scientific community that rejected the Christian belief that all mankind was descended from a single pair. The story of that unlikely alliance is fascinating to follow, full of colorful characters both noble and vile, revealing how science and religion were debased by the evil of racism.

Darwin’s Garden: Down House and ‘The Origin of Species’ by Michael Boulter uses the garden of Darwin’s country home—Down House—as a picture of the progress of evolution science and ongoing biological studies. Still in existence today (maintained both as a museum and a living laboratory as Darwin used it), the garden at Down House becomes, in Boulter’s words, a metaphorical path through both history and modern science, its plants and animals offering the same insights to the reader as for Darwin. Here are fascinating glimpses into the lean edge of modern biological science, beautifully tied to the simple pleasure Darwin found in experimenting in his garden. Like a stroll with the scientist himself, the book points out that for all we do know about life, we still do not even fundamentally understand the events happening in a quiet English garden, much less the raucous turmoil of the living world. Science, like life, Darwin might say, continues to evolve.

After Darwin
Banquet at Delmonico’s: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America by Barry Werth is as much about the societal impact of Darwin’s theory as it is about Darwin himself. On November 9, 1882, a remarkable group gathered at the famous Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York to host a banquet honoring the ideals of evolution, and in particular the philosopher of evolution, Herbert Spencer. Though Darwin himself had died seven months before, everyone attending acknowledged the naturalist as the founder of the movement (with the possible exception of the rarely humble Spencer). It was a night to praise the ideals of evolution and look forward to the golden age the philosophy would bring. The dignitaries present ranged from the capitalist Andrew Carnegie to the famed preacher Henry Ward Beecher, with an assortment of scientists, politicians and orators mixed into the bunch. The story of how each came to be at the banquet is the story of how Darwin’s theory of evolution was influencing American thought in the latter 19th century.
Werth’s book is a thoroughly involving read, weaving history and biography together as the various actors move toward the culminating dinner. It is a tale of philosophy, science, political chicanery, public scandals, capitalism, socialism and eccentricity on many sides. The final contrast between the attendees’ assumptions compared to the eventual progress of history (for good and ill) ends the book on an ironic note. The banquet at Delmonico’s may not have signaled a triumph for anyone, but the book is a deliciously evolving read.

Howard Shirley writes from Franklin, Tennessee.

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