The Disenchanting Darwin
If I am, in this book, to return to the idea of a redeeming Darwin, of a Darwin whose cultural power might be taken as both humane and enriching, it will be necessary, as I want to do briefly in this chapter, to face this culturally saturated Darwin precisely in the places that implicate him in his culture's prejudices, and that have issued out in various social and political movements that seem to have had very unhappy consequences. Since I will want to be arguing that Desmond and Moore are right, that Darwin was indeed very much a man of his moment, but that being a man of his moment was a positive condition of his best thought (as well as of his worst), I will have to look at the kinds of views that convinced some Darwinians to ignore or minimize them and that partly justify some of the most unfortunate uses of his ideas by others.
Darwin's work is marked by two qualities that might seem particularly disenchanting: a constant impetus toward transforming mysteries—particularly about the human condition—into “problems,” and then pushing forward to at least tentative solutions; and toward explanation of development in the natural world in terms that seem to be translatable immediately into the kind of politics that, for example, Ridley overtly adopts.
The recent historiography to which I have already alluded has made it more difficult to ignore Darwin's participation in his culture's prejudices, his hierarchical sense of race, his belief in the superiority of his own class, his view that women were intellectually inferior to men. Robert Young was angrily outspoken on the subject, complaining, long before the appearance of Desmond and Moore's biography, that scientists and historians had carefully separated Darwin from the historical context in which he was “enmeshed in a tight web of social, cultural,