Three Aspects of Darwin's Ethical Practice

By Graham, Peter W. | Wordsworth Circle, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Three Aspects of Darwin's Ethical Practice


Graham, Peter W., Wordsworth Circle


Looking carefully at the particulars of Charles Darwin's principle-driven behavior allows for the rebuttal of a persistent strand of opposition to his theories. Darwin's materialist reading of the world is not, as some anti-Darwinians have feared and claimed, necessarily at odds with an ethical sensibility. Instead, Darwin's ethos offers compelling evidence that, as George Levine has argued, a naturalistic vision need not be incompatible with an ethical one. Given the remarkable powers of innovation discernible in all aspects of Darwin's naturalistic vision, it may at first seem surprising to claim dial Darwin's ethical vision was largely conventional, though complex--but that is what I am going to argue here. His ethical principles, practices, and values were characteristic of those prevailing on both sides of his family: the progressive, privileged Darwins and Wedgwoods. The Darwins' and Wedgwoods' attitudes were typical of the well-educated, affluent, liberal-leaning segment of the professional people, capitalists, and landowners whose values gradually but significantly shaped the evolving moral culture of 19th century Britain.

But if Darwin's ethical principles appear determined by his class, time, and family, he carried those principles into practice in distinctively personal ways involving compromise, nuance, and occasional self-contradiction. Here I'll focus on three ethical concerns relevant to Darwin's public career and thus will not examine the fascinating personal aspects of his ethical existence. Notably I'll not address Darwin's religious attitudes or consider at length the complex blend of increasing agnosticism with solid social conformity that made him live, in classic country-gentleman fashion, as what James Moore has called a "squarson," the squire-parson hybrid who was the moral and financial pillar of a rural neighborhood. Darwin generously supported the parish church which he did not attend and rejected its Christian tenets with increasing force. It's clear, though, that Darwin's personal and public ethics impinge on one another. For example, one touching and remarkable feature of Darwin's happy marriage to his first cousin Emma Wedgwood: though they disagreed profoundly on religious matters, he paid her the compliment of unquestioning trust in her intellectual talents, her ability to rise above personal beliefs and feelings, and her loyalty to him. Darwin specified in writing that should he die with his ideas on natural selection unpublished, Emma would be the literary executor in charge of seeing those ideas into print, if necessary using designated funds to pay for appropriate advice from the scientific community (Browne, Charles Darwin: Voyaging, 90, 94, 100, 143).

The three cases I consider here are relevant to Darwin's public and publishing career, though they overlap with his personal life. First, Darwin's attitudes toward slavery, abolition, and what he and his culture called "savages." Secondly, the principled collaborative decision that resulted in the publication of a "joint paper" when Alfred Russell Wallace's written ideas on natural selection might have preempted Darwin's years of rumination and private writing on the subject. Finally, Darwin's carefully nuanced stance on the role of animals in experimental research and the responsibility of humane scientific experimenters.

Charles Darwin's grandfathers Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood were ardent supporters of the 18th century abolitionist movement. Indeed, the latter imagined, manufactured, and reaped rich profits from, the famous china medallion depicting a chained slave kneeling and suppliant below the words "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?" After the British slave trade had been successfully ended, the ensuing generations of Darwins and Wedgwoods continued to support abolition of slavery everywhere. Part of a growing wave of popular opinion, they held a position that over decades had gone from progressive minority to mainstream. …

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