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17-Jun-2017 16:58

What's new in Desmond and Moore's interpretation is the idea that this humanitarian concern motivated Darwin's science and guided it on its unique course.

Evolutionary thinking enabled him to rescue the idea of human unity, taking it over from a religion that no longer provided it with adequate support, and put the idea of common descent on a rational foundation.

Desmond and Moore resume the bravura style they employed to dramatic effect in their 1991 biography of Darwin, spurring the historical horses into a gallop, striding across far-flung shores, echoing the thunder of distant battlefields, anatomising the machinations of power, and spicing the whole with artful touches for the reader to relish.

Yes, Darwin surely was "the most gentlemanly gentleman anyone had ever met".

Desmond and Moore emphasise how impressed he had been by the changes that his compatriots had induced in several Fuegians by forcing a crash course in European manners upon them: these "savages" readily showed a capacity to become civilised.

But he was younger then, and so was the century: both were more idealistic and optimistic.

By the time Darwin had reached adulthood, however, opinions around him were growing more equivocal.

During his vision-shaping voyage on the Beagle, he was able to consult an encyclopedia which arranged humankind into 15 separate species, each of a separate origin.

" The image had been mass-produced as a campaigning device, some 20 years before Charles's birth, by his grandfather, the potter Josiah Wedgwood.For those who feel that there is more to science than nature, however, Adrian Desmond and James Moore offer a bold new account of what drove Darwin on.His opposition to slavery in principle is well known, as are his appalled reactions to the evidence of its brutality he encountered on his Beagle voyage, such as the use of thumbscrews to punish slaves, or the man who cowered at his harmless gesture, reflexively anticipating a blow.In successive editions of The Origin of Species, he responded to criticisms by rowing back on his revolutionary idea, reducing the emphasis on natural selection and according more significance to other possible mechanisms of change.

As attitudes to race became harsher, sympathies for black people in the Americas more scant, and the fate of "savages" a matter of indifference, Darwin's own sympathies were blunted by the prevailing fatalism.By the mid-19th-century, many influential voices denied that the enslaved African was a brother, and it was broadly taken for granted that as a man, he was of an inferior sort to his white master.