Back in 2020, I finished out the year by reviewing On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Since then, I’ve been trying to motivate myself to work my way through Darwin’s follow up: The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex.
Knowing that the ideas in Descent of Man were controversial, Darwin held off publishing until 12 years after Origin of Species. His thoughts on natural selection being well received, however, he felt comfortable proceeding to the next step, namely, “. . . to consider, firstly whether man, like every other species, is descended from some pre-existing form; secondly, the manner of his development; and thirdly, the value of the differences between the several races.”
The idea that man evolved in a similar manner to other species, “that man is the co-descendant with other species of some ancient, lower, and extinct form,” was not new. Naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamark had previously come to the same conclusion and had been supported by research from a number of other well-respected scientists. Yet the idea was controversial because it was thought that man’s mental abilities could not have evolved from a lower form: The mental difference between the dumbest human and the smartest ape, for example, was just too large. People are just too smart to have had a common ancestor with a dumb beast.
Darwin and I respectfully disagree.
The most common misconception about Darwin’s theories is that he claimed humans descended from monkeys. In fact, Descent of Man focuses on the manner in which humans evolve, and that this process aligns with the ways other animals evolve. It’s astounding to me that in this day and age so many people still don’t understand the basics of evolutionary theory. What’s going on with the U.S. school system?
As important as Darwin’s contributions to science are (and his contributions really can’t be overstated), this book was a difficult read because, at the end of the day, he was a white Victorian male.
Although an abolitionist, Darwin had lots of typically Victorian ideas about race. I started tagging instances of the words “savage” and “Negro” in this book until I realized I would run out of book darts if I kept it up. As one might expect from men of his era, he places the white male as the standard of civility and sets that as the bar for other races and communities to match. Example: “Neither can we say why certain admirable virtues, such as the love of truth, are much more highly appreciated by some savage tribes than by others.”
Why, some savages have even been observed wearing boaters with morning coats, can you image?
To be fair, Scots and Irishmen are also on lower rungs than the English in Darwin’s opinion, and he notes with a scientific eye why it’s difficult to increase the overall numbers of what he calls the civilized classes: “[T]he very poor and reckless, who are often degraded by vice, almost invariably marry early, while the careful and frugal, who are generally otherwise virtuous, marry late in life, so that they may be able to support themselves and their children in comfort.”
Change poor and reckless to low IQ and you’ve got yourself a movie
When Darwin’s not going on about savages, he shares his views on the lady folk. As the full title of this book suggests, a critical question is “How does sexual selection play into the evolution of species, particularly in man?” Darwin explores the reasons for sexual differences and how those may play a role in evolution. After explaining sexual differences in insects, fish, birds, and non-human mammals, he turns his attention to humans. “Man is more courageous, pugnacious, and energetic than woman, and has a more inventive genius. . . . In woman the face is rounder; the jaws and the base of the skull smaller; the outlines of the body rounder, in parts more prominent.” Per Darwin’s theory, sexual preferences perpetuate as those individuals that are most pleasing to the other sex reproduce and pass on those characteristics. While natural selection focuses on those attributes that make an individual better suited to its environment, sexual selection focuses on those attributes that’s going to drive the opposite sex wild.
These preferences may vary by race or ethnicity and if you don’t think there’s a serious cringe alert coming, this is your final warning.
Forget the cringe warning, this calls for something stronger.
Says Darwin, “It is well known that with many [Khoekhoe] women the posterior part of the body projects in wonderful manner. . . .Sir Andrew Smith is certain that this peculiarity is greatly admired by the men. . . .Some of the women in various Negro tribes have the same peculiarity.”
Darwin was way ahead of his time.
Yikes. Ok, so what’s this about men having a more inventive genius? Where’s your proof, Darwin? “The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman. . . .If two lists were made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, painting, sculpture, music, history, science, and philosophy. . . the two lists would not bear comparison.”
Perhaps if you spent less time with your sewing notions and more time reading the books
I won’t let you have and going to the schools I won’t admit you to, you might get somewhere, what what!
In spite of all my criticism, I give Darwin credit for having an open mind about controversial ideas. While some of his day believed different races should be classified as different species, he soundly rejected that idea. Furthermore, he recognized that humans are closer to apes than an ape is to a dog. For a man living in the 19th century to say “the mental faculties of man and the lower animals do not differ in kind, though immensely in degree” is fairly remarkable, and I dare say you’d find people in our current age who would have a hard time swallowing that.
Perhaps for my next dive into evolutionary theory I’ll pick up The Voyage of the Beagle, which documents the research trip in which Darwin started to form his theories. For now, I leave you with this quote about vaccines: “There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox.”