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An anniversary appraisal of The Descent of Man probes Darwin’s prescience and prejudices

A Most Interesting Problem: What Darwin's Descent of Man Got Right and Wrong About Human Evolution

Jeremy DeSilva, ed.
Princeton University Press
288 pp.
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Charles Darwin has for many years been cast as the hero of the life sciences. As a young man, he embarked on the adventure of a lifetime, joining the HMS Beagle on its voyage around the world. He returned older and wiser (and chronically ill), slowly transforming into a recognizably bearded sage. He published his most celebrated book, On the Origin of Species, in 1859 at the age of 50 (1).

If you read just that one book, it can be easy to interpret Darwin as being primarily interested in the evolution of animals and plants and to find him remarkable for all that he got right in elucidating the process of evolution by natural selection. Although he devoted considerable space in this work to discussing humans as agents of morphological change through domestication and “artificial selection,” Darwin included only a single sentence on humanity being shaped by evolution: “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history” (1).

More than a decade later, he developed this promissory note in both The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in quick succession (2, 3). To mark the 150th anniversary of The Descent of Man, paleoanthropologist Jeremy DeSilva has gathered a team of experts, mostly scientists, to pen reflections and update Darwin’s analysis: one essay each on The Descent of Man’s introduction and its seven chapters about human evolution, one summarizing the eleven chapters Darwin devoted to sexual selection, one on sexual selection in humans, and a conclusion. The essays in A Most Interesting Problem collectively present an image of Darwin as both “remarkably prophetic” with regard to some predictions and “flat out wrong” with others.

As several authors point out, scientists now have far better evidence to work with than Darwin did, including thousands of fossilized hominin specimens spanning the past 7 million years, as well as robust genetic analyses of contemporary and historic populations. Darwin made the case for human evolution without any of this information, relying instead on comparative data from skeletons, embryos, brains, and behavior.

He concluded that the major factors defining humanity—large brains, complex moral codes, culture, and an appreciation for beauty—exist in other primates too, although to a lesser extent. The differences between humans and other primates were thus a matter of degree, not of kind. This reasoned assertion of Darwin’s proved correct. So, too, did his intuition that human evolution had taken place largely in Africa.

Unsurprisingly, the most controversial of Darwin’s claims, in his time and ours, regard race and sex. It is in the essays on racialized differences and sexual selection in humans—written by Agustín Fuentes and Holly Duns­worth, respectively—that his ideas come under direct fire. Fuentes calls out Darwin’s “ethnocenetric, Eurocentric, and anti-African biases.” Dunsworth suggests that for Darwin, “women were wives, but men were so much more than husbands.”

Still, Fuentes countenances Darwin such a “good scientist” that he speculates the Victorian would agree that the division of humans into biological races is scientifically unsound, if only he were presented with our current data on biological diversity. Dunsworth, by contrast, argues that scientists owe it to the human species to finally break the link between “Darwin’s inchoate offerings” on gender and “their perceived social implications.”

Had Darwin’s chapters in The Descent of Man on sexual selection in animals received individualized attention, the volume would have looked rather different. For Darwin, questions of human evolution were partly constituted by his understanding of variations between “the races” and “the sexes”—sexual selection provided an evolutionary mechanism explaining the origins of human diversity (2, 4). Greater scrutiny of sexual selection would thus have highlighted an additional dimension of how much has changed in the past century and a half, that scientists today treat race and sex as distinct subjects.

DeSilva’s volume provides a welcome opportunity to reflect on the history of evolutionary theory as a legacy complicated by Darwin’s prescience as well as prejudice. Indeed, The Descent of Man, writes noted historian Janet Browne in the volume’s introduction, “shows Darwin at his most Victorian.” The essays develop this insight as both a compliment and a criticism, revealing Darwin as far more human than the heroic role he is often assigned.

References and Notes:
1. C. Darwin, On the Origin of Species (John Murray, 1859).
2. C. Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (John Murray, 1871).
3. C. Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (John Murray, 1872).
4. E. Richards, Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2017).

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of History, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA.