The Descent of Man | Study Guide

Charles Darwin

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The Descent of Man | Chapter 5 : On the Development of the Intellectual and Moral Faculties during Primeval and Civilized Times | Summary



Darwin begins the chapter describing an important difference between early humans' intellectual and physical development and that of animals. By intellect, humans learned to adapt to new habitats and conditions—they could make fire to keep warm, gather and hunt food in different ways, and create tools for any need they encountered. Humans' physical structure didn't need to change so severely to adapt. Animals, however, lacking in similar intelligence and some key physical features (e.g., dexterous fingers), had to either physically move away from unfriendly environments or structurally change to survive (e.g., growing more hair or fur to withstand cold).

Once man's progenitors became more social and the ability to sympathize was established in a community, it was possible to organize society for the benefit of all. Division of labor was established—the strongest, bravest tribe members may have served as "soldiers" for the community, understanding that by aiding the others, they would be helped in return. Of course, more advanced tribes—intellectually and socially—would take over weaker tribes, ultimately creating new generations of mixed tribes. As these communities evolved, so did their moral and social virtues: praise, blame, and shame became powerful motivators because early man regarded the opinions of their group as important. Darwin notes that we are apt to look at progress as the norm for human society, but he suggests that there's little in early history to support this idea and that ancient man probably didn't think in this way.

Darwin returns to natural selection here to explain how it affected the development of civilized man. Early man and "savages," he says, eliminated the weakest of mind and body in their tribe or community. With the arrival of scientific discoveries, civilized man developed medicines and laws and vaccinations to help protect the weakest of the community (again, the growth of sympathy and morality in man). These weaker humans lived longer and contributed to growing populations—passing along some of the very conditions that caused them to be sickly or feeble. As civilized man's tools of war advanced and became more fatal, there was more war and thus more population decreases because it was usually the youngest and strongest men that fought. Civilized, intellectually superior men who grew to possess wealth and stability were able to afford more children, which over time tended to increase the intellectual standards and abilities of the lineage and thus society as a whole. People who betrayed the moral standards of the time—the violent, the insane, "immoral" women, and murderers—were generally eliminated by imprisonment or death. Darwin makes the point that in animal breeding, the weakest or inferior animals are eliminated to preserve the stock.

Darwin proposes that the inferior of a society can become a larger population in a society than those that are intellectually and physiologically superior. He suggests that the inferior often marry and have many children when they are young and that these children tend to be healthy and hearty and can survive in a civilized community. He cites a study that shows how the Irish—described as low, inferior people—thrived in England and produced many more offspring than the Scottish—described as careful and frugal. Over generations, the Irish descendants produced more and more offspring, whereas the Scottish did not. Thus the inferior group prevailed in English society for the exact reasons they were considered to be low and inferior. By contrast, Darwin points out that when the British colonized other countries, they sent their finest minds, workers, and soldiers and thus were very successful not only in taking over other countries, but also in establishing structured communities in those countries. Darwin asserts that had humankind not been subject to natural selection over time, it would not have attained its present rank among the animals of the planet.

He closes the chapter with thoughts on whether all civilizations were barbarous and how this might have contributed to natural selection. He disputes other thinkers who suggest that humanity was created "civilized." Natural selection is a struggle for existence, says Darwin, and there is clear evidence of humankind's former low condition in ancient and current customs. Evidence of early man building fires can be linked to modern man's use of fire for industry, cooking, and warmth. He suggests primitive man used his fingers and toes to count (10 each) and that the ancient Roman numeral system uses the symbol V—representing a hand—for the number five (five fingers—VI is six, meaning a hand and one finger). The modern decimal (10) counting system is based on 10 fingers. The letters of human languages are rudiments of ancient pictorial representations of things and words. And many existing superstitions are remnants of the false religious beliefs of the ancients. Darwin emphasizes that human development and the process of natural selection are slow.


Darwin focuses on humanity's intellectual and social development in the context of his natural selection theory. He discusses these topics in broader strokes in this chapter in order to show the reader how natural selection (as he has catalogued earlier in the book) happened over the course of humankind's long history. He begins with early man and the ways tribes may have organized themselves as communities. Sympathy, division of labor, and social and moral virtues progressed as man evolved physically, moving further away from the savage condition to more civilized beings.

The influence of community on the individual is an important factor in humans' social development. Darwin easily connects readers to something they are very familiar with: society has rules and expectations, and most people want to be viewed positively by their fellow members of society. This was the case with early man, says Darwin, and the instinct for approval played a critical part in the progression from savage man and his community's sense of what is right or wrong to today's standards.

His discussion of how civilized man left behind the ancient custom of eliminating inferior or weak members of the tribe and instead developed (through intellect and sympathy) ways to aid and assist weaker members points to a defining distinction between civilized man and animals. Caring for those in need has been a challenge to all human societies, and Darwin appears to be making the important point that even in the civilized world in which he lives, the forces of natural selection and evolution continue to affect human development—albeit in far less barbaric ways. However, at the same time, there is some inherent racism in what Darwin is saying. For example, his discussion of the Irish as a less superior group in society would be considered highly racist today. Despite that Darwin was attempting to combat the racist interpretations of natural selection, he occasionally utilized racist stereotypes.

While his scope here is wide and he does not pretend to document these developments in a complete, definitive way, Darwin has presented many of the key elements of social organization and human interaction to show humankind's journey from lower form to current civilized animal.

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