The Descent of Man | Study Guide

Charles Darwin

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The Descent of Man | Context


Further Evidence for On the Origin of Species

The Descent of Man can be viewed as a continuation and advancement of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, published 12 years earlier. The reaction the book garnered—especially in the scientific community—was remarkable, and it spurred much research and debate among biologists and naturalists. On the other hand, conservative religious groups disputed Darwin's theories of evolution, arguing that all life and the universe were created by a single divine being. These creationists, as they became known, had been similarly shocked by earlier works, such as the 1828 The Constitution of Man by Scottish philosopher George Combe (1788–1858), that suggested the universe was controlled by natural laws rather than God. The Descent of Man is Darwin's argument for the viability of his theories of natural selection and evolution as well as his rebuff of creationist thought. Employing (and citing) vast amounts of research since On the Origin of Species had been released, Darwin provides further and more advanced research for his theories.

The Descent of Man serves as proof for On the Origin of Species and also reflects Darwin's argument against certain elements of 19th-century life he found to be deplorable, such as slavery. He makes the point throughout the book that humans are exceptionally similar in physical structure (for instance, in their bones, brains, and other organs) and that less important characteristics, such as hair and skin color are rather meaningless from an evolutionary standpoint. The Descent of Man also advances Darwin's theories into the social and moral arenas as well, suggesting that social and moral virtues are shared by all animals and are all influenced by community. His argument for the moral virtues of a human (and animal) society that cares for the weakest of its member appears to be a direct comment on those of his his critics who misused his theory of natural selection from On the Origin of Species as a rationale for promoting "survival of the fittest" ideas and policies. Though not as lauded as On the Origin of Species, Darwin's The Descent of Man is perhaps his most vigorous defense of his theories.

Darwin's Bulldog

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–95) was called "Darwin's Bulldog" because of his fervent support—in public and in print—for Darwin's theory of evolution and natural selection. Huxley was a physiologist (person who studies of the body and anatomy of organisms) who showed early success by discovering a new layer in human hair. He, like Darwin, rejected religion and its explanations of natural phenomena—Huxley was a dedicated scientist and naturalist in his own right. His reputation grew based on his innovative discoveries.

Darwin was impressed by Huxley, and while Darwin was still writing On the Origin of Species, he and Huxley began a friendship that would last until Darwin's death (Huxley served as one of the pallbearers at Darwin's funeral). Darwin was reclusive and often ill, and he saw in Huxley someone who could be a public defender of his work. Huxley took the role with aplomb. The men shared a disdain for the ideas of supernatural creation, and Huxley often battled in public debates with proponents of creationism. Huxley, who coined the term agnostic, which is the label used for a person who believes it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God or how the universe began, died of a heart attack during a defense of agnosticism.

Social Theory and On the Origin of Species

The publication of On the Origin of Species inadvertently provided additional lines of "evidence" for racist ideas that have long been a part of human society. While Darwin did not specifically address humankind in relation to the concept of natural selection, prominent intellectuals were quick to misappropriate Darwin's ideas. Racial ideas were in place prior to the publication of On the Origin of Species. However, Darwin's publication gave what some saw to be a biological basis for these claims.

After the publication of On the Origin of Species, certain intellectuals proposed that social standing, intelligence, and racial categorization were structured by evolution, implying that these socially conceived roles were based in a biological reality. For instance, some argued that individuals in the lower class were lower-class for biological reasons. Some of the more well-known proponents of these ideas are English sociologist Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), the originator of the phrase survival of the fittest, and English scientist Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911), a proponent of eugenics (the controlled breeding of humanity in order to promote specific desired characteristics). French psychologist Alfred Binet (1857–1911) and his student Théodore Simon (1873–1961) were influenced by Darwin's ideas when they created an intelligence test with the aim to differentiate social classes. American sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840–1910) was similarly influenced by Darwin in his writings about survival of the fittest, slavery, and capitalism. These social theorists, among others, were termed "social Darwinists" and largely latched on to the term survival of the fittest as support for their claims.

Social Darwinists were mainly concerned with the application of Darwin's theory to human society, latching on to the concept of "unfit" and "fit" individuals and races. Social Darwinists began to ascribe these terms and the concept of natural selection, which they saw as having scientific validity, to previously expressed racial ideas. For instance, Francis Galton, Darwin's own cousin, argued in a series of articles and letters that the lower portion of society was taking over society as a whole in contrast to the higher-class, more intellectual portion of society—a point Darwin himself brings up in The Descent of Man. Galton's solution to this problem was that the less intelligent and, according to one of the letters he sent to Darwin, "coarser" portion of society needed to be eradicated. Galton himself did not have any suggestions regarding the methodology on how to do so. However, his belief in eugenics would influence the occurrence of mass genocides, including the Holocaust, the systematic killing of Europe's Jewish population, the disabled, and millions of others by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during World War II (1939–45).

Similarly, social Darwinist ideas were also discussed in conjunction with ideas of nationalist and colonialist efforts underway at the time. Sumner first explicitly linked evolution and capitalism. He argued that successful businesspeople were naturally superior to less successful individuals in society, specifically citing slaves as examples of inferior beings. This idea was embraced to varying degrees by businesspeople at the time. For instance, American industrialist Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) explicitly acknowledged both Darwin and Spencer as ideological inspiration for framing his business model. Similarly, in 1899 the title of a poem by English writer Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) called "The White Man's Burden" became a largely popularized phrase, encompassing the idea that the "white man" had a personal obligation to relieve unfit races from their less evolutionary advanced civilizations. In essence, the phrase "white man's burden" attempted to provide justification for the subjugation of other races as slaves. The concept that it was the responsibility of the "white man" to subjugate other races was embraced to a large degree by governmental agencies as justification for colonial and imperialist policies.

In writing The Descent of Man, Darwin was attempting to clarify how his theory of natural selection related to the human species and refute racist claims by illustrating their erroneous assumptions regarding the implications of natural selection. In order to do so, Darwin specifically goes through the evolutionary relationship of humans and other animals and specifically addresses the premise behind the biological basis for races, arguing that biologically distinct races do not exist.

Today additional evidence refutes the idea of biologically distinct races. There is more genetic variation within one racial group than between racial groups. This is not to discount the different experiences individuals have based on their race. People have artificially created racially based inequities that characterize global societies and affect them in very real terms. However, there is no biological basis for these differences, a point Darwin emphasizes. While Darwin was not entirely without fault, in The Descent of Man he attempts to mitigate wrong conclusions about natural selection and evolution when applied to the human species.

Evolution and Natural Selection—Darwin's Ideas Today

Darwin's ideas have had a wide variety of effects in the years following the publication of his seminal works. Over 100 years of research with increasingly sophisticated tools and practices have filled in many of the gaps in Darwin's theories with concrete science and evidence. His work has become a framework for anthropologists, biologists, geneticists, and naturalists like himself to explore the evolutionary processes behind the natural world we live in, such as those behind human evolution. Darwin's ideas regarding natural selection helped promote research on the evolution of the human species, resulting in finds of fossil ancient hominid (human and ancestral human) species. For instance, in 1974 a nearly 40% complete skeleton was found in the African country of Ethiopia, where Darwin suggested the ancestors of modern humans may have lived. The female skeleton that scientists named "Lucy" was about 3 million years old. Scientists posit she walked upright, and they estimate her to have been about three and a half feet tall. Twenty years later, in 1994, an even older nearly complete skeleton—named Little Foot—was discovered in South Africa.

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