The Descent of Man | Study Guide

Charles Darwin

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The Descent of Man | Main Ideas


Shared Structures of Man and Animals

In The Descent of Man Darwin presents evidence to show that the physical structures of humans and all mammals are virtually the same by degrees. His theory of evolution is that humans and other mammals all began with the same progenitor lower form, and by examining the remarkable similarities between man and other mammals, he intends to strengthen his argument for evolution. Embryos of apes, dogs, and humans all share similar structural parts—in fact, they actually look very similar until later in the gestation period. Darwin covers a lot of similarities throughout The Descent of Man: hands, feet, skulls, jaws, teeth, spines, and internal organs such as the heart, kidneys, lungs, blood vessels, and the brain. He examines the changes in humans' structure as they began to walk erect and how internal organs, limbs, and bones adapted, strengthening the necessary parts and letting other unused parts (such as the tail) become rudiments.

The Human Brain Changes the World

Darwin spends a large portion of the book explaining how humans' higher intellect set them apart from the animal kingdom and made them the planet's most dominant animal. He examines the intellectual characteristics shared by humans and their closest cousins (monkeys and apes). Both can communicate, both can solve problems, and both have memories that are instrumental in their abilities to learn. But Darwin makes clear where humans' advanced mental abilities surpass those of their cousins. The advancement of the brain (and thus the skull as well) coupled with the development of language is an indispensable evolution in humankind's dominance. They both contribute to the species' ability to solve problems, make advanced tools, and organize tribes into communities and even larger societies and nations. Memory and sympathy play important roles in humankind's ability to relate to others and thus find shared virtues.

The Sociability of Animals and Man

Animals, according to Darwin, exhibit evidence of rich social lives, in some ways comparable to humans' social interactions. Animals also display individual emotions and group social instincts similar to humans'. But humans as a social animal are more complex, and external forces such as approval—and shame—from the community play an important role in human socialization. Human moral sense is mostly learned from parents and from the community, and it guides human actions in many ways. Humans, like animals, prefer to be social. Concepts such as division of labor, community virtues, and helping others in need are, while not exclusive to humans, much more a defining characteristic of human groups. Natural selection affects civilized humankind's environment and development by reinforcing and promoting both ideas and behaviors. Darwin suggests that humankind's notion of morality is founded on the very interdependent social idea of the Golden Rule: do to others as you would have them do to you.

Genetics and Natural Selection

Darwin examines the traits and characteristics of humans and animals that can be ascribed to genetics and heredity, though he is clear in his belief that environment, socialization, and adaptability play equally important roles in human evolution. There are some characteristics that are passed down through generations through heredity. These can remain consistent or can change over time depending on each generation's experience (both physical and mental). He connects the genetic strain, or inherited characteristic, to the structural similarities and differences passed down from humans and other mammals' progenitor lower form. Some obvious characteristics, such as skin color and hair, have been used to categorize and separate some humans based on race, but Darwin rejects such superficial notions because the physical structures of all races of humankind are nearly identical. No matter how a human looks, or a horse or dog or monkey for that matter, they are all still far more alike in structure than they are different.

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