The Descent of Man | Study Guide

Charles Darwin

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The Descent of Man | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1: The Evidence of the Descent of Man from Some Lower Form

Darwin begins this chapter by asking whether humankind differs from animals in body and brain, suggesting that they do but only by degrees. He catalogs many of the common structural and internal organ features of humans and animals, as well as differences, including parts that became useless to humans through evolution.

Chapter 2: On the Manner of Development of Man from Some Lower Form

This chapter examines the development of the human from a lower progenitor form. Darwin makes clear that humans and animals descended from this same lower form, accounting for the close relation between them. Variability plays a major role in how the different species of mammals evolved, as does environment, which Darwin suggests served an important role in development. He also looks at other contributing factors, such as arrested development, reversion, use and disuse of parts, and how population increase affected natural selection.

Chapter 3: Comparison of the Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals

Darwin focuses on the mental abilities of human and animal, intending to show that there is no fundamental difference between the two. He discusses how imitation, imagination, and memory all play into the development of sympathy in humans and animals. Reason, says Darwin, is the defining element separating humans from animals. While animals posses an ability to reason, human's abilities far exceed it. Language is also a vital skill that contributed to humans becoming the dominant animal on the planet.

Chapter 4: Comparison of the Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals, continued

In Chapter 4 Darwin turns to humankind's moral sense and how it advanced. Humankind is a social animal, and humans' ability to sympathize with others is the foundation of community. Division of labor, caring for others in the community, and a sense of what is moral all contribute to humans' individual development. Pleasing the community and avoiding shame or blame motivate human beings, and both help to sustain social virtues. These moral concerns, Darwin suggests, are passed on through the environment and perhaps through heredity.

Chapter 5: On the Development of the Intellectual and Moral Faculties during Primeval and Civilized Times

Darwin digs further into humankind as a social animal, asserting that natural selection plays a role in even civilized societies. Intellectual abilities can be passed down generations, as can less desirable characteristics. Population increases put pressures on communities, and humans must rely on their intellect and social instinct to solve the incumbent problems. Progress, as Darwin sees it, is slow, and humankind evolves at interrupted steps.

Chapter 6: On the Affinities and Genealogy of Man

In Chapter 6 Darwin returns to the genealogy of humans and animals and their close relation to their progenitor lower form. He speculates on where this early human lived and what features it may have had (probably aquatic and dwelt in trees near water). He suggests that both sexes were able to nourish their offspring but that natural selection and variability eventually defined the sexes more clearly. Darwin reminds the reader that all mammals still retain elements of their progenitor's original structure.

Chapter 7: On the Races of Man

Darwin addresses the debate about classifying different races of humankind into different categories, providing both pro and con points of view. He comes down clearly on the side of not classifying humankind by race because, other than superficial characteristics such as skin color and hair, all races of humankind are virtually the same structurally. Fertility issues and mixing of races are discussed, and he dedicates a number of pages to the question of the extinction of races. At chapter's end Darwin includes an article about the similarities between man and ape's brains, written by one of his fiercest defenders, Thomas Henry Huxley.

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