The Descent of Man | Study Guide

Charles Darwin

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The Descent of Man | Quotes


The whole process of that most important function, the reproduction of the species, is strikingly the same in all mammals.

Narrator, Chapter 1

Charles Darwin presents this critical connection between humans and animals to reinforce his theory of human evolution from a single progenitor shared by all other mammals.


The time will ... come, when it will be thought wonderful that naturalists ... should have believed that each [man and animal] was the work of a separate act of creation.

Narrator, Chapter 1

Darwin suggests that in the future people will find it amusing that naturalists will have once believed that every animal on the planet was created individually by some greater being or force. Here Darwin is addressing the creationists of his time, who believed humankind was designed and made by God.


The small strength and speed of man ... are more than counterbalanced, firstly, by his intellectual powers ... and, secondly, by his social qualities.

Narrator, Chapter 2

Darwin points out that despite humankind's small size and slowness compared to their most closely related cousins, the human intellect has provided a counterbalance that has allowed them to evolve and thrive. Being able to make tools and weapons, as well as the other benefits of being able to reason and imagine, has helped preserve and sustain human life. The social instinct humankind has for community and division of labor in a group has also benefited human survival.


There is a much wider interval in mental power between one of the lowest fishes ... and one of the higher apes, than between an ape and a human.

Narrator, Chapter 3

Darwin says that the difference in mental powers between a simple organism such as a small fish and a higher ape is extremely vast but that the difference between the mental powers of a human and an ape are not as vast as some might believe. His point is to make clear how closely related humans are to apes, even though there are many important differences between them intellectually.


The same high mental faculties which first led man to believe in unseen spiritual agencies ... would infallibly lead him ... to various strange superstitions and customs.

Narrator, Chapter 3

Here Darwin asserts that if humans, with their advanced intellectual abilities, could believe in spirits, multiple gods, or even one singular god, they could as easily believe in other strange and perhaps horrible ideas. He cites as examples human sacrifice to a blood-loving god and the burning of women suspected of being witches.


All animals living in a body ... must indeed be in some degree faithful to one other; and those that follow a leader must be in some degree obedient.

Narrator, Chapter 4

In examining the moral sense of humankind, Darwin examines examples of something akin to a moral sense in animals. He observes that all animals that are a part of a community and possess some sense of sympathy will defend each other out of a sense of duty (or faithfulness) to the community. Similarly, in an organized community, animals must adhere to the will of the group or the group leader.


[A human] will thus be driven to compare [past] impressions ... with the almost ever-present instinct of sympathy, and with ... what others consider as praiseworthy or blamable.

Narrator, Chapter 4

Darwin is making the point that the social and moral instinct of humankind is partly created by the forces of the community around them. With their mental capabilities, memory, and ability to sympathize, the social human will often be aware of whether actions they take will be praised or disliked by the group.


Slavery, although in some ways beneficial during ancient times ... was not so regarded [as a great crime] until quite recently, even by the most civilized nations.

Narrator, Chapter 4

Darwin was staunchly opposed to slavery. Here he expresses his opinion clearly but notes that the practice may have had some benefit in ancient times. He makes it a point to call out the "civilized" people and cultures of recent history that allowed or embraced the crime of slavery.


The rate at which man tends to increase ... leads in barbarous tribes to infanticide ... and in civilized nations to abject poverty.

Narrator, Chapter 5

Darwin discusses population increases and the causes, cataloging some of the natural checks that keep populations from growing too rapidly (disease, infant mortality, infertility). Here he laments the regrettable human responses to rapid population increase—from the brutal infanticide of some barbarian tribes to the less fatal but equally unfortunate results in civilized societies, such as poverty and hunger.


Many existing superstitions are the remnants of former false religious beliefs ... The grand idea of God hating sin and loving righteousness ... was unknown during primeval times.

Narrator, Chapter 5

In his discussion of humankind's moral sense, Darwin asserts that many 19th-century superstitions were based on discarded ideas about faith and religion. Since the Enlightenment (intellectual movement of the late 17th and early 18th centuries emphasizing reason and individualism over tradition), thinkers such as Darwin were finding truth in science rather than in religion. Here he makes the point that primeval humans, far less intellectually developed than civilized humans, didn't even entertain the idea of a God of righteousness.


The early progenitor of the whole Simian stock, including man, was [not] identical with, or even closely resembled, any existing ape or monkey.

Narrator, Chapter 6

Here Darwin is impressing on readers that even though man and monkeys come from the same single lower form progenitor, that early form did not look like what we now see as humans and apes. It shared the same important structures as all mammals, but it was a unique animal.


At a still earlier period the progenitors of man must have been aquatic in their habits.

Narrator, Chapter 6

Again trying to give his readers a sense of how foreign this progenitor of all mammals was, Darwin points out that the lung structure humans share with apes and dolphins and whales had to come from the same early lower form, in which it served as a float. And because dolphins swim under water, humans' progenitor lungs must have had the same capability at some point.


The world, it has often been remarked, appears as if it had long been preparing for the advent of man.

Narrator, Chapter 6

In this chapter examining the genealogy of humankind, Darwin describes for the reader many variations that had to take place for humans to become what they are today (the same applies for apes and horses and dogs). Darwin would not agree that the world was preparing solely for humankind—because it was part of all animals' evolution—but the chain of variations in humans' development were important to human evolution, and if any of the early mammals that eventually linked to what we know as human were different, so too would be humans.


Those who do not admit the principle of evolution, must look at species as separate creations, or as in some manner as distinct entities.

Narrator, Chapter 7

Here Darwin argues against the creationists of the 19th century, who believe that humans and animals were created by a divine power. As a naturalist, Darwin questions how creationists would define species that were created, since the common way of classifying species based on consistent characteristics wouldn't necessarily apply to a created animal.


Man can long resist conditions which appear extremely unfavorable for his existence.

Narrator, Chapter 7

Humankind's remarkable ability to adapt, his intellectual abilities, and his social instincts have been instrumental in becoming the dominant animal on the planet, according to Darwin. Even in extreme conditions, humans are able to invent and imagine ways of surviving that most other mammals simply cannot (e.g., building fire, creating complicated access to water, making clothes, and cooking food).

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