Literature Study GuidesThe Descent Of ManThe Descent Of Man In Its Full Volume

The Descent of Man | Study Guide

Charles Darwin

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The Descent of Man | The Descent of Man in Its Full Volume


Darwin originally published The Descent of Man; and Selection in Relation to Sex in two volumes in 1871. The book had three parts.

Part 1: The Descent or Origin of Man

Part 1, the focus of this study guide, is sometimes published as its own volume. Its seven chapters examine the evidence for man's descent from a "lower" form of animal. It compares the mental powers of humans to that of lower animals. It examines the use of language and discusses how human beings' intellectual and moral faculties developed. Darwin's discussion includes the theory that would become known as social Darwinism, which was the idea that civilized societies should not encourage their weakest members to reproduce but should instead "check [their] sympathy" toward them. Finally, he discusses the various races of humankind in the context of an attempt to classify them.

Part 2: Sexual Selection

Darwin's theory of sexual selection posits that males always struggle to attract females, either by fighting or by what a contemporary reviewer of the book called "rivalry in voice or in beauty." The female makes a conscious choice to select the most pleasing male or males with which to breed. They choose males that are the best fighters or have the best vocal ability or most highly developed ornaments, such as a peacock's train.

Part 3: Sexual Selection in Relation to Man, and Conclusion

Darwin then turns to how sexual selection functions in humans. He discusses the secondary sexual characteristics of humans that emerge after puberty. And he also discusses the role that beauty and physical attributes, such as presence of hair and skin color, play in determining human pairings in various societies.

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