The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]


Charles Darwin's Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) was the single most important European or American nineteenth-century statement that man is an integral part of the animal kingdom. As a work of science, Descent of Man mattered more, and was more coherent, rigorous, and in tune with scientific opinion than that of any of its predecessors in evolutionary theory.

Darwin's "Man book" was a bigger immediate success than any ...
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The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Charles Darwin's Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) was the single most important European or American nineteenth-century statement that man is an integral part of the animal kingdom. As a work of science, Descent of Man mattered more, and was more coherent, rigorous, and in tune with scientific opinion than that of any of its predecessors in evolutionary theory.

Darwin's "Man book" was a bigger immediate success than any of his other books, including the epochal Origin of Species (1859), and it was soon translated into numerous languages. Darwin wrote with engaging literary style, charming modesty, brilliant argument, and a discursive method of proof, making the book an exhilarating romp through the Earth's known natural history and our own history as well as contemporary scientists knew it.
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Meet the Author

Charles Darwin

Robert Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England, on February 12, 1809, into a wealthy and highly respected family. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was a doctor and the author of many works, including his well-known Zoonomia, or the Laws of Organic Life, which suggested a theory of evolution. Charles's father, Robert Waring Darwin, was also a prosperous doctor; his mother, Susannah, was the daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the renowned Wedgwood potteries. The Darwins and the Wedgwoods had close and long-standing relations, and Charles was to marry his cousin, Emma Wedgwood.

In 1825 at age sixteen, Darwin matriculated at Edinburgh University to study medicine. There, his early interest in natural history developed, and he studied particularly crustaceans, sea creatures, and beetles. Nauseated by the sight of blood, however, he decided that medicine was not his vocation, left Edinburgh in 1827 and entered Christ's College, Cambridge University, with no clear sense of possible vocation, theology itself being an option. At Cambridge he became friends with J. S. Henslow, a clergyman who was also professor of botany. Although Darwin was to graduate from Cambridge with a B.A. in theology, he spent much time with Henslow, developing his interest in natural science. It was Henslow who secured a position for Darwin on an exploratory expedition aboard the HMS Beagle.

In December 1831, the year he graduated from Cambridge, Darwin embarked upon a five-year voyage to Africa and South America, acting as a companion to the captain, Robert Fitzroy. Darwin spent more time in land expeditions than at sea, where he was always seasick, but during the long voyages he continued his collecting and, cramped in his tiny cabin, meticulously wrote up his ideas. Several years after his return, at the time of the birth of his first son, William, Darwin fell ill. It is conjectured that while in South America he had contracted Chagas's disease, but whatever the cause, the effects were debilitating for the rest of Darwin's life.

By the time he returned to London in 1835, many of his letters, some to scientists like Charles Lyell and Adam Sedgwick, had been read before scientific societies, and he was already a well known and respected naturalist. His first published book, an account of his voyage aboard the Beagle, entitled Journal of Researches, appeared in 1839 and was widely popular. He married the same year; soon after, the family moved from London to a secluded house at Down, in Kent, where Darwin wrote initial sketches of his theory and then preparing himself for the full exposition, spent eight years writing a detailed set of definitive monographs on barnacles.

In 1858, when Darwin was halfway through writing his book, "Natural Selection," A. R. Wallace sent him a paper called, "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type." In language similar to Darwin's own, Wallace laid out the argument for natural selection. Wallace asked Darwin to help get the paper published -- obviously an alarming development for a man who had given twenty years of his life to getting the argument for natural selection right. Darwin's scientific friends advised him to gather materials giving evidence of his priority but to have the Wallace paper read before the Linnaean Society, along with a brief account of his own ideas. Immediately after the reading, Darwin began work on his "abstract" of "Natural Selection." The result was On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, published in 1859. Despite the controversy it generated, it was an immense success and went through five more editions in Darwin's lifetime.

Darwin devoted the rest of his life to researching and writing scientific treatises, drawing on his notebooks and corresponding with scientists all over the world, and thus developing and modifying parts of his larger argument.

Darwin never traveled again and much of his scientific work was done in his own garden and study at home. Others, particularly his "bulldog," T. H. Huxley, fought the battle for evolution publicly, and as Darwin remained quietly ailing at home, his family grew -- he had ten children -- and so did his reputation. Although he was always ill with symptoms that made it impossible for him to work full days, he produced an enormous volume of work. His death, on April 19, 1882, was a national event. Despite the piety of his wife, Emma, Darwin had fallen away from religion as he reflected both on the way nature worked and on the way his favorite daughter, Annie, died painfully from an unknown feverish illness, when she was ten. Nevertheless, ironically, he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Author biography from the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of The Origin of Species.

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    1. Date of Birth:
      February 12, 1809
    2. Place of Birth:
      Shrewsbury, England
    1. Date of Death:
      April 19, 1882
    2. Place of Death:
      London, England
    1. Education:
      B.A. in Theology, Christ’s College, Cambridge University, 1831


Charles Darwin's Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) was the single most important European or American nineteenth-century statement that man is an integral part of the animal kingdom. As a work of science, Descent of Man mattered more, and was more coherent, rigorous, and in tune with scientific opinion than that of any of its predecessors in evolutionary theory, including the work of Jean Baptiste Lamarck, Erasmus Darwin, William Chambers, Herbert Spencer, Alfred Russel Wallace, or George John Romanes. Published in two parts in February 1871, running to more than 790 pages, Darwin's "Man book" quickly made a splash in England, Europe, and North America. It was a bigger immediate success than any of his other books, including the epochal Origin of Species (1859), and it was soon translated into numerous languages. After all, Descent of Man was about us, not merely flora and fauna. Darwin wrote with engaging literary style, charming modesty, brilliant argument, and a discursive method of proof, making the book an exhilarating romp through the Earth's known natural history and our own history as well as contemporary scientists knew it.

Charles Robert Darwin (February 12, 1809 - April 19, 1882) was the son of Robert Waring Darwin, a wealthy doctor, and Susanna Wedgwood Darwin, whose father was Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the famous china company in Staffordshire, England, that bore his name. The Darwin family lived in Shrewsbury, a local and well-connected element in the landed gentry, whose members had helped govern and sustain England's constitutional monarchic state and growing commercial and industrial capitalist expansionsince Elizabethan times. Darwin first studied medicine at Edinburgh and then theology at Cambridge but without enthusiasm. At the same time, he independently trained himself in his life's work, natural history. A mentor got him assigned to the crew of the H.M.S. Beagle; its five-year voyage, commencing in 1831, gave Darwin, the ship's scientific officer, substantial natural-history field work beyond Europe, enabling him to pose important questions about the development, distribution, and dominance of forms of life in particular locations in different times. Upon his return to England, Darwin settled down to the quiet life of the country gentleman and natural historian. He began to write books on the material he had collected on the voyage of the Beagle, and became increasingly well connected to English scientific circles, as well as to those on the Continent and in the New World.

Natural history came into its own in Darwin's lifetime. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was little more than a doctrine of natural theology, showing the glory of God in nature, through the history of the earth, its flora and fauna, after the fashion of William Paley and others who had taught that God the Creator had made the earth and everything living on it. Such intricacy of creation showed the divinity and the reason of the Creator. And natural history, like natural philosophy (more or less, physical science), operated according to the Baconian philosophy of science, whose practitioners themselves were concerned to demonstrate the truth of God's creation in nature. According to the Baconian philosophy, there were two proofs that a statement was true: that it was of universal occurrence and that it was literally and absolutely true. In other words, the natural historian or the natural philosopher verified that a fact was the same everywhere in all particulars, and that it was absolutely true - for, after all, all things in the Bible were also absolutely true. In the Baconian philosophy of science, then, there was no such thing as a normative statement or a genuinely relativistic statistic. Baconian philosophy antedated the science of statistics. By the 1840s, however, the Baconian philosophy was everywhere in retreat among natural philosophers and natural historians (how and why they came to embrace the modernist notion that there can be a norm of material, not ideal or spiritual, facts is too complex to discuss here). Examples of the new notion abounded in the 1840s, including the American Elias Loomis' theory of a storm front, in which the winds blew in either direction in response to a rise or fall in the average (not the absolute) barometric pressure; the Belgian astronomer Adolphe Quetlelet's concept of the average man; and Darwin's own notion of a species as a dynamic entity of the most favored individuals surviving in the competition for food and reproduction in a particular environment.

As Darwin achieved his scientific maturity, natural history became a full-fledged scientific discipline, with its own theories, data, principles, methods, and even specialized institutions and eager scientific and lay constituencies. Natural historians named and classified all living forms, as well as nature's material products. By mid-century, a plethora of disciplines had been established under the natural-history rubric, including geology, botany, zoology, and embryology, among many others. Natural-history museums proliferated, as their tools and methods improved, demonstrating the order of life to the science's constituencies. Darwin worked with many representatives of these new fields of knowledge, thus ultimately availing himself of an entire world of specimens and facts that he could fit into his emerging synthesis of the history of life and its sources. In Origin of Species (1859) Darwin established two theses: first, that the present forms of life had descended from prior life forms; and second, that the causes of descent were the processes of natural selection, i.e., those individuals most favored to survive in their particular niches or environments would do so, and would propagate more offspring like themselves, and so on, until the local requirements of survival themselves changed. Natural selection meant the competition of individuals for foodstuffs and other requirements of survival and reproduction, of changing environment and heredity. Here Darwin wrote as if he were an experimenter working with provable natural laws - with norms of physical and material evidence.

Darwin's Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex remains even today a foundation text for the modernist point of view in the Western world. As such it rivaled, and perhaps overshadowed, the works of John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, and even Sigmund Freud because of the pervasiveness of its influence in creating that new modernist discourse. Only with Darwin's thesis that man is an animal do we have the genuine possibility of the rigorous scientific examination and interpretation of the material structures and processes that constitute human nature and conduct. By making man a part of nature Darwin made an important contribution to the creation of contemporary scientific materialism. As a part of nature, man was an animal - a being constituted of material structures and processes. This was the most important concept Darwin put forward, and, in the early twenty-first century, we still have a long way to go before we exhaust the meanings, implications, even the facts, emanating from that single and profound insight. There is no aspect of human life and conduct that is untouched by Darwin's maxim, and Descent of Man still influences how we conceive the world around us.

When Darwin published Descent of Man, he had changed his perspective in some respects. We have already seen that he bluntly extended the doctrine of descent to mankind, making man thoroughly a part of the animal kingdom. But there was more. Like many of his contemporaries, Darwin shifted from basing his argument on individuals to grounding it in groups. Just as Karl Marx shifted from the struggles of individual workers in the Communist Manifesto (1849) to the relationships of the classes in terms of the means of economic production in Das Kapital (1867), Darwin moved from discussing the survival of "favored individuals" to the evolution of patterns of behavior and structure among groups - i.e., species -- of plants and animals, including the races of mankind. This shift from individual to group, so characteristic of late-nineteenth-century thought in the West, marked a transformation to a positivistic and deterministic - a profoundly materialistic or naturalistic - point of view in which man was nothing but an animal, ruled by laws of nature, society, and economy. Thus Darwin's Descent of Man provides more than a naturalistic perspective, that is, a notion that man is a part of the animal kingdom, as important and protean an insight as that was. The work also represents the earliest reasonably extensive text of the patterns of human behavior and their origins and, more precisely, of group dynamics. It is also the first such text to attempt to find a naturalistic and scientific basis for ethics, or standards of behavior.

On the one hand, the relativism of Origin of Species is well known, even infamous in some circles. On the other, Darwin's efforts in Descent of Man to figure out why and how particular species behave in certain ways and not in others - tied in the main to their evolutionary history, and in particular to their innate physical and instinctual equipment - could be seen as a counterweight to the potential anarchic threat of individual desires running rampant in nature and society. It was as if once having given nature a strong dose of historicism and dynamism, Darwin was now obligated to explain why change occurred without chaos, and here the species question, which bedeviled natural historians in the nineteenth century and their successors, evolutionary biologists, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, played a crucial role. If individuals belonged to species, and species evolved, then individuals could vary only so much, and then only according to certain predictable laws and principles, not unlike physical forces and chemical atoms. Indeed, it was Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, the eugenics enthusiast, who attempted to work out statistical principles of inheritance, variation, and evolution for groups and sub-groups, such as the elites and the dregs of society, and was very much inspired by Descent of Man.

Clearly Darwin had champions on both sides of the Atlantic, and there was much interest in the questions that absorbed him. The reception accorded Descent of Man was the largest and the most dramatic in Great Britain and the United States, perhaps because interest in evolution was higher there than in other countries. In Great Britain, literary and clerical reviewers had difficulty with Darwin's dictum of descent, but not with his character as a scientist and gentleman, and scientists came around to his views rather easily. In America, clerics were sometimes more hostile, and literary men decidedly less so, whereas a large fraction of scientists were noncommittal. Those who identified with the notion that their science was like natural science - i.e., sustained by natural law provable by experimentation -- turned out to be friendlier to Descent of Man than those who identified with the Baconian empiricism of the early nineteenth century and its notions of design in nature. In fact, there was no compromise: Darwinian thought demanded a robust secularism, or, at least, a highly rigorous compartmentalization of science and religion.

Darwin's Descent of Man helped found the Western modernist and materialist point of view. Man's evolutionary history and his place in the animal kingdom have meant much ever since. As an example, medicine and public health represent an obvious area of continuing influence - and concern. Human anatomy, physiology, and basic health have their animal analogies and similarities, and bench scientists take these very seriously as the foundation of their research. Many diseases, and their cures, can be studied first in animals before they are studied in humans. No one would deny the obvious differences between humans and other animal species, but such interspecies dissimilarities are widespread throughout the animal kingdom. Many advances in medical science owe a good deal to what we know about other species.

Then there is the Darwinian notion of the comparisons between human and animal behavior and emotion. Darwin himself was convinced that the races of mankind, like those of the lower species, had evolved and competed in the struggle for existence. It did not take much for those writers who believed that there was a natural and unequal hierarchy of human races to deploy Darwinian ideas, metaphors, and canards to their racist schemes. This gave rise to various "social Darwinist" concepts of human social evolution as advocated by a wide variety of apostles, ranging from the Italian Caesar Lombroso to the German Heinrich von Treitscke to the Englishman Rudyard Kipling. Here again was an area of Darwinian influence on modernist thought and expression.

Another enduring, if not always acknowledged, influence of Descent of Man, far more than Origin of Species, is Darwin's idea of the evolution of the mind from lowliest animal to man. Psychic evolution, like his physical homologues with the animals, is a fundamental principle of the modernist-materialist point of view. For if the mind can be studied, and if it is the seat of behavior, then human behavior no less than animal behavior can be predicted. And what can be predicted can, at least according to the modernist point of view, be controlled. Prediction and control are two of the underlying ideas of scientific modernism, especially after 1900. Psychologists, mental health professionals, educators, advertising professionals, and others who seek to understand and thus to manipulate the modern individual or mass mind do not, as a rule, look to Descent of Man as the basis for their professional practice; but their disciplines are an outgrowth of the discourse that Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud, among others, created in the middle to late nineteenth century.

One may also argue that Descent of Man is a seminal text for the modern (and modernist) behavioral sciences. It is the evolution of the patterns of behavior of particular groups or species, and their survival and adaptation, that concerned Darwin in Descent of Man. Virtually every chapter betrays that fascination in one way or another. Ultimately it was competition for the rights of reproduction that mattered most to Darwin: the struggle on the part of the male to fertilize the most desirous female, and, on the part of the female, to find the best male provider for her offspring. Darwin worked out detailed classifications of sexual characteristics that would attract members of the opposite sex, some of which ring true even today, others of which remain rather more fanciful. Without getting into any elaborate commentary on the validity of his observations, it is nevertheless fair to say that what has not passed the test of time in Darwin's work in this area are his comments and theories about sexual selection among humans. Darwin argued backward from what civilized peoples do to what primitive peoples do and did. Although what he insisted about sexual selection and attraction among civilized peoples seemed to make sense at the time, he had minimal and very poor information about the habits and conduct of primitive peoples, whose sexual and reproductive behaviors represented the bulk of the human experience, and were often at odds -- in multiple bizarre ways -- with those mores and folkways of the allegedly civilized peoples. However, this does not detract from the enormity of Darwin's legacy: incorporating the behavior of human groups into the animal kingdom, and thus helping to create the discourse we know as modernism.

Hamilton Cravens is Professor of History at Iowa State University, Ames, where he teaches courses in American history and the history of science and technology. Among the numerous books he has published are The Triumph of Evolution: The Heredity-Environment Controversy (Johns Hopkins,1988); Before Head Start (North Carolina, 1993, 2002); Technical Knowledge in American Culture (1996); Health Care Policy in Contemporary America (1997); The Social Sciences Go to Washington: The Politics of Knowledge in the Post Modern Era (Rutgers, 2003).
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