Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Biological: Behavioural genetics · Evolutionary psychology · Neuroanatomy · Neurochemistry · Neuroendocrinology · Neuroscience · Psychoneuroimmunology · Physiological Psychology · Psychopharmacology (Index, Outline)

Darwin - Descent of Man (1871)

Title page of the first edition of Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex

The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex is a book on evolutionary theory by English naturalist Charles Darwin, first published in 1871. It was Darwin's second great book on evolutionary theory, following his 1859 work, The Origin of Species. In The Descent of Man, Darwin applies theory to human evolution, and details his theory of sexual selection. The book discusses many related issues, including evolutionary psychology, evolutionary ethics, differences between human races, differences between human sexes, and the relevance of the evolutionary theory to society.

Darwin's background issues and concerns[]

Further information: Darwin from Descent of Man to Emotions
Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin's second book of theory involved many questions of Darwin's time.

Charles Darwin's Origin of Species had been met with a firestorm of controversy in reaction to Darwin's theory, largely because it was clear that it implied that human beings were evolved from animals, contradicting the biblical story in the Book of Genesis and implying an animal nature. Darwin had not made the link explicit in Origin, though a single line hinted at such a conclusion: "light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history". But the conclusion was obvious to his contemporaries, and became the subtext if not the center of many debates over his theory (such as those between T.H. Huxley and Richard Owen over the brains of apes). When writing The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication in 1866, Darwin intended to include a chapter including man in his theory, but the book became too big and he decided to write a separate "short essay" on ape ancestry, sexual selection and human expression which became The Descent of Man.

Darwin's writing on the subject in The Descent of Man came twelve years after his work on Origin, and was by no means the first work on human evolution. As such, the book is a response to various debates of Darwin's time far more wide-ranging than the questions he raised in Origin. It is often erroneously assumed that the book was controversial because it was the first to outline the idea of human evolution and common descent. Coming out so late into that particular debate, while it was clearly Darwin's intent to weigh in on this question, his goal was to approach it through a specific theoretical lens (sexual selection) which had previously been undiscussed by the other commentators at the period, as well as considering evolution of morality and religion. The theory of sexual selection was also needed to counter the argument that beauty with no obvious utility, such as exotic birds' plumage, proved divine design, which had been put strongly by the Duke of Argyll in his book The Reign of Law(1868).[1]

Human faculties[]

The major sticking point for many in the question of human evolution was whether human mental faculties could have possibly been evolved. The gap between humans and even the smartest ape seemed too large even for those who were sympathetic to Darwin's larger theory. Alfred Russel Wallace, the "co-discoverer" of evolution by natural selection, believed that the human mind was too complex to have evolved gradually, and began over time to subscribe to a theory of evolution which took more from Spiritualism than it did the natural world. Darwin was deeply distressed by Wallace's change of heart and much of the Descent of Man is in response to opinions put forth by Wallace. Darwin focuses less on the question of whether humans evolved than he does on displaying that each of the human faculties considered to be so far beyond those of animals—such as moral reasoning, sympathy for others, beauty, and music—can be seen in kind (if not degree) in other animal species (usually apes and dogs).

Human races[]

Fuegian BeagleVoyage

His encounters with the natives of the Tierra del Fuego on his Beagle voyage made Darwin believe that civilization had evolved over time from a more primitive state.

The questions of what "race" was, how many human races there were, and whether they could be "mixed", were key debates in the nascent field of anthropology in Darwin's time. After the American Civil War (1861-1865), the question of race and slavery were brought to the forefront in anthropology in the United States and Europe. Many scientists from the Southern U.S. were publishing long monographs on why the "Negro" was inferior and would soon be driven to extinction by newfound freedom, with an implication that slavery had been not only "beneficial" but "natural". Darwin was a long-time abolitionist who had been horrified by slavery when he first came into contact with it in Brazil while touring the world on the Beagle voyage many years before, and considered the "race question" one of the most important of his day. Darwin opposed the polygenism theory, developed by scientific racist discourse, which postulated that the different human races were distinct species ("polygenism") and were likely separately "created". To the contrary, Darwin considered that all human beings were of the same species, and that races, if they were useful markers at all, were simply "sub-species" or "variants." This view (known as "monogenism") was in stark contrast with the majority view in anthropology at the time, that Polygeny was supported by thinkers of many backgrounds, such as the zoologist, glaciologist, and geologist Louis Agassiz, and by later thinkers who would interpret Darwin's theory to imply that races had been evolved at different times or stages. Darwin's own views of this were that the differences between human races were superficial (he discusses them only in terms of skin color and hair style), and much of Descent is devoted to the question of the human races. Aside from the aforementioned encounter with slavery on the Beagle, Darwin also was perplexed by the "savage races" he saw in South America at Tierra del Fuego, which he saw as evidence of a man's more primitive state of civilization. During his years in London, his private notebooks were riddled with speculations and thoughts on the nature of the human races, many decades before he would publish Origin.

Social implications of Darwinism[]

Francis Galton 1850s

Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, proposed that an interpretation of Darwin's theory was the need for eugenics to save society from "inferior" minds.

Since the publication of Origin, a wide variety of opinions had been put forward on whether the theory had implications towards human society. One of these which would later be known as Social Darwinism, had been put forward by Herbert Spencer before publication of Origin, and argued that society would naturally sort itself out, and that the more "fit" individuals would rise to positions of higher prominence, while the less "fit" would succumb to poverty and disease. He alleged that government-run social programmes and charity would merely hinder the "natural" stratification of the populace, and first introduced the phrase "survival of the fittest" in 1864.

Another of these interpretations, later known as eugenics, was put forth by Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, in 1865 and 1869. Galton argued that just as physical traits were clearly inherited among generations of people, so could be said for mental qualities (genius and talent). Galton argued that social mores needed to change so that heredity was a conscious decision, in order to avoid over-breeding by "less fit" members of society and the under-breeding of the "more fit" ones. In Galton's view, social institutions such as welfare and insane asylums were allowing "inferior" humans to survive and reproduce at levels faster than the more "superior" humans in respectable society, and if corrections were not soon taken, society would be awash with "inferiors." Darwin read his cousin's work with interest, and devoted sections of Descent of Man to discussion of Galton's theories. Neither Galton nor Darwin, though, advocated any eugenic policies such as those which would be undertaken in the early 20th century, as government coercion of any form was very much against their political opinions.

Apparently non-adaptive features[]

In Darwin's view, anything that could be expected to have some adaptive feature could be explained easily with his theory of natural selection. In Origin, Darwin had admitted that to use natural selection to explain something as complicated as a human eye, "with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration" might at first appear "absurd in the highest possible degree," but nevertheless, if "numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist", then it seemed quite possible to account for within his theory.


"The sight of a feather in a peacock's tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!"

More difficult for Darwin were highly evolved and complicated features which conveyed apparently no adaptive advantage to the organism in question. His colleague once wrote to him that "The sight of a feather in a peacock's tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!" Why should a bird like the peacock develop such an elaborate tail, which seemed to at best be a hindrance in its "struggle for existence"? To answer the question, Darwin developed the theory of sexual selection, which outlined how different characteristics could be selected for if they conveyed a reproductive advantage to the individual. In Darwin's version of the theory, male animals in particular received the benefits of sexual selection, either by acquiring "weapons" with which to fight over females with other males, or by acquiring beautiful plumage with which to woo the female animals. Much of Descent is devoted to providing evidence for sexual selection in nature, which he also ties in to the development of aesthetic instincts in human beings, as well as the differences in coloration between the human races.

Darwin had developed his ideas about sexual selection for this reason since at least the 1850s, and had originally intended to include a long section on the theory in his large, unpublished book on species. When it came to writing Origin (his "abstract" of the larger book), though, he did not feel he had sufficient space to engage in sexual selection to any strong degree, and included only three paragraphs devoted to the subject. Darwin considered sexual selection to be as much of a theoretical contribution of his as was his natural selection, and the vast majority of Descent is devoted exclusively to this topic.

Part I: The evolution of man[]

Evolution of physical traits[]

Darwin Descent - embryology

Embryology (here comparing a human and dog) provided one mode of evidence.

In the introduction to Descent, Darwin lays out the purpose of his text:

"The sole object of this work is to consider, firstly, whether man, like every other species, is descended from some pre-existing form; secondly, the manner of his development; and thirdly, the value of the differences between the so-called races of man."

Darwin's approach to arguing for the evolution of human beings is to outline how similar human beings are to other animals. He begins by using anatomical similarities, focusing on body structure, embryology, and "rudimentary organs" which are presumably useful in one of man's "pre-existing" forms. He then moves on to arguing for the similarity of mental characteristics.

Evolution of mental traits[]

Based on the work of his cousin Galton, Darwin is able to assert that human character traits and mental characteristics are inherited the same as physical characteristics, and argues against the mind/body distinction for the purposes of evolutionary theory. From this Darwin then provides evidence for similar mental powers and characteristics in certain animals, focusing especially on apes, monkeys, and dogs for his analogies for love, cleverness, religion, kindness, and altruism. He concludes on this point that "Nevertheless the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind." He additionally turns to the behavior of "savages" to show how many aspects of Victorian England's society can be seen in more primitive forms.

In particular, Darwin argues that even moral and social instincts are evolved, comparing religion in man to fetishism in "savages" and his dog's inability to tell whether a wind-blown parasol was alive or not. Darwin also argues that all civilizations had risen out of barbarism, and that he did not think that barbarism is a "fall from grace" as many commentators of his time had asserted. Template:Clearright

Olive baboon

Darwin's primary rhetorical strategy was to argue by analogy. Baboons, dogs, and "savages" provided his chief evidence for human evolution.

Natural selection and civilized society[]

In this section of the book, Darwin also turns to the questions of what would after his death be known as social Darwinism and eugenics. Darwin notes that, as had been discussed by Alfred Russel Wallace and Galton, natural selection seemed to no longer act upon civilized communities in the way it did upon other animals:

"With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.
The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely that the weaker and inferior members of society do not marry so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage, though this is more to be hoped for than expected."[2]

Darwin felt that these urges towards helping the "weak members" was part of our evolved instinct of sympathy, and concluded that "nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature." As such, '"we must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind." Darwin was sympathetic to the views of the Social Darwinists and the eugenicists, but he did not believe that action should be taken. He did feel, though, that the "savage races" of man would, like it or not, be subverted by the "civilised races" at some point in the near future: "At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla." He did show a certain disdain for "savages," professing that he felt more akin to certain altruistic tendencies in monkeys than he did to "a savage who delights to torture his enemies." However, Darwin is not advocating genocide, but clinically predicting, by analogy to the ways in which "more fit" varieties within a species would displace other varieties, the likelihood that indigenous peoples will eventually die out from their contact with "civilization", or become absorbed into it completely.

His political opinions (and Galton's as well) were strongly inclined against the coercive, authoritarian forms of eugenics which later became so prominent in the twentieth century. It is worth noting that even Galton's ideas about eugenics were not the compulsory sterilization or genocidal programs of Nazi Germany, but he instead hoped that by encouraging more thought in hereditary reproduction, human mores could change in a way which would compel people to choose better mates.

For each tendency of society to produce negative selections, Darwin also saw the possibility of society to itself check these problems, but also noted that with his theory "progress is no invariable rule." Towards the end of Descent of Man, Darwin said that he believed that man would "sink into indolence" if severe struggle was not continuous, and thought that "there should be open competition for all men; and the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding best and rearing the largest number of offspring," but also noted that he thought that the moral qualities of man were advanced much more by habit, reason, learning, and religion than by natural selection. The question would plague him until the end of his life, and he never concluded fully one way or the other about it.

The race debate[]

Darwin lastly applied his theory to one of the more controversial scientific questions of his day: whether the different races of human beings were of the same species or not:

"The question whether mankind consists of one or several species has of late years been much discussed by anthropologists, who are divided into the two schools of monogenists and polygenists. Those who do not admit the principle of evolution, must look at species as separate creations, or as in some manner as distinct entities; and they must decide what forms of man they will consider as species by the analogy of the method commonly pursued in ranking other organic beings as species."

Darwin reasoned that most of the visual differences between human races were superficial—issues of skin color and hair type—and that most of the mental differences were merely cases of "civilization" or a lack of it. It was important to Darwin to argue that all races were of the same species—he had spent much of the preceding book tracing humans back to the Paleolithic age, and now he had to bring them back to the present time again. If the "savages" like those he met while on his Beagle voyage were not of the same species as civilized Englishmen, he would not be able to draw the complete continuum he felt necessary. Darwin concluded that the visual differences between races were not adaptive to any significant degree, and were more likely simply caused by sexual selection—different standards of beauty and mating amongst different people—and that all of humankind was one single species.

He concludes that "when the principle of evolution is generally accepted, as it surely will be before long, the dispute between the monogenists and the polygenists will die a silent and unobserved death." In one sense he was correct: few people, outside of the anthropologists of the American South, would maintain that different races were actually distinct species of animals for very much longer—among other things, the mounting evidence of their ability to interbreed and have fertile young could not be ignored. However, many found it easy to take a similar view to the old polygenism: that the races were indeed one species, but had diverged so long ago that significant differences between the races still existed. The evolutionary point fell out of debate, but the social point has continued (both inside and outside scientific circles) to the present day.

Darwin's belief in male superiority[]

In Descent of man Darwin wrote: "The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man's attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman - whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands" [How to reference and link to summary or text]

Part II and III: Sexual selection[]

Peacock courting peahen

Darwin argued that the female peahen chose to mate with the male peacock who had the most beautiful plumage in her mind.

Part II of the book begins with a chapter outlining the basic principles of sexual selection. This is followed by a detailed review of many different taxa of the kingdom Animalia. The ninth chapter surveys the 'lower' classes of the animal kingdom, such as molluscs, crustaceans etc. The tenth and eleventh chapters are both devoted to insects, the latter specifically focusing on the order Lepidoptera, the butterflies and moths. The remainder of the book shifts to the vertebrates, beginning with cold blooded vertebrates (fishes, amphibians and reptiles) and then four full chapters on birds. Two chapters on mammals precede those on man.

Later debates[]

While debates on the subject continues, in January 1871 Darwin started on another book, using left over material on emotional expressions, which became The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

Sexual selection[]

Alfred Russel Wallace

Wallace argued that the "drab" peahen's coloration was as much evolved as the flamboyant peacock's.

Darwin's views on sexual selection were opposed strongly by his "co-discoverer" of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, though much of his "debate" with Darwin took place after Darwin's death. Wallace argued against sexual selection, saying that the aspects of it which were male-against-male fighting were simply forms of natural selection, and that the notion of "female choice" was attributing the ability to judge standards of beauty to animals far too cognitively undeveloped to be capable of aesthetic feeling (such as beetles). Wallace had previously had his own problem with "female choice": he had been left at the altar by a woman of a higher social class.

Wallace also argued that Darwin too much favored the bright colors of the male peacock as adaptive without realizing that the "drab" peahen's coloration is itself adaptive, as camouflage. Wallace more speculatively argued that the bright colors and long tails of the peacock were not adaptive in any way, and that bright coloration could result from non-adaptive physiological development (for example, the internal organs of animals, not being subject to a visual form of natural selection, come in a wide variety of bright colors). This has been questioned by later scholars as quite a stretch for Wallace, who in this particular instance abandoned his normally strict "adaptationist" agenda in asserting that the highly intricate and developed forms such as a peacock's tail resulted by sheer "physiological processes" that were somehow not at all subjected to adaptation.

Effect on society[]

The book was printed just as an insurrection led by socialists and republicans took over Paris and set up the Paris Commune, which was then besieged by French troops. The Times condemned the Communards, and accused Darwin of undermining authority and principles of morality, opening the way to "the most murderous revolutions". A "man incurs a grave responsibility when, with the authority of a well-earned reputation, he advances at such a time the disintegrating speculations of this book." Darwin was able to shrug this off as from a "windbag full of metaphysics and classics".

In January 1871, Thomas Huxley's former disciple, the anatomist Mivart, had published On the Genesis of Species as a devastating critique of natural selection. In an anonymous Quarterly Review article, he claimed that the Descent of Man would unsettle "our half educated classes" and talked of people doing as they pleased, breaking laws and customs. An infuriated Darwin guessed that Mivart was the author and, thinking "I shall soon be viewed as the most despicable of men", looked for an ally. In September, Huxley wrote a cutting review of Mivart's book and article and a relieved Darwin told him "How you do smash Mivart's theology... He may write his worst & he will never mortify me again". As 1872 began, Mivart politely inflamed the argument again, writing "wishing you very sincerely a happy new year" while wanting a disclaimer of the "fundamental intellectual errors" in the Descent of Man. This time, Darwin ended the correspondence.


As Darwin wrote, he posted chapters to his daughter Henrietta for editing to ensure that damaging inferences could not be drawn, and also took advice from his wife Emma. The corrected proofs were sent off on 15 January 1871 to the publisher John Murray. The book was initially published in two separate volumes, though Darwin himself insisted that it was indeed one complete and coherent work. The two 450-page volumes of The Descent of Man went on sale at twenty-four shillings.

Within three weeks of publication, a reprint had been ordered; and 4,500 copies were in print by the end of March 1871, netting Darwin almost £1,500. Darwin's name created demand for the book, but the ideas were old news. "Everybody is talking about it without being shocked", which he found "proof of the increasing liberality of England" (see the 1871 book review in External links).

Editions and reprints[]

Descent went through a large number of revised editions, many of which were edited by Darwin himself (and some were edited by his children). Some edits were minor, though some were extensive.

In late 1873, Darwin tackled a new edition of the Descent of Man. Initially, he offered the self-employed Wallace the work of assisting him, for which Wallace quoted a rate of seven shillings an hour. But, when Emma found out, she had the task given to their son George, so Darwin had to write apologetically to Wallace. Huxley assisted with an update on ape-brain inheritance, which Huxley thought "pounds the enemy into a jelly... though none but anatomists" would know it. The manuscript was completed in April 1874. Murray planned a 12-shilling half-price edition to replicate the success of the cheap revision of the Origin. The second edition was published on 13 November 1874 with the price cut to the bone at 9 shillings. It was generally the edition most commonly reprinted after Darwin's death and to the present.


  • Helena Cronin, The ant and the peacock: altruism and sexual selection from Darwin to today (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). (A somewhat ahistorical treatment of the Darwin-Wallace debate on sexual selection)
  • James Moore and Adrian Desmond, "Introduction", in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2nd edn. (London: Penguin Classics, 2004). (Detailed history of Darwin's views on race, sex, and class)
  • Diane B. Paul, "Darwin, social Darwinism and eugenics," in Jonathan Hodge and Gregory Radick, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Darwin (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 214-239.

External links[]

Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Commons logo
Wikimedia Commons has media related to:

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).