Rossdavidh's Reviews > The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex

The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex by Charles Darwin
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it was amazing
bookshelves: green

I had this book on my "want to buy" mental list for a while now, but since it was one I was likely to want to keep for a long time, I thought I would wait until I found a really nice used copy. The author, after all, was unlikely to benefit from me purchasing a new one. Eventually, I saw a black, hardbound copy from Easton Press or Franklin Mint or one of those fancy book publishers. I was so excited to get it, that I did not read the introduction first. If I had, I would have seen the explanation that it was an expurgated version, in which several chapters related to humans had been removed.

Bother. Even if I trusted the editor's decisions about which chapters were rendered invalid by more recent scientific research (and I don't, especially on this question), I read pre-21st century texts (and especially pre-20th century texts) most often in part for the very fact that I want to see what people from another time period thought. The mistakes are as valuable as what they got right. So I took it to the local coffeeshop, which has a give-one-take-one shelf, and left it there. As luck would have it, though, not long after that disappointment a second copy turned up, this one unexpurgated. Huzzah!

It was, I later realized, a fitting way to begin reading what is still, to this day, an explosive and controversial text, which few readers are able to face without flinching at its implications. That a fellow as quiet, unassuming, and modest as Charles Darwin was the author of not one but two such texts is an extraordinary fact. Perhaps, had he been by nature the sort to throw verbal bombshells, he would have had less impact; his ideas are explosive enough. In the case of "Origin of Species", the world has come around to accepting the fundamentals at least of what he had to say (if only just, and only in some circles). This later book is still, 150 years after it was first published, too hot to handle for most. Little wonder. It deals not only with humanity as just another species of animal, but is especially concerned with sex and race.

In particular, Darwin discusses here the question of "sexual selection" as a second driver of evolution. Even Wallace, who was Darwin's co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection, could not go this far. Many (perhaps most) modern biologists balk at the idea, or try to cast it as just another way for one sex (usually the female) to evaluate a potential mate's fitness, conventionally described. The idea that sexual selection could be selecting for bright colors, musical voices or stridulations, elaborate dancing, and so forth simply as an end in itself, even to the point of working at cross purposes to natural selection, is something that most scientists even today are not willing to accept (although there are exceptions, for example Richard Prum, see his recent book "The Evolution of Beauty").

As for race, well it was controversial in Darwin's day, when the main topics of dissension seemed to be whether or not Africans and Europeans were properly considered the same or different species, and it is controversial today (though fortunately most people nowadays seem to understand that we are all one species). It is instructive, when reading Darwin's plain and direct language on topics such as differences between the sexes and between different cultures, to compare one's own emotional reaction to that of the initial readers in 1871. It is, more or less, the same, and for more or less the same reason (although the orthodoxy on each topic has changed).

Darwin looks plainly, and exhaustively, at what is known about differences between sexes and races in other species, and finds general patterns. There is often a difference between the genders in how combative or competitive they are (in most, but not all, the more competitive and combative sex is the male). The different preferences of the sex that chooses (in most but not all species, the female), can lead to an accumulation of differences in appearance between members of the same species in different regions. Where the female does not exert choice, there is typically more combat between males, and less ability of adult males to live together in close proximity to one another. Where the female does exert significant choice, there is typically more competition between males as to who can be most musical, most brightly colored, build the most elaborate bowers, or some other such non-violent form of showing off.

Then, he does the same thing which so offended the sensibilities of Victorian England in "Origin of Species". He says, in affect, "the same thing has probably happened with humans, in the distant past". We may have, in some cases, managed to wrap our heads around evolution, but the ideas in this book are still too out there, too offensive to our ideas that humanity is different, apart from the natural world and not working the same way as other animals.

This doesn't mean that he's always correct, of course. In particular, his knowledge of how genetics worked was pretty much entirely lacking (he was not alone here, Gregor Mendel's work was not widely noticed or appreciated until the early 20th century). More generally, while our attitudes towards sex and race may not be perfect in the early 21st century, it is unlikely that a 23rd century observer, looking back, would find the attitudes of the late 19th century on those topics to be the more accurate than ours. Although I would say that, wouldn't I?

Again, just because Darwin said something, doesn't mean it's true. It is nearly always the case, though, that if Darwin said it, you should at least consider it seriously, and if you disagree take a hard look at why. We hear about what Darwin said too often nowadays from secondary, or even tertiary sources, summarizers who have only read previous summaries. His books are eminently readable, and widely available. Don't let others filter him for you, to keep you safe from uncomfortable ideas. Read his ideas in the original text, and decide for yourself.
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Reading Progress

October 20, 2019 – Started Reading
October 20, 2019 – Shelved
January 24, 2020 – Shelved as: green
January 24, 2020 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by Bill (new)

Bill Thanks for the insights and information.

message 2: by Lisastrawberry (new)

Lisastrawberry Great review- lots of useful info in here. One thing I completely agree with is your assertion that the mistakes (of the past) are as important as what they got right. I talk about this concept a lot, especially when reviewing proto-feminist texts such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" and well, really, any work from the 19th century. It's a useful window on that world to consider why the mistakes happened as they did. It refines our thinking every bit as much as the correct answers.

Rossdavidh Lisastrawberry wrote: "Great review- lots of useful info in here. One thing I completely agree with is your assertion that the mistakes (of the past) are as important as what they got right. I talk about this concept a l..."

C.S.Lewis wrote a great essay on this. His direct point was about reading early Christian texts, rather than just summaries, but his points apply well to any subject:

message 4: by Lisastrawberry (new)

Lisastrawberry Thanks for the link. I like Lewis' point about Plato. It reminds me of what the Great Books colleges (like St. John's) function in-- the reading of original (ancient and sometimes just merely old) texts so that a student can discover the works directly, rather than exclusively though the lenses of criticism and history. Reception (publication) theory in literature looks at similar issues, but provides the (what CS Lewis might see as obscuring) context for such original readings. I'm not sure I am making a lot of sense or that my generalities get at the heart of what I'm trying to say. Mainly, I'm just happy that you took the time to read something old (Darwin's work)and the time to come to your own conclusions about it.

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