Evolution Icon Evolution

Congratulations to Science Magazine for an Honest Portrayal of Darwin’s Descent of Man

Michael Flannery
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Not long ago I authored a brief post pointing out that, whatever Darwin’s demonstrable opposition to slavery may have been in motivation or expression, he still ended up as a spokesman for racist and misogynistic beliefs all too common among his Victorian peers. Thus, I must congratulate the prestigious journal Science for reiterating many of those points in a recent editorial, “‘The Descent of Man,’ 150 Year On,” by Princeton anthropologist Augustin Fuentes. He is quite correct when he says, “Darwin portrayed Indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australia as less than Europeans in capacity and behavior. Peoples of the African continent were consistently referred to as cognitively depauperate, less capable, and of a lower rank than other races.” Moreover, Fuentes charges Darwin with going “beyond simple racial rankings, offering justification of empire and colonialism, and genocide, through ‘survival of the fittest.’ This too is confounding given Darwin’s robust stance against slavery.”

I agree. But as I pointed out, historically one cannot confidently trace a straight line from opposing slavery to supporting racial equality. I emphasized this years ago in my review of Adrian Desmond and James Moore’s misguided Darwin’s Sacred Cause.Furthermore, Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s indefatigable “Bulldog,” wrote a shameful essay on May 20, 1865, shortly after the conclusion of the American Civil War. He suggested that the South should be relieved given that it was no longer responsible for the care and “protection” of the now-former slaves. He declared that “no rational man, cognizant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the average white man.” A reform-minded American Darwinist, Charles Loring Brace, concurred.

Darwin’s Views on Women

Fuentes is also right in pointing out that Darwin’s views of women were — indeed are — equally out of step with current ideas of gender; they are not just indecorous, they are manifestly wrong. I also applaud his call for students to learn about the whole Darwin, not just some idealized version of a larger-than-life “genius” who dominates the pages of today’s biology textbooks. As for Darwin’s purported “genius,” I will simply refer readers to Paul Johnson’s Darwin: Portrait of a Genius, a book with more than a little irony to its title. 

How Can We Respond?

Returning to Fuentes’s commemorative article, with his bold and honest account of Darwin’s Descent of Man, how can we respond to these revelations? I have two suggestions for those who wish to study Descent for themselves. First, I’d like to reiterate a book recommendation I made some time back for the anthropologist Ashley Montagu’s interesting editorial trimming of that book. Admitting that Darwin’s sexual selection theory applied to humans was largely “anecdotal” and of the “travelogue variety,” Montagu was able to cut more than 700 pages of ponderous prose down to about 350 pages of essential exposition. But Montagu didn’t end there. As a reply to Darwin’s clumsy and inept treatment of women, he wrote The Natural Superiority of Women (5th edition, 1999). 

So following up on this Science exposé, I again recommend Montagu’s edited version of Descent followed by his book on women. You’ll learn a lot more in a lot less time.