The 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex should be a time of celebration for his many fans.
However, my advice to Darwin’s admirers is: Don’t pop the corks yet. The last couple of years of “woke” culture have cast a pall over the legacy of the famous 19th-century British biologist.
Last fall, the staff of London’s Museum of Natural History complained that some of the Darwin collections could “cause offence” and affirmed “legacies of colonies, slavery and empire.” The museum announced it would audit its exhibitions about Darwin and his around-the-world voyage on the HMS Beagle.
And, earlier in 2020, Slate magazine’s John Favini argued that Darwin’s emphasis on life-or-death competition for scarce resources has subverted the concept of collaboration, which globalist environmentalists advocate as a way to tackle climate change. Moreover, Darwin’s “idea of evolutionary biology is and has been a conversation among a mostly white and male global elite,” Favini wrote.
Why is this big news? For one thing, getting sex and race wrong these days can be fatal to anyone’s reputation. On the other hand, Darwin has been on the wrong side of progressive politics before. His star was on the wane back in the 1990s, but predictions of his demise proved premature.
This time it feels different. Until now, Darwin’s opponents have been heterodox humanists, maverick biologists, or Christian defenders of intelligent design theory. Now it is the intersectional left with its radical advocacy of human equality that is trying to “cancel” him. Darwin is in the dock again, but this time the jurors are “woke” millennials.
The recent attacks on Darwin constitute a powerful blow to the longstanding and doomed attempt of Darwinians to separate, in the words of English neurobiologist Steven Rose, the “good” Darwin from the “bad” Darwin. Thus, it may no longer be possible to argue in the pages of Scientific American, as evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr did in 2009, that Darwin’s theory is a “refutation of racism” because it shows that all individuals are unique.
But none of Darwin’s problematic opinions are news to anyone who has taken the time to read his books. If the mystification surrounding Darwin survives today it partly derives from the simple fact that no one bothers to read him.
And it is indeed a “bother” to read Darwin. When I assign excerpts from Darwin’s On the Origin of Species or The Descent of Man to my students, they are invariably bored or perplexed. That is hardly surprising. Darwin was writing for an urbane 19th-century audience that were either naturalists themselves or an educated public that knew the basics of botany and animal breeding—pigeon breeding was especially popular at the time. As one of the first readers of The Origin of Species noted, everybody in 1859 was “interested in pigeons.”
Descent of Man is especially a mess. In fact, it is two separate books in one and full of “clutter,” in the words of science historian Edward J. Larson. At the time of its publication in 1871, everyone recognized that it was inferior to The Origin of Species. The London Times accused Darwin of “reckless” theorizing and “utterly unsupported hypotheses.” Darwin biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore called Descent of Man “full of anecdote and rather old-fashioned.”
Nonetheless, Darwin felt strongly about Descent of Man. It contained two crucial components of Darwinian theory: first, it proposed that all human beings were descended from a common “pre-existing” ancestor; second, it introduced the hypothesis of “sexual selection” as a mechanism of evolution.
In The Origin of Species, Darwin had insisted that natural selection is “the chief agent of change” behind the modification of species over vast tracts of natural history. Nature, he argued, selects those individuals of the same species that are able to compete successfully in the fierce “struggle for existence” over the limited natural resources (chiefly food) in their environment. These individuals, Darwin reasoned, then survive to pass on their favored traits to their offspring. That, according to Darwin, is how species evolve over time.
In Descent of Man, however, Darwin amended his viewpoint, admitting, “I perhaps attributed too much to the action of natural selection or the survival of the fittest.” There were too many ornamental traits in the animal kingdom that could not be explained by Darwin’s theory of natural selection—for example, the male lion’s mane or the male peacock’s large tail. In Darwin’s theory, males were “almost always the wooers” and were preoccupied with driving off their competitors, while females “select the more agreeable partners” to mate with.
Speaking of peacocks, Darwin wrote in 1859: “I suspect the male will pair with any female, and that the females select the most victorious or beautiful cock, or [the cock] with beauty and courage combined.” To put it mildly, Darwin did not believe sexual identity was socially constructed, nor that one could choose one’s own gender at will. Darwinian theory deeply rooted the nature of men and women in their biological pasts.
Also inconvenient for modern tastes is Darwin’s attempt in Descent of Man to shed light on “the differences between the so-called races of man.” “The civilized races of man,” he wrote, “will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.” Darwin believed there were “marked differences in the inherited mental faculties between the members of the different existing races,” anthropologist Loren Eiseley wrote in Darwin’s Century. The Descent of Man is full of “Western ethnocentrism” which saw indigenous peoples as “destined to be swept away in the struggle for existence” due to their supposedly feeble intellects, Eiseley concluded.
Darwin was no more generous about the poor classes in Victorian society. Under the sway of his cousin Francis Galton, who coined the word “eugenics” and whose writings are frequently cited in The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote that civilization in the form of asylums, hospitals, public charities, and therapeutic medicine obstructed the power of natural selection. All those social services enabled what Darwin called “the weak members” of society to survive and reproduce more of their kind. Worse, “the reckless, degraded, and often vicious members of society tend to increase at a quicker rate than the provident and generally virtuous members,” he wrote.
To Darwin, this meant the “degeneration” of the human race was a distinct possibility. If late 19th century Victorian Britain wanted to progress, he warned, it had to prevent “the reckless, degraded, and often vicious” from having children. While Darwin never teased out the policy implications of Galton’s eugenic viewpoints, he did encourage “the most able” to “rear the largest number of offspring.”
above: cover of Charles Darwin’s book The Descent of Man, first published in 1871 (Penguin Classics)
In other words, Darwin himself was a “social Darwinist,” musing continually in The Descent of Man about how his theory of evolution helped explain why human beings behaved and thought the way they did. This is obvious to anyone who reads Darwin, and yet many Darwinians have not only denied that he held these views, they have also insisted that Darwinian theory was a firewall against drawing conclusions about race and sex.
That the whitewash of Darwinism as somehow a “refutation of racism” has prevailed for so long is largely due to the efforts of two Harvard biologists, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. Both belonged to “Science for the People,” a group of left-wing Marxist scientists. Of the two, Lewontin was a self-professed Marxist, and Gould, who called himself an “old-fashioned materialist,” said he “learned his Marxism, literally at his daddy’s knee.” A critic once accused Gould of teaching “communist biology.”
In 1972, Gould and his colleague Niles Eldredge, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, introduced the theory of “punctuated equilibrium” to account for the fact that the fossil record fails to show the gradual and steady species development that Darwin’s evolutionary theory predicted. Instead, Gould and Eldredge argued that species change happens in fits and starts throughout natural history, in sharp contrast to Darwin’s conviction that all evolutionary change was incremental and took place over vast stretches of prehistoric time.
Gould may have felt he had to do some kind of penance for destroying a major part of Darwin’s theory of evolution according to natural selection, because he spent the rest of his career not just defending Darwin at every turn but also purging other evolutionary biologists whose writings he considered politically incorrect. Gould wrote that “I wear the Darwinian label with some pride.” Time and again, Gould praised Darwinism as an antidote to creationist science, eugenics, and IQ testing. He contended that Darwinian evolutionary biology, far from proving that there was such a thing as human nature, instead proved there was no such thing.
The most infamous example of trying to purge the Darwinist ranks occurred in 1975, when Gould and Lewontin engaged in a form of “cancel culture” avant la letter. They attacked their Harvard colleague zoologist Edward O. Wilson, whose book Sociobiology was published that year by Harvard University Press.
The spectacle of three Darwinists engaging in a bitter dispute may have been amusing to the public, but to Gould and Lewontin it was deadly serious. They contended that Wilson’s book, the last chapter of which was a discussion of how evolutionary theory informed human social behavior, was an exercise in “biological determinism.” Wilson did not necessarily disagree; he wrote that “the gene holds culture on a leash.” To Wilson, the question was:
[N]o longer whether human social behavior is genetically determined; it is to what extent. The accumulated evidence for a large hereditary component is more detailed and compelling than most persons, including even geneticists, realize. I will go further: it already is decisive.
Gould and Lewontin, along with a dozen other Boston-area academics who co-signed their protest, claimed that Wilson’s book was bad science, but their main beef with the scientific field of sociobiology was that its “popularity [was] a function of social prejudice among those who benefit most from the status quo.” Lewontin accused Wilson of serving up a biological rationale for “the institutions of modern industrial Western society” and suggested that Wilson’s fondness for genetic explanations of animal behavior was due to his “privileged” status in that society.
above: Darwin’s pigeons, original line drawings from Darwin’s 1868 book Variation in Animals and Plants under Domestication (public domain)
Gould’s and Lewontin’s allegations of political bias, published in The New York Review of Books and reported widely in the press, spread throughout what passed for “woke” social circles at the time. In 1978, at a Washington meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Wilson rose to speak on the topic of sociobiology. At that moment, demonstrators rushed up to him and doused him with ice water, accusing him of racism and sexism.
Having played politics in the field of evolutionary biology, Gould went on to publish writings on the history of science that became standards in university curricula around the world. His book The Mismeasure of Man, in which he accused other evolutionary biologists of racism, was a runaway best-seller. He reissued it in 1996 to attack The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, claiming that its authors’ defense of intelligence testing boiled down to a justification for “slashing social programs.”
There wasn’t a left-wing cause that Gould did not attempt to reconcile with Darwinism, including environmentalism. “No political movement is more vital and timely than modern environmentalism,” he wrote. In debates over the biological relations between men and woman, he thought quoting feminists such as Kate Millett and Simone de Beauvoir helped to settle the matter.
Gould died in 2002. But sociobiology has not died out, as younger evolutionists such as Richard Dawkins have added their voices to Wilson’s. Meanwhile, the main threat to the leftist image of Darwin is coming from the champions of human equality. Were he alive today, it is unlikely Gould would appreciate the irony. Cancel culture is simply doing to Darwin what Gould did for so many years to other scientists: play the race card.
above: engravings from The Huamn Race by Louis Figuier, first published in 1872, clockwise from top left to bottom left, A Lady of Cario, Walachian, A Chayene Chief, New Zealand Chief (public domain)
The trials and tribulations of the politically correct Darwin remind us of how, in the late 1800s, Thomas Huxley, a militant defender of Darwin and Darwinism, famously said that all scientific truths start as heresies and end as “superstitions.”
Or, as Darwin may or may not have said on his deathbed, people made “a religion” of his ideas. Is the reason for the current public relations imbroglio over Darwin the fact that Darwinism itself has become a superstition?
In the end, trying to separate a “good” Darwin from a “bad” Darwin is a waste of time. Nor does any of this necessarily mean that either the sociobiologists or the creationists are right after all. The main lesson to be derived from the history of Darwinism is that the famous naturalist’s writings cut both ways. On the one hand, it may be handy to use Darwin’s case for man’s lowly ancestry as a tactic for embarrassing Anglican clergymen. On the other, stressing the similarities between humans and other animal species will inevitably lead researchers to conclusions about human behavior and psychology that are grounded in evolutionary biology. As Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, “there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.” Those faculties, he wrote, included human emotions, affections, attention, memories, and even the intellectual “power of reasoning.”
The recent controversy over Darwin reveals that many Darwinists have lived in a state of cognitive dissonance for a long time. They have hailed him for allegedly introducing the world to the “secular view of life,” as Ernst Mayr argued in 2000, by removing the barriers that separated humankind from other mammals. But they’ve also asserted that none of this ultimately affects the scientific study of human society. Gould, who wrote that “the world has been different ever since Darwin,” called the study of human nature a “nonscience.”
As for Darwin himself, his vast knowledge of natural history is a matter of historical record, as was his remarkable ability to speculate from vast amounts of data. Like all great scientists, his mind searched for sweeping unifying theories and his worst sin was to fall prey to that common affliction of giants such as Galileo, Newton, and Einstein: When he goofed, he goofed big, as in his speculations about heredity and his belief in uniformitarianism.
Perhaps what the Darwin debate needs is less hyperbole about his soaring genius and more honesty about what he actually wrote. As the modest Darwin himself would have said, there is still “a grandeur in this view of life.”
above: detail of a portrait of Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1869 (public domain)