While most people would agree that Darwin’s theory of evolution revolutionized modern biology, this does not mean that all aspects of his work was boundary-pushing. Darwin, in The Descent of Man, attempts to use the concept of sexual selection, a “less vigorous” form of natural selection that acts on one gender as they struggle against each other to mate with the other gender to demonstrate that the human male is biologically more modified and thus superior to the female. Admittedly, this is not surprising for his time, as feminism had not yet gained much traction, but it does hold several interesting implications.
To begin, where does sexual selection fit into Darwin’s theory of evolution? It is included in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species as a companion to natural selection, but clearly takes on a subsidiary role based on the selection we have of this publication as Darwin goes into far further detail regarding natural selection. It shares similarities to natural selection in that it involves a struggle that leaves certain members of a species better able to reproduce. Males with more outstanding physical traits, such as strength, prominent features including horns and antlers, or colorful plumage, are able to fight off competition and attract better females earlier. Although failure in this struggle does not include death, it follows the same principles of natural selection in that it preserves these traits among the male offspring, albeit through the selection of the female rather than the impartial hand of nature.
While this is relatively accurate when referring to animal species, it is in The Descent of Man that Darwin applies this to the human species that he stumbles in his brilliance. He initially links personality traits to these “secondary sexual characteristics” that appear in male animals, claiming that men are not only stronger, taller and heavier, but also braver, more creative and more energetic. Both natural selection and sexual selection among animals only preserve physical attributes, so the fact that men and women possess physically differences can be chalked up to the biological effects of sexual selection. But bravery and creativity are nowhere near as quantifiable as physical attributes and are not solely confined to the male gender. While a peacock will always have its extravagant plumage and a peahen will not, a man can be cowardly while a woman can be brave. Therefore, physical and mental attributes cannot coexist as products of sexual selection.
However, this is only the beginning. Darwin makes a further claim that men innately possess superior mental capability compared to women. As a person living in the 21st century, I obviously find this to be very discriminatory, but aside from that, I do want to investigate the methods in which Darwin applies his 19th century prejudice. Firstly, the superior mental faculties of men involve the ability for reason, imagination or ‘deep-thought’ (this faculty in particular seems so arbitrary for me and so surprising coming from such a mind as Darwin), and Darwin is quick to applaud the “genius” of man while emphasizing its non-existence in woman. He admits that she possesses greater intuition, perception and imitation, but these, sadly, come from a “lower state of civilisation” (269), and do not belong in the stratosphere that men’s mental strengths occupy. Is there any concrete evidence that reason and imagination is the result of greater modification than is intuition and perception. Which of these attributes is more useful for survival? Secondly, this mental superiority exists because men experience struggle to a greater degree than women and are thus more exposed to the effects of natural and sexual selection. He presumes that in a savage state, men had to hunt, protect their families and attain enough status to win a wife. The invention of weapons requires the so-called higher mental faculties; the men who invented and used such weapons would be less likely to die and more likely to impress the tribe and thus win a better wife, therefore men who possess these higher mental faculties will be selected for preservation. However, Darwin fails to take into account the role of women in society, be it savage or civilized; perhaps he thinks so little of it that he believes it is not even worth mentioning. For example, doesn’t caring for a child, the stereotypical feminine role, also require the presumably male-dominated faculties of observation, reason and invention? Or is it a mindless task, unable to expose women to any meaningful process of selection? These are questions that I believe are important today, now that the issue of gender roles has opened up and their previous rigidity has loosened.
Finally (this post has almost reached essay length), if Darwin can assert a mental inequality to the issue of gender, then it can certainly be applied to race and culture as well. Instead of stating that the lack of prominent women figures in history is due to their inability to pursue male-dominated arts and largely patriarchal societal structure, one can simply say that men are more modified. Likewise, instead of attributing the differences in cultural habits and technology among different nations across the world to social/political/economic forces, one can claim that certain races have been more modified, more exposed to the evolutionary processes and further along the tree-diagram. As strange and deluded as it might seem nowadays, the idea of social-Darwinism was not unpopular in late-19th century and early 20th century Europe, if I recall correctly. Therefore, this has really put into perspective how this idea acquired its name, as I can definitely see similar methods and assumptions made both in the issue of nation/race/culture and gender.
One thought on “Darwin’s The Descent of Man: Discriminatory Evolution”
A very thorough and engaging post! I don’t have much to add, really, because I think you’ve explained his view, and the issues with it, very well. One thing that struck me as I was reading this section was that indeed, it’s not just hunting and providing for the family that take intelligence and “deep thought,” but so does raising children. Indeed, though I don’t know much about it, women may also have taken part in hunts, or at least in subsistence gathering, which, without clear evidence to the contrary, one might argue also require a significant degree of intelligence. Of course, one of the problems here is that he begins with the belief that men simply are better at mental tasks, and then strives to find a reason why in evolution. The problems with this, to me, are (1) that it’s hard to see intelligence when you don’t think the activities one group does require intelligence, and (2) that even if men of his day were more intelligent (and it’s true that men were more likely to achieve “eminence” in his day), the influences of education and social pressures are likely to explain a lot of that.
I’d be curious to hear how one might defend the view that social influences and education being what they are can also ultimately be traced to natural selection. That would be a complex argument to make, and I’m not sure how it would go. I’m not asking you to necessarily make it! I’m just thinking out loud, mostly ….