Darwin the prude, sexual selection, and sperm competition

February 8, 2009 • 10:16 am

Last Thursday’s Times Higher Education Supplement (the UK one) has a series of short pieces on Darwin and his legacy.  Perhaps the most interesting is by Tim Birkhead, the noted evolutionist who works on sperm competition in birds and has written a number of academic and popular books on the topic.  Birkhead claims that Darwin was reluctant to publish work on sexual selection—and missed entirely the topics of sperm competition between males as well as the relative promiscuity of females—because of the prudishness of his Victorian milieu as well as of his daughter Henrietta.  I’m not a historian of science and so can’t evaluate these claims, but Birkhead’s piece is provocative and well worth reading, as are the other pieces in this supplement.

2 thoughts on “Darwin the prude, sexual selection, and sperm competition

  1. I note that TLS invited “academics from science and religion discuss what his theories mean today”. From the latter we get such observations as:

    “…Christians engage intelligently over scientific debate with the quiet confidence that there cannot be a contradiction regarding the truth of God and the truth of science.”

    and from another:

    “Darwin lacked the theological resources to marry providence with contingency, to remind him that God gave as much thought to the sparrow or the dinosaur as He to Himself.”

    Darwin was of course theologically well-equipped from his studies at Cambridge and admiration for Paley. But his correspondence clearly shows that as his views on natural selection developed his belief in the “truth of God” proportionately waned.

    So much for the “insights” of theology!

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