On May 21, Princeton anthropologist Agustín Fuentes published a takedown of Darwin in a Science op-ed on the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Asserting that Darwin was a racist, a white supremacist, and a man whose ideas justified “colonialism” as well as “genocide,” Fuentes’s piece was over the top: a typical and execrable specimen of holding someone living decades ago responsible for adhering to the moral norms of his time. (Actually, Darwin, an abolitionist, was a far sight better than many of his contemporaries.) In other words, according to Fuentes, Darwin should have known better. But I bet you ten to one that Fuentes, had he been Darwin’s contemporary, would have been even more of a moral reprobate than Charles himself.
I criticized Fuentes’s piece here (and Robert Wright did elsewhere), though Jonathan Marks, a well known anthropological firebrand, sprang to Fuentes’s defense. Several weeks ago, a bunch of us evolutionary biologists got together and wrote a joint letter to Science criticizing Fuentes’s piece. The journal sat on it, said it wouldn’t appear in print, but have at last put it online. You can see the link to our letter below, but I’ve posted the whole thing, along with our names, addresses, and the references we use.
What we wrote:
RE: “The Descent of Man”, 150 years on
“The Descent of Man” 150 years on
In this 150th anniversary year of Darwin’s “The Descent of Man” (1), Science published one article celebrating the progress in human evolutionary science built on Darwin’s foundations (2), along with a second, Editorial article, three quarters of which instead pilloried Darwin for his “racist and sexist view of humanity” (3). Fuentes argues that students should be “taught Darwin as [a] man with injurious and unfounded prejudices that warped his view of data and experience”. We fear that Fuentes’ vituperative exposition will encourage a spectrum of anti-evolution voices and damage prospects for an expanded, more gender and ethnically diverse new generation of evolutionary scientists.
What Darwin wrote was of course shaped by Victorian realities and perspectives on sex and racial differences, some still extant today, but this is not a new revelation . Rather than calmly noting these influences, Fuentes repeatedly puts Darwin in the dock for the Victorian sexist and racist norms within which he presented his explosive thesis that humanity evolved. Fuentes incorrectly suggests that Darwin justified genocide. Darwin was frequently and notably more modern in his thinking than most Victorians. In The Descent he demolished the slavery-justifying view of different races as separate species, so inspiring the anti-racist perspectives of later anthropologists like Boaz (5). On sexism, Darwin suggested that education of “reason and imagination” would erase mental sex differences (1, p. 329). His theory of sexual selection gave female animals a central role in mate choice and evolution (1).
Students taught about the historical context for Darwin’s writing should appreciate how revolutionary Darwin’s ideas were, challenging many (but not all) prevailing Victorian perspectives (6). We lament the failure to celebrate the vast impact of those ideas at the expense of the distorting treatment Fuentes offers.
Andrew Whiten1, Walter Bodmer2, Brian Charlesworth3, Deborah Charlesworth3, Jerry Coyne4, Frans de Waal5, Sergey Gavrilets6, Debra Lieberman7, Ruth Mace8, Andrea Bamberg Migliano9, Boguslaw Pawlowski10 and Peter Richerson1
1School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, KY16 9PE, UK. 2Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Oxford, Oxford OX3 9DS, UK. 3School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH9 3FL, UK, 4Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago, 1101 E. 57th St., Chicago, IL60637, USA. 5Psychology Department (PAIS Bldg), Suite 270, 36 Eagle Row, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA. 6Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Univ of Tennessee Knoxville, TN 37922, USA. 7Department of Psychology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL 33146, USA. 8(Editor in Chief, Evolutionary Human Science) Department of Anthropology, University College London, London, UK. 9Department of Anthropology, University of Zurich, 190 Winterthurerstrasse, Zurich 8057, Switzerland. 10(President, European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association) Department of Human Biology, University of Wroclaw, ul. S. Przybyszewskiego 63, 51-148 Wrocław, Poland. 11Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA.
Corresponding author. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. C. Darwin. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. With an introduction by J. T. Bonner and R. M. May. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1871/1981).
2. P. J. Richerson, S. Gavrilets, F. B. M. de Waal. Modern theories of human evolution foreshadowed by Darwin’s the Descent of Man. Science 372, 806.
3. A. Fuentes. “The Descent of Man” 150 years on. Science 372, 769.
4. A. J. Desmond, J. R. Moore. Darwin. (Penguin, London, 1992).
5. P. J. Richerson, R. Hames. Busting myths about evolutionary anthropology. Anthropology News, July 18 (2017) doi: 10.1111/AN.510
6. H. E. Gruber. Darwin on Man. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1974).
We could have said a lot more, but there is a strict word limit for Science letters.