It’s the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s The Descent of Man (people often forget that it’s paired with another book, Selection in Relation to Sex), and the journal Science has celebrated the year in two ways. The first is an article pointing out, tiresomely, erroneously, and not for the first time, that Darwin was a sexist, racist, colonialist, and oppressor whose theories supposedly harmed many people. That is the first note below (click on screenshot), written by Agustín Fuentes, a primatologist and biological anthropologist at Princeton University.
Click on the screenshot to read the piece:
To be fair, Fuentes does credit Darwin with his insight and his durable and correct theory of evolution. But as he gives with one hand, he takes with the other:
But despite these ideal frames and some innovative inferences, “Descent” is often problematic, prejudiced, and injurious. Darwin thought he was relying on data, objectivity, and scientific thinking in describing human evolutionary outcomes. But for much of the book, he was not. “Descent,” like so many of the scientific tomes of Darwin’s day, offers a racist and sexist view of humanity.
Yes, the tired old Bucephalus of critical theory: “it’s problematic.”
And then we get the usual litany: Darwin believed that whites were superior to blacks and other non-Europeans; he thought women were inferior to men, opined that eventually the white “race” would supplant other groups, and so on. This much we’ve all known for a long time, and many of us, including me, have taught it to our students.
But, despite Fuentes’ admission of Darwin’s strong abolitionism, he seems to forget that Darwin was a man of his time, not of our time. Is it fair to judge Darwin against an enlightened modern liberal? I don’t think so: the proper judgment is to see whether Darwin was palpably morally worse than most other Victorian Englishmen. And I don’t think he was. I’ll explain a bit more below, but I have a very hard time thinking of someone of Darwin’s stature in Europe who was much better than he on the issue of women, or, for that matter, slavery. (Read Marx and Engels on the Irish if you want real bigotry.) Yes, Darwin saw some South Americans as “savages”, but he also perceived their common humanity with us, and his theory affirmed our common ancestry. And yes, he saw women as the inferior sex; but how many Victorian men were far more enlightened than he?
Frankly, I’m tired of people who say things like “Darwin was bad because he should have known and done better.” Neither he nor his contemporaries did or could have: morality evolves, and in 150 years our own generation may be seen as just as morally deficient as was Darwin. After all, we eat meat, and in the future we may learn more about the suffering of animals in ways that would brand us moderns as horrible barbarians. The judgment of celebrating Darwin should rest on a). “is he being celebrated for the good things he did?” (answer: yes), and b). “did the good he did in his life outweigh the bad?” (answer: also yes).
Now, onto what I see as Fuentes’s missteps. Here’s one about selection and racial differentiation:
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. These assertions are confounding because in “Descent” Darwin offered refutation of natural selection as the process differentiating races, noting that traits used to characterize them appeared nonfunctional relative to capacity for success. As a scientist this should have given him pause, yet he still, baselessly, asserted evolutionary differences between races.
. . . His adamant assertions about the centrality of male agency and the passivity of the female in evolutionary processes, for humans and across the animal world, resonate with both Victorian and contemporary misogyny.
The first part of this is fine, but the second, about how “races” and sexes come to differ from one another morphologically, is not. Darwin saw sexual selection (a subset of natural selection, by the way) as the process whereby different ethnic groups come to differ in appearance. He may well have been right about this. And clearly, there are evolutionary differences between the appearance of ethnic groups. These are certainly genetic, and the morphological homogeneity within groups compared to the palpable differences between groups suggest an evolutionary origin.
What kind of evolution was it? As I said, Darwin’s view was that groups of humans (as well as males versus females) are affected by sexual selection based on either male-male competition or “choice”. The choice, according to Darwin, was made by females preferring arbitrary but aesthetically appealing male traits: song, ornaments, plumage, and so on. (For humans, Darwin sometimes intimated that the “choice” was made by males, but by females in other animal species.) This “beauty matters” hypothesis has its biggest exponent in Richard Prum, and though I am not convinced by his arguments, it’s mainly because we lack data, not because Prum is known to be wrong. Here’s Prum in a paper discussing Darwin’s views:
Darwin was explicit, repeated and adamant in maintaining that the evolution of secondary sexual characters by mate choice was an aesthetic mechanism of evolution. For example, he wrote:
With the great majority of animals, however, the taste for the beautiful is confined to the attractions of the opposite sex.* The sweet strains poured forth by many male birds during the season of love, are certainly admired by the females … If female birds had been incapable of appreciating the beautiful colours, the ornaments, and voices of their male partners, all the labour and anxiety by the latter in displaying their charms before the females would have been thrown away; and this is impossible to admit. [11, p. 61]; * sentence added in second edition)
On the whole, birds appear to be the most aesthetic of all animals, excepting of course man, and they have nearly the same taste for the beautiful as we have. [11, p. 466]
[Male birds] charm the female by vocal and instrumental music of the most varied kinds. [11, p. 466]
It is important to establish what Darwin’s language meant in modern terms. Darwin lacked our modern sensitivity to avoiding anthropomorphizing his subjects. Rather, he was actively engaged in reducing the distinctions between humans and animals. But Darwin was not trying to shock his readers. He used these aesthetic terms as ordinary language without any special semantic or cultural implications. Darwin was specifically proposing that animals (mostly females) were making sensory and cognitive evaluations of display traits, and making mate choices based on those evaluations. Darwin used ‘taste for the beautiful’ to refer to differential behavioural response to a secondary sexual sensory stimulus. While this aspect of Darwin’s opinion was highly controversial at the time , it is mainstream now. If that were the only issue, there would be no need for us to revive Darwin’s use of aesthetic language. Our contemporary terms cover this meaning.
While I doubt Prum’s views as a general explanation of sexual dimorphism (I’m more inclined to see differences between human ethnic groups as a “beauty matters” issue), he may be right in some cases, and at any rate note that the agency here is exercised by females, not males. In what sense, then, are Fuentes’s females “passive” if they are choosing among males competing for their attentions? Darwin makes the females quite active!
Speaking of stuff that Darwin got wrong, his biggest whopper was his erroneous theory of genetics, in which he thought that hereditary “mutations” were invoked by environmental change, a “Lamarckian” view. We know now that Darwin was wrong, but fortunately his theory didn’t depend on a correct mechanism of genetics, but only on the fact that there was genetic variation in populations that could be passed on, and affected survival and reproduction. The fact that Fuentes omits this biggest whopper in favor of moral indictments shows that he has an explicitly ideological aim, which he reveals in the last paragraph of his article (see below).
Here’s a Fuentes whopper about “survival of the fittest,” a term that Darwin didn’t invent and generally avoided, using it only a handful of times in his writings:
[Darwin] went 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.
This is wrong on two counts. First, Darwin never justified genocide, though he did think that by virtue of (inherited) superiority, the white race would come to dominate others by higher relative success. But never did he advocate the killing or extirpation of different ethnic groups. Second, the use of “social Darwinism” by others to justify such mistreatment of other groups was always rejected by Darwin. Darwin simply cannot be blamed for the misuse or misconstrual of his theory by others. In fact, I cannot think of what direct harm Darwin really caused to anyone, save his buttressing the views of English men and women of his time. I always maintain that if Darwin lived today, he would likely decry misogyny, racism, and white supremacy, and would be a liberal English guy. It’s unfair, again, to tar him for adhering to the moral standards of his time—indeed, in having higher standards.
Finally, Fuentes neglects that Darwin did do some backsliding about the hegemony of natural selection as an explanation for everything. Here’s a quote from The Descent of Man: (h/t Nick Matzke)
. . . . but I now admit, after reading the essay by Nägeli on plants, and the remarks by various authors with respect to animals, more especially those recently made by Professor Broca, that in the earlier editions of my ‘Origin of Species’ I probably attributed too much to the action of natural selection or the survival of the fittest. I have altered the fifth edition of the Origin so as to confine my remarks to adaptive changes of structure. I had not formerly sufficiently considered the existence of many structures which appear to be, as far as we can judge, neither beneficial nor injurious; and this I believe to be one of the greatest oversights as yet detected in my work. I may be permitted to say as some excuse, that I had two distinct objects in view, firstly, to shew that species had not been separately created, and secondly, that natural selection had been the chief agent of change, though largely aided by the inherited effects of habit, and slightly by the direct action of the surrounding conditions. Nevertheless I was not able to annul the influence of my former belief, then widely prevalent, that each species had been purposely created; and this led to my tacitly assuming that every detail of structure, excepting rudiments, was of some special, though unrecognised, service. Any one with this assumption in his mind would naturally extend the action of natural selection, either during past or present times, too far.
Yes, Darwin went back and altered the fifth edition of The Origin to reflect this change of views.
In Fuentes’s last paragraph, he reveals his aim: to increase inclusion and diversity (presumably racial and gender diversity) among evolutionists in hope that this will it easier to catch Darwin’s moral errors as well as those of other evolutionary biologists.
Reflecting on “Descent” today one can look to data demonstrating unequivocally that race is not a valid description of human biological variation, that there is no biological coherence to “male” and “female” brains or any simplicity in biological patterns related to gender and sex, and that “survival of the fittest” does not accurately represent the dynamics of evolutionary processes. The scientific community can reject the legacy of bias and harm in the evolutionary sciences by recognizing, and acting on, the need for diverse voices and making inclusive practices central to evolutionary inquiry. In the end, learning from “Descent” illuminates the highest and most interesting problem for human evolutionary studies today: moving toward an evolutionary science of humans instead of “man.”
Re the first part: yes, scientists have long rejected the simplistic view of “races” as easily demarcated groups of people that differ genetically in profound ways, but we still recognize clustered ethnic groupings. As for “no biological coherence to male and female brains”, I believe that this is a matter of debate (see here) and, at any rate, I do believe that evolution has differentiated male and female brains in terms of the tendencies it has given the sexes to behave differently or possess different preferences (there is of course considerable overlap). One example is the male-female difference in sexual behavior, similar to that of many other animals. This must be coded somehow in the brain. As far as “survival of the fittest” not accurately representing the dynamics of the evolutionary process, well, duhhh. For 30 years I’ve told my classes that “reproduction of the fittER” is a more accurate characterization of how natural selection works, and an even more accurate representation would be that “the genes that become more numerous over evolutionary time are those that leave more copies of themselves.” The latter idea is hard to convey to undergraduates, though!
While I do believe that some of our unrecognized prejudices can be addressed by broadening the types of people we want to attract to evolutionary biology (I think the emphasis on female preference in sexual selection was promoted to some extent by women biologists), I really don’t think that making diversity and inclusion the central focus of “evolutionary inquiry” will lead to profound breakthroughs. This presumes that there are race- or gender-based ways of thinking about evolution, and while this may be true to some extent, I don’t think it’s true to an appreciable or important extent. What we need is to start turning on kids to evolution at a young age; that is, we should “widen the pipeline”, attracting the best thinkers from all groups. It is deeply patronizing to try to hire minorities so they can help us “reject the legacy of of bias and harm in the evolutionary sciences.”
And its summary:
Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man was published in 1871. Ever since, it has been the foundation stone of human evolutionary studies. Richerson et al. reviewed how modern studies of human biological and cultural evolution reflect the ideas in Darwin’s work. They emphasize how cooperation, social learning, and cumulative culture in the ancestors of modern humans were key to our evolution and were enhanced during the environmental upheavals of the Pleistocene. The evolutionary perspective has come to permeate not just human biology but also the social sciences, vindicating Darwin’s insights.
The ideology and the “I’m better than Darwin was” attitude can be left for classes in the history and philosophy of science.
h/t: Nick Matzke, Andrew Berry, Brian Charlesworth, and Matthew Cobb for discussion.