Plunging Darwin’s Descent of Man

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, And Selection in Relation to Sex. New York: A.L. Burt, 1874.

If, in Origin of the Species, Darwin’s rhetorical analogies always begin with human selection to better understand natural selection, in Descent of man, this order is inversed, and begins with examples of attributes found in mankind that are similar with that of animals, as Darwin says, “the mode of origin and the early stages of the development of man are identical with those of the animals immediately below him in the scale” (17).

Right along with much enlightenment thinking, particularly Kant, Darwin notes that aesthetics too are not merely culturally valued, but lie along a hierarchy of aesthetic appreciation with the standard always at the European level: “judging from the hideous ornaments and the equally hideous music admired by most savages, it might be urged that their aesthetic faculty was not so highly developed as in certain animals, for instance, in birds” (62). It seems almost comic now, that Darwin was unable to see the arbitrary selection of the highest aesthetic standard as whatever he—or his culture—thought was beautiful, and thus found a correlation of development with aesthetic taste.

Like Herbert Spencer, Darwin too believes in a moral sense “derived from social instinct” where sympathy is not confined to a “tribe,” as is the morals of the “savage,” (93).  The savage is thus placed as immoral due to the confinement of sympathy, the “insufficient powers of reasoning,” and the “weak power of self-command” (93). If “confinement” of sympathy is taken to be a residue of a more savage age, then Darwin must also consider “nation” and state as similarly confining. To Darwin, nationhood however is perhaps the highest one can muster on this sympathetic group, and “this point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races” (96). Indeed, Darwin here seems to match moral capability (as well as evolutionary development) with the democracy of sympathy, resulting finally in a global consciousness, yet always hoping for “sympathy beyond the confines of man, that is humanity to the lower animals” (96).

Darwin’s racial categories are difficult to parse out due to both the historical distance of his writing, and the definition of race which, even at the time, held no transparent meaning. Darwin does not know whether to use the term “race” or “species,” and bases his choice of “whichever term may be preferred” (104). His separation of racial types is done mainly by intelligence, something he believes can be derived “by the comparison of the skulls of savage and civilized races, of ancient and modern people, and by the analogy of the whole vertebrate series” (140). He sites one Dr. Davis, who claims that “the mean internal capacity of the skull in Europeans is 92.3 cubic inches; in Americans 87.5; in Asiatics 87.1; and in Australians only 81.9 inches.” Furthermore, one Professor Broca adds historical depth to this argument of recent racial development, by claiming that “skulls from graves in Paris of the nineteenth century, were larger than those from vaults of the twelfth century.” One can suppose then that if the skulls of Asiatics and Australians are the same size as that of twelfth century Europeans, then these “lesser races” are indeed stuck in a lower stage of development. So why did one race develop faster than others? Darwin’s answer is that “if they had inhabited some warm continent, or large island, such as Australia or New Guinea…they would not have been exposed to any special danger. In an area as large as one of these islands, the competition between tribe and tribe would have been sufficient, under favorable conditions, to have raised man, through the survival of the fittest, combined with the inherited effects of habit, to his present high position in the organic scale” (151). This argument that geographic placement is crucial to the development of a group is one of high popularity now, its leading intellectual presence in Jared Diamond.

Though linear historical progress is a narrative that is frequently attributed to Darwinian thinking, Darwin himself refutes the idea that progress is the “normal rule in human society,” since “many savages are in the same condition as when first discovered several centuries ago” (160). To Darwin part of this freeze in development is attributed to the weakest of the race surviving—in nature being far too kind. He declares that “the weak members of civilized society propagate their kind,” and that “the aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused” (162).  As with Herbert Spencer, Darwin believes that the impulse to sympathize with the weak of a race is itself a weakness, for “if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with a certain and great present evil. Hence we must beart without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind.” His proposal then, is appropriately Malthusian, that “the weaker and inferior members of society not marrying so freely as the sound” (162). Though Darwin here is tracking progress with himself as the standard, it is evident that he is not simply advocating to exterminate “lesser races,” but to uplift those through imperial regimes by naming “proofs that savages are independently able to raise themselves a few steps in the scale of civilization, and have actually thus risen” (174), and that the inhabitants of Europe—particularly the Jews—“were once in a barbarous condition” (176).  The moral imperative, then, is a mission of civilization.

Darwin’s Descent of Man If, in Origin of the Species, Darwin’s rhetorical analogies always begin with human selection to better understand natural selection, in Descent of man, this order is inversed, and begins with examples of attributes found in mankind that are similar with that of animals, as Darwin says, “the mode of origin and the early stages of the development of man are identical with those of the animals immediately below him in the scale” (17). Right along with much enlightenment thinking, particularly Kant, Darwin notes that aesthetics too are not merely culturally valued, but lie along a hierarchy of aesthetic appreciation with the standard always at the European level: “judging from the hideous ornaments and the equally hideous music admired by most savages, it might be urged that their aesthetic faculty was not so highly developed as in certain animals, for instance, in birds” (62). It seems almost comic now, that Darwin was unable to see the arbitrary selection of the highest aesthetic standard as whatever he—or his culture—thought was beautiful, and thus found a correlation of development with aesthetic taste. Like Herbert Spencer, Darwin too believes in a moral sense “derived from social instinct” where sympathy is not confined to a “tribe,” as is the morals of the “savage,” (93). The savage is thus placed as immoral due to the confinement of sympathy, the “insufficient powers of reasoning,” and the “weak power of self-command” (93). If “confinement” of sympathy is taken to be a residue of a more savage age, then Darwin must also consider “nation” and state as similarly confining. To Darwin, nationhood however is perhaps the highest one can muster on this sympathetic group, and “this point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races” (96). Indeed, Darwin here seems to match moral capability (as well as evolutionary development) with the democracy of sympathy, resulting finally in a global consciousness, yet always hoping for “sympathy beyond the confines of man, that is humanity to the lower animals” (96). Darwin’s racial categories are difficult to parse out due to both the historical distance of his writing, and the definition of race which, even at the time, held no transparent meaning. Darwin does not know whether to use the term “race” or “species,” and bases his choice of “whichever term may be preferred” (104). His separation of racial types is done mainly by intelligence, something he believes can be derived “by the comparison of the skulls of savage and civilized races, of ancient and modern people, and by the analogy of the whole vertebrate series” (140). He sites one Dr. Davis, who claims that “the mean internal capacity of the skull in Europeans is 92.3 cubic inches; in Americans 87.5; in Asiatics 87.1; and in Australians only 81.9 inches.” Furthermore, one Professor Broca adds historical depth to this argument of recent racial development, by claiming that “skulls from graves in Paris of the nineteenth century, were larger than those from vaults of the twelfth century.” One can suppose then that if the skulls of Asiatics and Australians are the same size as that of twelfth century Europeans, then these “lesser races” are indeed stuck in a lower stage of development. So why did one race develop faster than others? Darwin’s answer is that “if they had inhabited some warm continent, or large island, such as Australia or New Guinea…they would not have been exposed to any special danger. In an area as large as one of these islands, the competition between tribe and tribe would have been sufficient, under favorable conditions, to have raised man, through the survival of the fittest, combined with the inherited effects of habit, to his present high position in the organic scale” (151). This argument that geographic placement is crucial to the development of a group is one of high popularity now, its leading intellectual presence in Jared Diamond. Though linear historical progress is a narrative that is frequently attributed to Darwinian thinking, Darwin himself refutes the idea that progress is the “normal rule in human society,” since “many savages are in the same condition as when first discovered several centuries ago” (160). To Darwin part of this freeze in development is attributed to the weakest of the race surviving—in nature being far too kind. He declares that “the weak members of civilized society propagate their kind,” and that “the aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused” (162). As with Herbert Spencer, Darwin believes that the impulse to sympathize with the weak of a race is itself a weakness, for “if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with a certain and great present evil. Hence we must beart without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind.” His proposal then, is appropriately Malthusian, that “the weaker and inferior members of society not marrying so freely as the sound” (162). Though Darwin here is tracking progress with himself as the standard, it is evident that he is not simply advocating to exterminate “lesser races,” but to uplift those through imperial regimes by naming “proofs that savages are independently able to raise themselves a few steps in the scale of civilization, and have actually thus risen” (174), and that the inhabitants of Europe—particularly the Jews—“were once in a barbarous condition” (176). The moral imperative, then, is a mission of civilization.

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