February 24 – Anniversary of The Descent of Man

Posted on February 24, 2015

When asked, “What book did Charles Darwin write?” most people who answered at all would say, “On the Origin of Species.” That was his first book about evolutionary theory, and it made the biggest splash in terms of controversy from scientists and the general public alike.

But although that first book implied that, if modern animals had evolved from simpler forms, humans, too, had evolved from "lower" animals—Darwin had been careful not to explore that concept in Origin. He let it just hang there, in the air: it was implied, not clearly stated.

Actually, Darwin had so little wanted to provoke controversy, he had sat on his unpublished evolutionary theory for 20 years! But in 1859, Origin was published, the word was out, and the firestorm of response began.

Flash forward to this date in 1871. In the 11 years since Origin, plenty of people had discussed and debated and written and published ideas about the evolution of human beings, but now Darwin weighed in on the topic with his book The Descent of Man. Finally Darwin was ready to state that humans, too, had evolved. People had common ancestors with other animals and even plants and mushrooms and protists!

(Remember, Darwin was not the first to claim that humans evolved. But his account of how evolutionary theory applied to humans was an important step in the field.)

A lot of people have made claims about the book The Descent of Man: Darwin was racist, they say, or Darwin wanted to kill off “weaker” humans in favor of the strong. Eugenics—the idea of making the human race better by making the genetic pool better, taller, smarter, stronger, more beautiful, by controlling breeding—is supposed to have gotten its start with Darwin's book.

It is clear that Darwin was a bit racist by today's standards. However, for an Englishman of his own time—a time when many argued that different races were actually different species—Darwin was notable for how minor he thought racial differences were. His book argued, with evidence, that all humans were the same species and shared common ancestors, and pointed out the similarities between all peoples. Also, Darwin was an abolitionist. He first saw slavery in Brazil, while on his famous voyage on the Beagle, and it had horrified him. He thought that “the race question” was one of the most important of his time.

Before Darwin (and unfortunately,
in some cases, even after
Darwin), some people would
have answered this plea, "No,
you're not a man and a brother."
It is also clear that Darwin seemed to think that it was inevitable that less technological people would either die off or be absorbed by what he called “civilised races.” However, he actually argued that people should NOT try to weed out the “weak” but instead should help the weak and the ill.

Darwin's work and book promoted our modern view: that all humans are the same species; that all people came from “savage” origins; that cultural differences swamp any minor physical differences among peoples.

Also on this date:

Robot-building pioneer Vaucanson's birthday

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