Monthly Archives: January 2018

31st January, 2018. Was Darwin sexist?

In her Introduction to the 2013 re-publication of Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (in the series Wordsworth Classics of World Literature) Janet Browne of Harvard University doesn’t duck the evidence ‘he (Darwin) believed that sexual selection fostered inbuilt male superiority …In early human societies, the necessities of survival, he argued, would result in men becoming physically stronger than women and their intelligence and mental faculties improving beyond those of women’ (p. xxi). It seems likely that in this respect Darwin was assuming a lot , rather than his ideas being a product of in-depth research across the animal kingdom, after all by 1871 Darwin had very little archaeological evidence to go on compared with today. Yet again we have to evaluate Darwin’s contribution to science in the context of being a ‘man of his time’, as we all are to a greater or lesser extent.

As might be expected Browne also records that ‘After publication, early feminists and suffragettes bitterly attacked this doctrine, feeling that women were being ‘naturalised’ by biology into a secondary, submissive role’ (p. xxi). As with some other social mind-set reforms I have seen a great change in such attitudes even in my lifetime.

28th January, 2018. Was Darwin a ‘racist’?

Darwin decided that the various races of homo sapiens around the globe in the 19th century constituted but one species. Also when on his voyages of the 1830s he took a benign interest in the language and culture of the ‘primitive’ tribes-people’ encountered in South America, Tierra del Fuego, Australia and New Zealand. But how/why, he pondered, had different races evolved? His answer seems (to me) curious. Darwin seems to have argued that in the early days of homo-sapiens males chose female mates according to varying notions of beauty around the globe and that skin colour was a cardinal determinant of beauty. As the ‘fittest’ males got the fittest mates so, across many generations, the external feature became a racial characteristic.

Although of benevolent nature and sympathetic towards individuals Darwin saw in early archaeological evidence coming out of Africa, the Americas and the Middle East that through historic times more primitive tribes were supplanted by more vigorous/advanced cultures. This he saw as evidence for ‘survival of the fittest’. When applied to his own era he saw the supplanting of native peoples in Australia and New Zealand by European colonists as evidence of this natural force in operation. Presumably he viewed the ruthless dispossession of the native American tribes in the same light, this in full-swing during his life.

I don’t think Darwin took any perverse delight in colonial dispossession although British ‘expansionists’ were happy to use his analysis to justify their means to an end, after all, who could cry ‘foul’ on the mighty British Empire. Unfortunately the concept of inferior/malignant races (extreme racial inequality) was used partly as a justification for racial persecution in many regions of the world in the 20th (and 21st so far) century.

(To be continued).

27th January, 2018. Charles Darwin (continued).

Recently attended lecture at the Royal Station Hotel, Ferensway, Hull (see above) organised by the Hull Literary and Philosophical Soc. which is a society with a proud history stretching back to 1822 (book recently published on the history of the Society). The subject of the presentation was the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador and was given by a man from Beverley area who organises wildlife viewing trips to the islands. Inevitably the speaker mentioned Charles Darwin and the ‘finches’, partly studied in the voyage of the 1830s (s.p.b.). The talk was complimented by good images and videos. (Had thought about becoming member of the Society, but wouldn’t attend all talks so will just go as and when and pay £5/ talk).

Darwin had delayed publishing his research on the evolution of Man as he feared it would be unacceptably controversial. However, by the early 1870s fellow scholars were publishing on the same theme e.g. Charles Lyell, a famous early geologist, published Antiquity of Man in 1863, the same year that Thomas Huxley (another early evolutionist) published his Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature.

The second part of Darwin’s Descent of Man, published in 1871, dealt with Selection in Relation to Sex and included a number of controversial hypotheses, this even more so today. Darwin presented a wealth of evidence to support the contention that Man is but another species in the animal kingdom rather than being a higher life-form created by some divine intervention. In support of this notion Darwin argued that Man didn’t have a monopoly of language, that religion was simply the product of a primitive urge to give cause to otherwise inexplicable natural events and that morality was learned behaviour not innate. Modern scientific discover is providing rational explanations for all things in Nature and the Universe, a situation that, presumably, Darwin would have welcomed.

(To be continued).

21st January, 2018. ‘Descent of Man’ 2.

Part one of Darwin’s On the Descent of Man dealt with many lines of thought discussed in the Origin of Species but now as directly relating to Man the animal rather than avoiding that species (s.p.b.). Darwin argued that as well as anatomically (see previous illustration) Man’s mental faculties can be explained as having gradually evolved from natural processes, factors such as language, reasoning ability, morality, religious notions, memory and imagination. The issue of language was particularly hotly debated having previously been seen as tangible evidence of Man’s special identity. (My own view on view on this would be to wonder whether other species do have their language and ‘if we could talk to the animals’ (from a musical I believe) we would know; the problem is that inter-species language understanding is as unknown to modern society as it has been throughout history). Darwin used many studies of animal behaviour to support his ideas. (Obviously the language of some specious is far more audible to us than say the language of small mammals. Geese on the nearby wetland seem to be almost constantly ‘gabbling’, particularly so before setting-off in flight, so it is as if they have had a group discussion before deciding on a collective course of action. So might not this language have been taught by the adults rather than us just assuming that a limited range of sounds are implanted in their brains by instinct the meaning of which they understand by instinct?).

The final chapter of Darwin’s part one dealt with the issue of human races, a big problem area for modern society. Whatever criticisms may be made of Darwin’s ideas in this context he always believed that all human races were one and the same species, that variations were superficial and explainable by ‘sexual selection’. (To be continued).

20th January, 2018. ‘The Descent of Man’.

Having published On the Origin of Species in 1859 (John Murray publisher) Charles Darwin waited until 1871 before having his two-volume The Descent of Man an Selection in Relation to Sex published. Although he had been considering the content of this his second great volume since his experiences on the Beagle expedition nevertheless he had been wary of translating into print his evolutionary theories with regard to Man as an animal in Nature. However the decision to do so was in response to various other scientists who were beginning to have published similar evolutionary notions. For example Thomas Huxley, a disciple of Darwin’s since the publication of On The Origin of Species, had already published his Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature in which he set out clear evidence to show that humans were the result of a series of physical changes from the apish state. The illustration above reflects Huxley and Darwin’s views. (to be continued).

16th January, 2018. Darwin’s finches.

‘Darwin’s Finches’ are a well-known example of wildlife discoveries that Charles Darwin made during (and after) his five-year voyage in the 1830s on board HMS Beagle, the main purpose of which was to map the coast of South America. Initially Darwin did not realise the significance of his studies in terms of evolution. He was no expert ornithologist, but he was a skilled taxidermist having learned the trade from a freed Afro-American ex-slave back in England (Darwin was always an ardent abolitionist). He would shoot creatures he found and then stuff them so they would be available for study when back in England. It was left to an English ornithologist when Darwin was back in England to identify these birds as all finches but with particular differences in the size and shape of their beaks, this corresponding to different islands in the Galapagos archipelago. Thus when Darwin was writing-up in book form his Journals from his voyage (an immediate best-seller) he was able to speculate on the importance of these mutations within a species which better enabled the birds to access the differing herbaceous resources on separate islands, these islands being too far apart for the  birds to ‘commute’.

So, in the 20th century, Darwin’s finches (or Galapagos finches) came to example the mechanism whereby evolution works to create the great diversity of life on Earth.

The photo above shows a female Eurasian bullfinch.