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.