Tonight Evelleen Richards will be speaking at IASH on Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. In preparation for the talk, it has been suggested we read her 1983 essay, “Darwin and the Descent of Women.” It is a dated text, as many of her arguments have now become common parlance among Darwin scholars. Nevertheless, it is still relevant today, and thus worth familiarizing ourselves with its details.
Richards begins by pointing out that during the 1970s and 1980s social historians and sociologists were beginning to view scientific knowledge as a “contingent cultural product.” That is, scientific knowledge as socially constructed, as influenced by “non-scientific” content. She is careful to qualify the position, noting that “this is not to assert that science is merely a matter of convention…but rather that scientific knowledge ‘offers an account of the physical world which is mediated through available cultural resources; and these resources are in no way definitive.'” Richards supports this contention by citing work from M. Mulkay, B. Barnes, S. Shapin, R.M. Macleod, and a few others.
Using this new approach—i.e., that scientific knowledge is cultural constructed—Richards applies this method to Darwin’s conclusions on biological and social evolution, particularly his claims about women and sexual selection. Darwin has for too long (remember, this is a paper from the 1980s) been portrayed as an idealized, objective, “great man” of science. He has been “absolved of political and social intent and his theoretical constructs of ideological taint,” she writes.
But Richards wants to go beyond the feminist charge of sexism. Indeed, she aims to place “Darwin’s theoretical constructs and Darwin himself in their larger, social, intellectual and cultural framework.” In short, she wants to argue that Darwin was not merely a sexist or chauvinist, but that he was following an increasingly popular naturalistic explanation of nature—including human nature. Moreover, Darwin also derived his notion of sexual selection from the larger Victorian context, from socially sanctioned assumptions “of the innate inferiority and domesticity of women.” More interestingly, Richards wants to connect Darwin’s views on sexual selection to his relations with Emma Wedgwood, his wife, and their children. “I argue,” Richards writes, “that Darwin’s experience of women and his practical activities of husband and father entered into his concept of sexual selection and his associated interpretations of human evolution.” Finally, Richards wants to show how late-Victorian Darwinism was imposed on women, limiting their claims for social and political equality.
As soon as Darwin published his Origin of Species, he was feeling the pressure to apply his theory of evolution to humanity. According to his notebooks, Darwin had been thinking about human evolution since the 1830s. Indeed, “from the first he was convinced that humanity was part of the evolutionary process.” He delayed publishing his views once the storm over the Origin had subsided.
But that did not prevent others from making a go at it. Charles Lyell offered his own arguments in his 1863 Antiquity of Man. But Darwin was “bitterly disappointed” that Lyell did not “go the whole orang.” Darwin felt more assured by Alfred Russel Wallace, co-founder of the theory of natural selection. He was so confident in Wallace that he offered to share his notes on “Man” with him. Darwin was shocked when Wallace retracted his “belief in the all-sufficiency of natural in human physical, social, and mental development.” By 1869, Wallace had posited a “higher intelligence” guiding the development of the human race.
Richards suggests that these men, who seem to have lost their nerve, reinforced Darwin’s determination to demonstrate that the “human races were the equivalent of the varieties of plants and animals…and they were subject to the same main agencies of struggle for existence and the struggle for mates.” Human evolution, as with other species, could and should be explained by natural evolutionary processes.
Sexual selection was indeed the key for Darwin. When he published his Descent of Man in 1871, he subtitled it: or Selection in Relation to Sex. Sexual selection had been vital for Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In his Origin, Darwin distinguished the two. Sexual selection, he wrote
depends, not on a struggle for existence, but on a struggle between the males for possession of the females; the results is not death to the unsuccessful competitor, but few or no offspring. Sexual selection is, therefore, less rigorous than natural selection. Generally, the most vigorous males, those which are best fitted for their places in nature, will leave most progeny. But in many cases, victory will depend not on general vigour, but on having special weapons, confined to the male sex.
Perhaps more importantly, Darwin attributed sexual selection to another factor: female choice. This explained, for example, the seemingly useless and even disadvantageous colors of some male birds, or the long horns of the antelope. In other words, these elements made the male more attractive, and hence better at “wooing” the female during courtship.
Richards carefully notes that in his Origin, Darwin views females as mere spectators, entirely submissive to the males, who actively compete with one another. “Female choice” she writes, is still very much “passive.” Darwin’s “androcentric bias,” she adds, is even more pronounced when he considered human evolution. According to Richards, Darwin badgered “naturalists and breeders for corroborative evidence” to support his position. For Darwin, “human evolution and sexual selection had become inextricably linked.”
In his Descent of Man, Darwin divides his argument into three parts. In part one he sought to demonstrate “that there was no fundamental difference between humanity and the higher animals.” At the end of this first section, Darwin introduced his theory of sexual selection to explain racial differences, including “skin colour, hair, shape of skull, proportions of the body, etc.” But sexual selection was also much wider in scope. As Darwin put it
He who admits the principle of sexual selection will be led to the remarkable conclusion that the nervous system not only regulates most of the existing functions of the body, but has indirectly influenced the progressive development of various bodily structures and of certain mental qualities. Courage, pugnacity, perseverance, strength and size of body, weapons of all kinds, musical organs, both vocal and instrumental, bright colours and ornamental appendages, have all been indirectly gained by the one sex or the other through the exertion of choice, the influence of love and jealously, and the appreciation of the beautiful in sound, colour or form; and these powers of the mind manifestly depend on the development of the brain.
Sexual selection, in other words, account for the “higher” features of humanity, mental powers—emotional, intellectual, and moral.
In parts two and three of his Descent, Darwin concentrated on demonstrating sexual selection in the animal kingdom, and then extended it to human evolution. The point needs re-emphasizing: Darwin was not concerned with “sex” but with human evolution. Interestingly, Darwin reverses his theory on sexual selection when it came to humanity. While females, however passive, choose in the animal kingdom, it is male selection that predominated among humans. Indeed, in the course of evolution, “man had seized the power of selection from woman.”
In turn, male humans had become “more powerful in body and mind than woman.” Richards argues that Darwin’s understanding of sexual selection led him to the conclusion that the “higher education of women could have no long-term impact on social evolution and was, biologically and socially, a waste of resources.” She claims that Darwin derived some of his ideas on sexual selection from Carl Vogt’s Lectures on Man, which was first published in English in 1864 by the racist Anthropological Society of London. Indeed, Darwin cited Vogt’s morphological arguments on racial and sexual differences, which posited that “mature females, in the formation of her skull, is ‘intermediate between the child and the man’ and that woman’s anatomy generally, was more child-like or ‘primitive’ than man’s.” According to Richards, “it was an extension of Vogt’s woman-as-child-as-primitive argument that provided the sole scientific underpinning of Darwin’s conclusion on the futility of higher education for women.” As it was for Vogt, so it was for Darwin: sexual inequality was the hallmark of an advanced society.
Richards argues, however, that Darwin’s theory of sexual selection was supported by little actual empirical evidence, and that most of it depended social stereotypes. “The whole was a triumph of ingenuity in response to theoretical necessity in the face of a dearth of hard evidence,” she writes.
At the same time, this was not just some political ploy by Darwin. His theory of sexual selection was “part of a more general tendency of nineteenth-century thought to treat human mental and social development more scientifically or naturalistically.” Although Richards does not put it in these words, the obvious desire to explain everything naturalistically seems to derive from the abandonment or rejection of theological explanations. In an attempt to fill the void left behind when religious explanations were ousted, Darwin needed to find another way of explaining the course of human evolution. Darwin chose sex. In this new understanding of human evolution and human nature, woman took the backseat, stagnate and trapped in a childlike and primitive state. Man, by contrast, became the higher being, the breeder who selected, shaped, and moulded woman to his fancy. Richards contends that Darwin’s theory of sexual selection was part and parcel of Victorian bourgeoisie social and political assumptions about the sexes. But I would argue that it was more than this. As I mentioned above, it was also the attempt to support such assumptions, wittingly or unwittingly, naturalistically.
Richards now turns to how “Darwin, as an individual, came to hold his beliefs on feminine abilities and differences.” In the 1830s Darwin was looking for a “nice soft wife on a sofa.” He found her in Emma. Ironically, as Richards puts it, it was Darwin, who suffered from much ill-health, who often occupied the sofa. Yet Emma was entirely submissive to Darwin. She bore him ten children, wrote letters at his dictation, nursed him, and proofed his writings. She was also, as Richards notes, “deeply religious, and many of [Darwin’s] opinions were painful to her.” But Emma remained undeniably faithful to Darwin.
Darwin did not want an intellectual companion. He actually advised against it. When Emma picked up Lyell’s Elements of Geology, Darwin told her to put it down. For Darwin, “science was an exclusively male preserve, which women entered, if they entered at all, only as spectators.” Richards adds that Darwin “did not expect or want women to converse intelligently about science, but rather to be tolerant of masculine preoccupation with it.” Emma was expected to adhere to the stereotypes of Victorian feminine servitude, domesticity, and piety. And she did.
Richards also notes that although the Wedgwoods and Darwins held unconventional theological and political notions, they were entirely “orthodox” in their views of the role of women. It is, however, not entirely clear what Richards means by “orthodox.” That is, she never defines the term. Does she mean religiously orthodox? socially orthodox?
At any rate, Richards goes on to show how Henreitta, one of Darwin’s daughters, actually proofed and in fact edited his Descent. But it appears that she had no qualms about the section on woman’s intellectual inferiority. Like her mother Emma, her only concern was Darwin “putting God further off.”
Richards then turns to Darwinism and the social context. The nineteenth century, she says, experienced the “secular redefinition of the world.” She stresses—perhaps too much—that evolution was central to this redefinition. But as many scholars have pointed out since her paper was published in 1983, Darwin’s theory of evolution did not come into the “theological world like a plough into an ant hill.”
Richards is correct, however, in connecting evolution to a “secular ideology of progress,” one which was “assimilated to the capitalist requirements of industrial and economic growth, catch-cry of a rapidly advancing liberal and ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie.'” Darwin of course was not disinterested in this connection. Indeed, as is now well known, he did not take a neutral position on the topic. He had incorporated contemporaneous social thought in support of his theory. As Richards puts it, “it was an alliance that made for success.”
In the last decades of the century, many turned to evolution rather than religion to corroborate their views on social values. “Social Darwinism” appealed, for example, to the “robber barons” of America, to J.D. Rockefeller and other powerful businessmen. We have even seen something of a rebirth of Social Darwinism recently with the rise of Donald Trump and his supporters.
In a succinct paragraph, Richards puts it thus:
Darwin, in pushing his case against the divine origin of human mind and conscience, argued for their evolution according to the same processes that had produced all living things. His refusal to concede any but naturalistic explanations of human intelligence and morality, hardened into a biological determinism that rejected all social and cultural causation other than that which could be subsumed under the natural laws of inheritance and thus become innate or fixed.
After the publication of Darwin’s Descent, there was a notable increase in treatises attempting to moralize naturalism. We see this, according to Richards, in the work of Huxley, Romanes, Galton, Lubbock, Spencer, and other popular works. “Those Darwinian theorists,” she writes, “raised insuperable evolutionary barriers against feminine intellectual and social equality.”
As feminism was rising to power in the last decades of the nineteenth century, social Darwinists declared it a direct threat to the bourgeois family. According to Richards, Darwin’s Descent appeared just in time. His “growing authority and prestige were pitted against the claims by women for intellectual and social equality.” There was also a massive upsurge of anthropological and medical studies used to support Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, and more generally his views of women and their role in society.
Richards concludes that Darwin’s understanding of human sexual differences was “central to his naturalistic explanation of human evolution.” In this essay and her more recent work, Richards has demonstrated that scientific knowledge is not immune to the context of its reality. While science can transcend borders, it is also provincial. Science is situated knowledge; or, as David N. Livingstone has put it, it has a “place.”