Late Darwin and the Problem of the Human

Darwin’s radical new history of the world did not give a central place to the human. It challenged human exceptionalism and emphasised what was shared, across all organisms extant and extinct. He thought of himself initially as a geologist, so was constantly alert to the ghosting presence of past life forms, visible now only as vestiges, impacted, fossilised, fired, crumbling but discernable, and capable of being re-imagined. In The Voyage of the Beagle encounters with human beings from other tribes and cultures became important and helped his thinking to thrive, but in the years up to and including the publication of the Origin, and well beyond it, his main concerns and researches were with forms of life other than the human, including barnacles and plants. As is well known, he withheld discussion of the human in the Origin, for what he called ‘diplomatic’ reasons. In fact, though, this refusal was profoundly disruptive since it had the effect of simply including us in the general class of primates without a special space or reach reserved. From the start Darwin made it clear that there is no simple opposition between organism and environment since environment is itself composed of the interpenetrating needs, desires, and claims of all the other organisms that surround and include any single being. But it is striking that in trying to describe primordial life he figures the ancestor as single almost as often as he describes it as a pair: the ‘ single progenitor’, ‘one primordial form’.

Such an imagined being is asexual or ‘hors-sexe’, outside sex, and much of Darwin’s research life was spent studying life-forms in which the methods of reproduction are through parthenogenesis (virgin birth, as in some reptiles, fishes and plants), splitting (as with amoebas) or hermaphroditism (as with some barnacles and slugs who fertilizes themselves). Sex is a mechanism of reproduction that speeds up the possibilities of change. In sex two streams of unlike material from the parents enter the progeny, and the spectrum of outcome is much greater. Darwin did not have the language or the knowledge of genetics to work with. He saw the outcome of hyperproductivity and difference but he struggled to explain how such changes were carried between generations. It’s worth emphasizing at the outset that sex difference is not a universal condition since, looking at things from our human point of view, we tend to see it as normative.

Until the 1870s Darwin did not publish extensively about human beings and their descent or liaisons. Then in quick succession he published The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). That second work was originally to have formed part of the Descent but it grew too large. The Descent itself is on an enormous scale and explores the issue of sexual selection in ways that demanded quite new thinking from Darwin, though it had been touched on in the Origin. In the Descent he brings the human to the foreground of his argument and that produces new tensions in his relation to his readers and in his own mind.

Darwin’s later theory of ‘sexual selection’ placed sex at the centre of explanation, supplementing the emphasis already established in the Origin through natural selection on the resilience of family ties across generations. In the Origin Darwin expanded the idea of family, away from the exclusiveness of what he called “pedigrees and armorial bearings” (Origin 486), to embrace all “the past and present inhabitants of the world” (488) – and by ‘inhabitants’ he did not mean merely the human.

In this brief essay I shall concentrate on a single effect of the newly emphasised presence of the human: what happens when he is writing about man and woman rather than simply male and female. The terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ are fundamental to his argument across species, and to his insistence on the kinship of all species (even those that reproduce through methods other than sexual difference). As soon as his vocabulary enlarges to include man and woman particular difficulties arise – and these difficulties are exacerbated because he does not have a vocabulary that would allow him to discriminate between sex and gender.

The sexual behaviour of different human groups is studied in the Descent alongside that of other kinds, as also are the physical differences between sexes in a range of creatures. And here we begin to see the problem that Darwin has not so much introduced as illuminated by setting the human among other kinds. In his descriptions of species behaviour it is often difficult to discriminate human values from structures. Where he finds physical likeness between the sexes he comments, using the observations of colleagues, on contrasted behaviour:

In one of the sand-wasps (Ammophila) the jaws in the two sexes are closely alike, but are used for widely different purposes: the males, as Professor Westwood observes, ‘are exceedingly ardent, seizing their partners round the neck with their sickle-shaped jaws’; whilst the females use these organs for burrowing in sand-banks and making their nests. (p317)

– a striking example of separate spheres among sand-wasps. Darwin clearly felt some little scepticism himself since he adds a footnote stating that ‘Mr. Walsh, who called my attention to the double use of the jaws, says that he has repeatedly observed this fact.’ And fact it may be, since we cannot just wish away such structural and performative differences between sexes within species, even as we note the gendered interpretation being offered.

Darwin’s later years were spent seeking a system implicit in the inordinate, the decorative, the ornamental, in the drive of sexual desire. Sexual selection demanded flaunting, extravagance, smells and song. The males of most species, his researches showed, were driven to display, the females were the choosers (though ‘choice’ might sometimes be a false word to describe the process of accepting the successful male’s advances). Beauty re-emerged as a key element in his enquiry, and he argued that humans were not the sole possessors of aesthetics and of delight in art.

We have evidence of this capacity even low down in the animal scale thus Crustaceans are provided with auditory hairs of different lengths, which have been seen to vibrate when the proper musical notes are struck. (634-5)

Bird-song was prior to language; it expressed territorial and erotic claims by means of all the pleasures of skilled elaboration. The primordial skills are singing, dancing, and poetry, he argued, skills shared across many species (636). Music becomes his key example of the powers of selection. And he compared the capacities of gnats, dogs, and seals alongside humans. The key point to observe is that once again the whole ground of his argument is the uninterrupted continuum between human experience and that of other life forms, here predominantly animals and birds, but often also including plants.

This discussion of aesthetic life across species and its importance in sexual selection follows one of his most controversial arguments (at least so far as his fellow-humans are concerned), which again relies on analogy (here claimed as homology) with other animals: ‘Differences in the Mental Powers of the Two Sexes’. That is, the two sexes of human beings. He approaches this topic through lengthy discussions of differences between the sexes in a variety of animals, insects, beetles, and birds: in size, in strength, in colouration, in smell, in voice. Once that difference is established he turns in Part III to ‘Sexual Selection in Relation to Man, and Conclusion’. The first paragraph describes the greater muscular development of the male. The second opens boldly, and flatly:

Man is more courageous, pugnacious and energetic than woman, and has a more inventive genius. (622)

The third paragraph opens ‘As with animals of all classes, so with man’.

This equalising between the human and other animals is the argumentative gesture that recurs throughout the discussion, and is in line with all that Darwin has written earlier. It comes as a surprise only because it is here focussed specifically on human beings in a transhistorical and generalising manner, whereas the other crucial aspect of his argument until now has been the emphasis on variability. He acknowledges that ‘some writers doubt whether there is any such inherent difference’ between the human sexes. He has in mind John Stuart Mill, as becomes evident on the next page where he joins in open dispute with Mill. In the text Darwin writes:

Now, when two men are put into competition, or a man with a woman, both possessed of every mental quality in equal perfection, save that one has higher energy, perseverance, and courage, the latter will generally become more eminent in every pursuit, and will gain the ascendancy.

The footnote runs:

J. Stuart Mill remarks ( ‘The subjection of Women’, 1869, p.122), ‘The things in which man most excels woman are those which require most plodding, and long hammering at single thoughts.’ What is this but energy and perseverance? (630)

The tone of exasperation as the qualities slide downhill in Mill’s description from energy and perseverance to plodding and one-track mind sounds as if Darwin has felt Mill’s comments as a personal affront. He has earlier, with a certain ethical self-abnegation spoken of competition, ambition, and selfishness as the ‘natural and unfortunate birthright’ of men. (629) Here, ‘natural’ seems a cover-word for social. Darwin is struggling, and the effect is to make him much more emphatic than is his wont.

Once he substitutes the term ’Man’ for ‘male’, his descriptor for all other species, a rush of social assumptions gathers behind his statements. One is that ‘Man’ (capitalized) in human generalising discourse is to cover both sexes whereas in his descriptions of all other sexed species he painstakingly discriminates between male and female. In a mordant aside he suggests that, unlike most of his argument for sexual selection in which the male displays and the female selects, women may have ‘first acquired musical powers in order to attract the other sex.’ ‘But if so,[he asserts] this must have occurred long ago, before our ancestors had become sufficiently human to treat and value their women merely as useful slaves.’ (639) He sees human behaviour as an aberration in the processes of sexual selection since men seek wealth and beauty in their women, and having social dominance can require that. They do the choosing. Even when women choose:

their choice is largely influenced by the social position and wealth of the men; and the success of the latter in life depends upon their intellectual powers and energy, or the fruits of these same powers in their forefathers.(653)

That women might bring intellectual powers and energy into the marriage does not enter his argument here.

Occasionally, Darwin reaches a different form of inclusivity, ‘human beings’ rather than ‘man’ become his aim:

But we should bear in mind that the activity of the mind in vividly recalling past impressions is one of the fundamental though secondary bases of conscience. This affords the strongest argument for educating and stimulating in all possible ways the intellectual faculties of every human being. (681)

And he argues earlier that :

In order that woman should reach the same standard as man, she ought, when nearly adult, to be trained to energy and perseverance, and to have her reason and imagination exercised to the highest point; and then she would probably transmit these qualities chiefly to her adult daughters. (631)

But he has little hope of equality since men are by him assumed to be destined to be the breadwinners:

they generally undergo a severe struggle in order to maintain themselves and their families: and this will tend to keep up or even increase their mental powers, and, as a consequence, the present inequality between the sexes. (631)

It turns out that it is not quite possible to transpose the physical traits and behaviour of other species to the human and use that to delimit human potential, even in the terms of his own argument. The discussion of men and women’s powers is a matter of about seven pages in a text of seven hundred pages plus, but inevitably it attracts our attention, disconcertingly so. Again, the linking of the two words ‘new and improved’, which, conjoined, lurk at the heart of natural selection haunt this argument too.

Thus man has ultimately become superior to woman. It is, indeed, fortunate that the law of equal transmission of characters to both sexes prevails with mammals; otherwise it is probable that man would have become as superior in mental endowment to woman, as the peacock is in ornamental plumage to the peahen. (631)

But – and this is an important but – Darwin is here describing what has not happened: the law of equal transmission of characters to both sexes does prevail, he acknowledges, against this possible vast mental superiority of man over woman. And that word ‘ultimately’, (‘man has ultimately become superior to woman’) must, if it is to be in key with the rest of his evolutionary thinking even if reluctantly granted here, signify ‘at the moment’ rather than ‘for ever’.

Were I to have the chance to ask him one question I would want to ask him how he sees the changed achievements of women and the altered relations between the sexes in some (dare one say ‘many’?) societies now. Sexual selection as a process is poised between the ‘natural’ and the ‘artificial’ – that is to say, it includes ‘choice’ and discrimination in the drive of desire between individuals and, as he acknowledges, social assumptions and pressures exercise their power in the selection. Darwin’s founding argument that we are ‘all netted together’ across species and that all forms of life are kin, is a wholesome and enfranchising belief. But in the Descent it often seems to have congealed into the assertion that analogies between species debar social change.

The Descent is the work in which Darwin must face the further implications of his insistence on kinship between all organic life, and the place of ‘improvement’ in his argument. The foregrounding of the human forces these issues: male and female become man and woman – and these two are gathered into the title ‘Man’ . He is torn by the difficulty of descrying what is temporary and what eternal in the evolutionary process, what social and what physical in the relations of creatures to each other and in the human sexes too. His intelligence often drives him past the position that his argument can reach.

Darwin rejected Wallace’s belief that the human was a special case, distinguished from other creatures by the possession of a soul, yet he struggles with the question of how far male and female can translate directly into man and woman. Indeed, his daughter Henrietta, who acted as his much-valued commentator and critic while he was writing the Descent, teases him that ‘ you think an apology is wanting for writing abt[sic] anything so unimportant as the mind of man!’(Correspondence, 18, 25) She does not capitalise Man. She knows that for Darwin the human is not the measure of all things and she here pinpoints the difficulty he faced when he wrote a book that placed the human at the centre of his discussion.

References: page references in the text refer to the editions below

  • The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Volume 18, 1870, edited Frederick Burkhardt and James A. Secord (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
  • The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, second edition , 1879, introduction James Moore and Adrian Desmond (London: Penguin, 2004)
  • On the Origin of Species, A Facsimile of the first Edition, introduction Ernst Mayr (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964)

11 comments to Late Darwin and the Problem of the Human

  • Cannon Schmitt

    Response to “Late Darwin and the Problem of the Human”

    As with everything that issues from her pen or keyboard, Dame Gillian Beer’s meditation on “what happens when [Darwin] is writing about man and woman rather than simply male and female” disallows complacency. She begins where others tend to conclude–here, with Darwin’s apparently confident pronouncements on women’s inferiority to men. Rather than condemning his sexism and leaving it at that, or apologizing for his inability to be anything other than a creature of his own time and place and leaving it at that, she does the remarkable and asks how those pronouncements fit with the rest of the theory of evolution as he elaborated it.

    Of the several illuminations that result, I would like to focus on two. First, on Beer’s reading, the strain evident in Darwin’s attempt to write about humans as the animals we are derives in part from the awkwardness of restoring to centrality that which evolution by means of natural and sexual selection definitively removed from the position of centre or telos. This is the point she begins and ends with. The natural theologians had insisted not simply on divine design but on design around and for humans: seemingly useless attributes like the flamboyant tail feathers of male peacocks existed to please us. Darwin’s alternative explanation of why we find those feathers beautiful looks instead to community of descent:

    Everyone who admits the principle of evolution, and yet feels great difficulty in admitting that female mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish, could have acquired the high standard of taste which is implied by the beauty of the males, and which generally coincides with our own standard, should reflect that in each member of the vertebrate series the nerve-cells of the brain are the direct offshoots of those possessed by the common progenitor of the whole group. (Descent 2: 401)

    Thus the “expanded idea of family” Beer refers to in her fourth paragraph. But autobiography necessarily distorts family relations by elevating the autobiographer to special status, and in this sense The Descent of Man counts as a kind of autobiographical work. Little wonder those of us among the clan it treats who can read it find many of its characterizations off as well as off-putting. The anthropocentrism evident in gendered accounts of wasp jaws is paradoxically not only repeated but redoubled, intensified when brought to bear on humans themselves.

    The second of the claims I’d like to touch on comes near the end of Beer’s essay, when she notes: “Sexual selection as a process is poised between the ‘natural’ and the ‘artificial’–that is to say, it includes ‘choice’ and discrimination in the drive of desire between individuals and, as [Darwin] acknowledges, social assumptions and pressures exercise their power in the selection.” This seems to me at once quite right and capable of being pushed a bit further.

    To do so requires a detour away from late Darwin to the mid-Darwin of On the Origin of Species. “Natural” and “artificial” are of course the two kinds of selection discussed at length in that earlier book (sexual selection appears only briefly). Natural selection is formed in explicit analogy to artificial selection but also opposed to it. Even though natural is like artificial selection, Darwin repeatedly emphasizes the immense differences between the two. In a famous passage he writes: “It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up that which is good, silently and incessantly working, whenever and whatever opportunity offers, at the improvement of every organic being” (Origin 84).

    The bald anthropo- or perhaps more accurately theo-morphism came in for immediate criticism, and it was somewhat muted in the second and later editions of the Origin by the insertion of “metaphorically” before “be said.” But this problem of how to shadow forth agency in the absence of a conscious agent, bad enough in itself, is in addition a kind of screen for the (for us) more shocking implication, namely that the desires or efforts of the individual have no bearing on her or his evolutionary success. Under natural selection, nature proposes and disposes. Beer herself succinctly encapsulates the situation in Darwin’s Plots: “The individual is thus . . . vehicle and dead end” (38).

    To return to the late Darwin: the enlarged role given to sexual selection in the Descent thus reintroduces agency and the individual into a theory that seemed to have disposed of them. Moreover, sexual selection in this manifestation may not simply stand poised between natural and artificial but rather muddy the distinction altogether. To be sure, even in the Origin relations between natural and artificial selection take the shape of a kind of Möbius strip; the two graduate into one another in the case, for instance, of “unconscious selection.” In the Descent, sexual selection much more significantly destabilizes the natural/artificial distinction, and many of the book’s self-contradictory moments derive from Darwin’s inability to settle on one side of the slash or the other.

    The passage I quote above naturalizes and universalizes by locating the relative uniformity in the standard of taste among all vertebrates in common “nerve-cells.” The Descent’s overarching argumentative burden, however, depends on a variable, not uniform, “standard of taste,” and one in relation to which biological facts are more readily understood as result than cause: “The taste for the beautiful, at least as far as female beauty is concerned, is not of a special nature in the human mind; for it differs widely in the different races of man, as will hereafter be shewn, and is not quite the same even in the different nations of the same race” (Descent 1: 64).

    Such differing tastes, Darwin urges, provide us with the key to estimating “the value of the differences between the so-called races of man” (Descent 1: 3). Along with sex, it was “race” that nineteenth-century European life scientists viewed as the most evident and consequential kind of human biological difference. And just as with sexual difference, Darwin accounts for “racial” difference in such a way as to confound natural and artificial or, as Beer writes, “what [is] social and what physical in the relations of creatures to each other.” When sexual selection seems at odds with natural selection, as when men or women marry for wealth or beauty, it becomes aligned with the social and condemned as a departure from what ought to be. When it lines up with the (imagined) vector of natural selection, it is seen as natural. And when both kinds of selection seem to militate against what might otherwise be desirable, such as women and men achieving the “same standard” of intellect and energy, they are both momentarily abandoned for a Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics (“she would probably transmit these qualities to her daughters”), always circulating in Darwin’s texts and almost always papering over a moment of intransigent facts resisting what the theory or its author would have them mean.

    Beer’s penultimate paragraph concludes: “[Darwin’s] intelligence often drives him past the position that his argument can reach.” That’s probably right. But might there be critical purchase to be had in considering an alternative that privileges structure and pattern over individual characteristics: to wit, that the collision of different aspects of Darwin’s argument–natural and sexual selection–produce a set of incoherent or mutually exclusive possibilities that drive him past the position to which his intelligence has brought him? Beer can’t pose her question to Darwin, but I’m in the incredibly enviable position of being able to put mine to her.

    Beer, Gillian. Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in
    Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction
    . 1983. 2nd ed. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 2000.

    Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. 1871. 2 vols. in 1. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.

    Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. 1859. Cambridge and London: Harvard UP, 1964.

  • Darwin was concerned with the question of what gave form to living things. Gillian Beer is concerned with the question of what gave form to Darwin’s confusion about the materialization of differences between those living things known as men and women.

    Her answer is sex/gender — or, rather, the unavailability of this analytic to Darwin. Her analysis dovetails nicely with earlier feminist scholarship suggesting that Darwin’s account replayed Victorian middle-class ideas about gender hierarchy in the key of evolutionary theory (Coward 1983, Fedigan 1986, Haraway 1989, Browne 2002). Preserved in Darwin’s model, too, was what Carole Pateman (1988) has called “the sexual contract,” the natural male sex-right over women assumed in theories of the social contract, from Locke to Rousseau, which take women as the conjugal property of men and as conduits for male reproduction — as vectors for the reproduction of a patriarchy that is founded on the safeguarding of paternity (see Delaney 1986). Darwin, in Origin’s few comments on sexual selection, is explicit about the status of females as property; sexual selection depends “not on a struggle for existence, but on a struggle between the males for the possession of the females” (1859: 88). Human males live in the public sphere of natural and intrasexual selection while human females are cordoned off into a private sphere created by histories of male choice — an arrangement that leaves females as passive pawns in the game of evolution [1]. The title of Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s 1981 book, The Woman That Never Evolved, names the implication here [2].

    This was an implication about which Darwin worried, as Beer points out, and he suggested in The Descent of Man that, “It is, indeed, fortunate that the law of the equal transmission of characters to both sexes has commonly prevailed throughout the whole class of mammals; otherwise it is probable that man would have become as superior in mental endowment to woman, as the peacock is in ornamental plumage to the peahen” (1871, Vol. II: 328-329). Linda Marie Fedigan summarizes the logic at work: “traits are selected for in males and women evolve by clinging to the men’s ‘coat-tails’ (1986: 28). Women evolve, but only as a side effect of sex.

    What is revelatory about Gillian Beer’s analysis of Darwin’s model of sexual selection is her attention to the _form_ of his confusion. It is not only that the content of his thinking about women and men is inflected by Victorian common sense — and that he, like many of his contemporaries has an ambivalence about female choice (in, say, marriage [cf. Shanley 1989]) — but that the particular linguistic slippage between “male,” “men,” and “Man” in his writing actually does a huge share of the work of bewildering him. In mixing up what we would now call the “biological” and the “social,” the slippage deforms what Beer calls “the uninterrupted continuum between human experience and that of other life forms,” inviting in “a rush of social assumptions.”

    Beer also points out that Darwin was in fact ambivalent about the once-and-for-allness of male-female difference in humans. If Darwin’s argument about sexual selection is famously circular — assuming precisely those differences it purports to explain — Darwin, argues Beer, seems at some level to have known this. As Beer puts it, “He is torn by the difficulty of descrying what is temporary and what eternal in the evolutionary process.” This is a difficulty, I submit, in how “form” operates for Darwin in his attempt to track how life forms change over time. He knows that form is mutable, but he must freeze it analytically to make claims about its modification.

    A lovely phrase of Beer’s — “the ghosting presence of past life forms” — gives me my intuition here. The question for Darwin is one of how to think about the presence — and present — of form in evolution. The forms of secondary sex characteristics for him always work on the horizon of legibility. Richard Doyle has suggested that we might read Darwin not so much as vexed by sexual selection, but as in some sense captivated by the evanescence of form it suggests. Taking a close look at Darwin’s examination of ocelli, iridescent eye-like spots on the feathers of peacocks, Doyle writes that “Darwin’s intense and exquisite study of the mechanisms of sexual selection … continually focused on tactics for inducing the dissolution of boundaries, a sudden fluctuation of figure and ground” (2007: 79). That dissolution, of course, carries not only across “sexes,” but also across species, even, kingdoms, as witness bees and flowers. The unsteady relations between form and fluctuation haunt Darwin’s accounts of biological transformation.

    The elegant form of Beer’s argument, guiding us to see the form of Darwin’s double vision about sex and gender, itself opens up questions of how we in the early twenty-first century should read the form of Darwin’s plots (Beer 2009: xxiv), how we should read the Wittgensteinian “forms of life” — systems of speaking about and acting the world — that animate Darwin’s writing. What does it mean for us to discern “the ghosting presence” of past forms of life, past forms of sex and gender, through the lens of our own concepts? Beyond demonstrating that a dash of judiciously applied presentism can be empirically and analytically enlightening, I think Gillian Beer’s arresting analysis shows us that it means that we share with Darwin the puzzle of reading forms of life over and across time.


    [1] Insofar as there is any female choice in this model, choices are constrained; not only will females select a male, demonstrating that the sexual contract is really the heterosexual contract (see Wittig 1991), but they will also, as in Locke’s account of the subjection of women, enter into a relation of subordination. Social reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) gave this dynamic a social, rather than natural, reading. According to Rosalind Coward, Gilman “argues that the two elements of Darwin’s theory are distinct; natural selection develops race characteristics, sexual selection develops sexual characteristics. Sexual selection is the means by which reproduction, and therefore variation, occurs. But women, she argues, have been cut off from the real environment, the economic world of work, and have been forced to develop sexual characteristics alone. Because of the enforced dependency of women on men, man becomes the economic environment of women” (1983: 86).

    [2] Darwin had human females as looking more like juveniles than their male mates: “Throughout the animal kingdom, when the sexes differ from each other in external appearance, it is the male which, with rare exceptions, has been chiefly modified; for the female still remains more like the young of her own species” (1871, Vol. I: 271-272).


    Beer, Gillian
    2009 Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Browne, Janet
    2002 Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, Volume 2. London: Jonathan Cape.

    Coward, Rosalind
    1983 Patriarchal Precedents: Sexuality and Social Relations. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

    Darwin, Charles
    1859 On the Origin of Species, A Facsimile of the First Edition, Introduction Ernst Mayr. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964.

    Darwin, Charles
    1871 The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Photoreproduction of the 1871 edition published by J. Murray, London, Introduction by John Tyler Bonner and Robert M. May. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.

    Delaney, Carol
    1986 The Meaning of Paternity and the Virgin Birth Debate. Man 21:494-513.

    Doyle, Richard
    2007 The Transgenic Involution. In Signs of Life: Bio Art and Beyond. Eduardo Kac, ed. pp. 69-82. Cambridge: MIT Press.

    Fedigan, Linda Marie
    1986 The Changing Role of Women in Models of Human Evolution. Annual Review of Anthropology 15:25-66.

    Haraway, Donna
    1989 Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York: Routledge.

    Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer
    1981 The Woman That Never Evolved. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Pateman, Carole
    1988 The Sexual Contract. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Shanley, Mary Lyndon
    1989 Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England, 1850-1895. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Wittig, Monique
    1989 The Straight Mind. Boston: Beacon Press.

  • Ash Amin

    Dear Gillian,

    This is a superb short essay that covers an immense expanse in a lucid and perceptive way, leaving us keen to know more about one fundamental question: the mechanisms at work when males and females become men and women. If there is an equal transmission of characters to both sexes, how is it that Darwin allows himself to aver that ‘man has become unltimately superior to women’? The same kind of question can be asked of race and racism.

    Of course, over the last century, we have come to think that gender and racial inequality are culturally reproduced, or at best, the product of nature and nurture entangled. In my own work on race, disturbed by the ensurances of race, I have begun to ask if there is indeed a kind of aversive impulse or instinct among humans that becomes so deeply racially coded (and perhaps also gender-coded)in the course of history that it repeats as an inherited trait. In other words, racial hierarchy comes to repeated AS THOUGH it possessed genetic force – culture imprinted on chromosome by virtue of historical habit.

    This is a deeply disturbing thought, because it implies that the transfer of characters between the races and genders and forcings in any given societal time to rebalance the distortions of culture from sexism to Apartheid) will not be enough. It implies that an evolutionary knot that maintains inequality in rather oburate and hidden ways needs to be undone in ways that allow another instinct of receiving difference to come to the fore as a pre-cognitive spark to action, and repeatedly so. I hope, of course, that I am wrong in taking the discusssion down this perilous path, but if not, what would it take to unlock Bergsonian excess, Darwinian proliferation in ways that come to be understood by humanity as just that – necessary, inevitable, fine.

    Gillian, a thought on the dark ground between the mechanisms that ensure the equal transfer of characters between men and women (or the so-called races) and human struggle to combat inequality (and to insitutionalise the gains) would be much appreciated!

    Ash Amin
    28 June 2010

  • Vanessa Smith

    In this beautiful essay Gillian Beer shows us how the question of the human is repressed and then returned within Darwin’s ouevre. Darwin’s Beagle voyage gave him the opportunity to encounter the human self alienated by difference: subsequently he retreated to non-human subjects, opting frequently to advance his argument via examples from the simplest of life forms:
    In The Voyage of the Beagle encounters with human beings from other tribes and cultures became important and helped his thinking to thrive, but in the years up to and including the publication of the Origin and well beyond it, his main concerns and researches were with forms of life other than the human, including barnacles and plants.
    Then in the 1870’s he ‘brings the human to the foreground’, and, as Gillian demonstrates, language forces his hand, requiring him to state his position on gender; to discriminate between man and woman in order to reconcile man and Man.

    The essay can be productively read in conjunction with another of Gillian’s that describes Darwin’s tenuous resolution of a similar set of issues: the question of the human, the consolations of gender difference, the cultural particularities that inform human subjects’ relationships to the aesthetic. Focusing on a scene from Darwin’s Beagle voyage, that earlier essay may even disclose a moment in which the conundrum that provoked Darwin’s ‘diplomatic’ turn away from the question of the human was enacted.

    In ‘Four Bodies on the Beagle’ Gillian looks at a passage from a letter to his old schoolmate Charles Whitley, written on the Beagle, in which Darwin describes his ‘first sight of a Savage’:
    It was a naked Fuegian his long hair blowing about, his face besmeared with paint. There is in their countenances, an expression, which I believe to those who have not seen it must be inconceivably wild. Standing on a rock he uttered tones & made gesticulations than which, the crys of domestic animals are far more intelligible.
    Immediately after this, Darwin writes:
    When I return to England you must take me in hand with respect to the fine arts. I recollect there was a man called Raffaelle Sanctus. How delightful it will be once again to see in the FitzWilliam, Titian’s Venus; how much more delightful to go to some good concert or fine opera. These recollections will not do. (23)
    As Gillian notes, ‘Darwin communicates a sense of fascinated helplessness at finding himself unable to interpret the profound difference of the other man’, who returns his gaze, and whose difference therefore at the same time constitutes a mirror image. She suggests that for Darwin ‘the dismay of seeing his own male body figured in so dissimilar a guise, given back to him through observation, estranged, immediately produces […] a counter-image of the naked body. This time it is one from Western culture. And it is that of a woman’ (26). There are ambiguous consolations in this shift of focus from the confronting return gaze of the Fuegian to the averted gaze and displayed feminine nakedness of the Venus. Against the obvious comfort offered the male viewer by the display of a voluptuous female, we must factor in the compensatory effort of the task that Darwin sets himself. In order to feel fully at home with the image, and its established iconographies and implied hierarchies, work must be done. Darwin’s disconcerting encounter with ‘savage’ humanity reminds him that his own aesthetic development has lapsed, and requires taking in hand. In other words, he recognizes that he needs to work actively at reestablishing the distinction between his cultured self and the uncultured other that has been dissolved in the exchange of gazes.

    So too, in this new essay, Gillian alerts us to the ways in which struggles between new thoughts and old frameworks are registered in swerves of focus and eruptions in tone. In the Descent, looking at the woman question discomfits the older Darwin, and his ‘exasperation’ with ideas of gender equality in turn ‘attracts our attention, disconcertingly so’, continuing to provoke the kinds of questions we’d like to be able to ask face to face. Both essays demonstrate Gillian’s consummate gift for drawing out the tensions within formulations that seem ideologically transparent and accessible to hindsight; for exposing the human features of paradigm shift.

    Beer, Gillian, ‘Four Bodies on the Beagle: Touch, Sight and Writing in a Darwin Letter’, in Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter, Oxford: OUP, 1996

  • Sandra Herbert

    I thank Gillian Beer for her essay, and hope that in her comment she will expand on her point that Darwin’s difficulties “are exacerbated because he does not have a vocbulary that would allow him to discriminate between sex and gender.”

    While I admire many of Darwin’s argument in “Descent,” I have always preferred the early Darwin writing on the intersection of political and scientific matters. The early Darwin was the adent opponent of slavery. The later Darwin entertained eugenical ideas and what were then quite traditionalist views on the proper role of women in society. Darwin’s views on race in “Descent” are also often quite disconcerting.

    Fortunately knowing the circumstances in which Darwin was writing helps us to place his views in context. For example, I find it quite reassuring to know that Charles’s brother Erasmus was an effective advocate for the admission of women to university in the 1870s.

    I apologize for any typographical errors in my comment. My small traveling laptop doesn’t allow me to proofread very well.

  • David Amigoni

    What is ‘late’ about late Darwin?

    Gillian Beer’s essay is, as ever, a subtly stimulating reflection on the way in which Darwin’s late work, in The Descent of Man, displaced the human from the centre of nature. Thus, the view of the human as the one species, hierarchically at the pinnacle of God’s divine design and fashioned in his image, is displaced by Darwin’s ‘diplomatic’ refusal to discus the human in the Origin; a refusal which, as Gillian points out, binds the human into a new sense of oneness – oneness as a kinship of descent among an incessant division of branching life forms, originating from ‘one’ primordial being. Gillian’s focus on Darwin’s writings, his language, is a close encounter with the historical ways in which scientific thought, frameworks of philosophical speculation and historically exchanged social meanings produce new openings for exploration which complicate what seem to be ‘a wholesome and enfranchising belief.’ For Darwin’s argument about the oneness of kinship immerses him in new divisions and multiplicities as he addresses the mechanisms of sexual reproduction and selection that have shaped the human niche within nature’s one great kinship network: as Gillian observes in an important insight into the overlaying of categories, Darwin’s dealings with the division between male and female as a sexual division of function is complicated when he focuses on humans. For engagement with the human brings Darwin into contact with the additional, and socially and culturally freighted, division between men and women. As she notes in her observations about the place of ‘improvement’ in Darwin’s argument: ‘in the Descent… [the oneness represented by kinship] often seems to have congealed into the assertion that analogies between species debar social change.’ Always generous to Darwin’s sympathetic range, intellectual powers, and the blockages that his thought sought to overcome, Gillian’s argument critically interrogates gender as a factor in his contribution to the history of evolutionary thought. Her approach presents an important corrective to the reductive caricature that is inclined to be pulled off the peg as ‘social constructivism’.

    Did Darwin move beyond the blockages in thought that he inherited from his culture? To speculatively answer this I would like to explore an aspect of Gillian’s title: she refers to ‘late Darwin’. Now, in one sense, this is descriptive and refers to one of Darwin’s later works: the Descent was clearly written as Darwin entered into what would be the last complete decade of his life. However, even in this context, ‘late’ has become another freighted term in arts and humanities scholarship, and one might wonder about its purchase, if any, in the field of scientific writing. It was Adorno who first presented musicologists with the idea of ‘late Beethoven’, approaching finality though a burst of anguished artistic experimentation. The idea rolls out to include, for instance, ‘late’ Turner in the field of visual art, and of course the ‘late’ Shakespeare of The Tempest. The category of ‘late’ creativity and intellectual ferment brings, of course, its own framework of untested presumption that should be approached with care. But let’s assume, for a moment, that we can read a ‘late’ tendency through Darwin’s works: perhaps Darwin, as a writer of science, did have a ‘late’ period that we can trace from, say, The Descent of Man through to The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Actions of Worms (1881). In one sense, Darwin’s early life as geologist, speculative life scientist and ethnographer was immersed, as Gillian observes, in the materials that speak of finality: extinct life forms, ghosted vestiges from the past, all of which perhaps stimulate the thoughts that have come to be associated with ‘lateness’. So, what is distinctive about Darwin after 1870? To what extent did sexuality and death play a creatively troubling role in Darwin’s late thought? To what extent did these late works manifest openings that might liquefy ‘congealed’ thinking about gender? Adam Phillips’s Darwin’s Worms (Faber 1999) could be said to be a reading of Darwin’s late style, natural history informed by death and old age; as Philips suggests, The Formation of Vegetable Mould is obsessed by burial, yet it is also a counter-elegiac hymn to the secular afterlife. Worms could also be said, perhaps, to provide Darwin with a way out of the re-instated binaries, divisions and hierarchical relations between ‘men and women’ that his work on the human sexual economy seems to draw him back into. His last work is, notably, about a hermaphrodite; yet, hermaphrodites, for Darwin, would still fertilise through pairings in order to maximise the chance of reproductive success and improvement: ‘The two sexes are united in the same individual, but two individuals pair together.’ (Formation, p.19). The individual worm is thus without the sexual divisions of function that characterise humans; a culturally disabling division of function that draws Darwin back into one-dimensional thinking about ‘men and women’ and which perhaps prompt his thinking to ‘congeal’ in The Descent of Man. Worms are agents of a burial which is never final, but always being renewed: they are, moreover intelligent creatures, unifying sexual divisions in one individual, yet pairing to produce ‘improvement’. Science propels Darwin to this conclusion, of course: but it is conceivable that the ‘late’ phase of his life in which this thought takes shape played something of a role.

  • sambudha sen

    My first response to “Late Darwin and the Problem of the Human” is amazement at how much you’ve managed to put into a 2500 word essay. I am not a Darwin scholar , by any stretch of the imagination, but after reading your article, twice in quick succession , I began to feel like one. Such a feeling ,though , cannot, unfortunately, compensate for the fact that my knowledge of the texts that you discuss is extremely shaky. What I’ll do, therefore, is engage with one general theme that emerges from “Late Darwin” and that resonates with my own interests.

    First , your essay made me aware of a strong underlying feature in Darwin’s method : his insistence on inserting humans together with other animals within an equalising zoological discourse. What this method achieves is to insulate the subject of inquiry from the messy swirl of those human activities played out in the social domain . Thus, Darwin focuses most often on taxonomies, systems, male and female ( rather than man and woman) families ( in the zoological rather than in the social sense). We can recognise this privileging of structures over the actual playing out of events as typically “scientific”; and its strengths are obvious from the range and quality of the explanations that Darwin’s work has produced.

    But there are occasions when Darwin does have to make quick forays into social and cultural domains. It is on these occasions that we become aware just how much he is prepared to arrest the complicated internal dynamics of social existence, in the interests of retaining the stability of some structural argument that he is developing. For example , he does not hesitate to equate the flaunting of colour and song among birds and animals with the delight that humans take in beauty, in order to sustain one of the founding premises of his argument : that there is a continuity between the behaviour of animals and humans.
    The trouble with this analogy is of course that it ties down aesthetic pleasure to mating rituals and , in the process, cuts out the very wide range of other human activities across which aesthetic pleasure in fact unfolds. Is it a disinclination to deal with the range, complexity , and unpredictability that enters into human behaviour once we move from the taxonomical to the social, from the male to the man, that is responsible for the limitedness of Darwin’s judgements on women and they are capable of ? As you say, even Darwin can’t get away from the fact that, unlike animals and birds, humans take into account factors such as “social position and wealth” while choosing a sexual partner. But in order to get a better understanding of how these factors operate would Darwin be prepared to study Jane Austen’s simulations of human behaviour?

    The question I’m asking is this: Do you attribute Darwin’s inaccurate judgements on the relative abilities of men and women to his times – to his lack, as you put it, “ of a vocabulary that would allow him to discriminate between sex and gender” ? Or do his pronouncements on women flow from a method that will allow itself only limited access to the domain where women’s lives play themselves out as actual events? Like you , I’m in complete sympathy with Darwin’s move away from human exceptionalism , especially when we consider the atrocities we’ve perpetuated on each other and on nature under the flag of “Humanism” . But does Darwin’s story , as you’ve told it , also show the limits of the scientific method?

    Thanks very much for asking me to respond to this essay. It was an honour and a pleasure, and I learned a huge amount from it.

  • Alice Jenkins

    This essay, like so much of Gillian Beer’s work, is a masterclass in reading: it invites us into the textures of Darwin’s writing in a set of readings that balance scrupulous and detached observation with imaginative sympathy. Beyond its specifically Darwinian topic, the essay meditates on ways in which a writer’s accustomed set of linguistic tools can become inhibiting, limiting or warping when the focus of thought shifts to an object closer to the writer in time or kind. A particularly intriguing instance is Gillian’s discussion of Darwin irritatedly converting Mill’s descriptions ‘plodding’ and ‘long hammering at single thoughts’ into his own preferred formula, ‘energy’ and ‘perseverance’. The difference between the two sets of words is not just the product of the moral values they accord to male behaviour, but also derives from the patterns of their use in their respective contexts. Because, as Gillian points out, Darwin links ‘energy’ and ‘perseverance’ together several times in Descent, these words start to be transformed in this work into terminology, losing some of their flexibility and specificity in the process. The same is not true of ‘plodding’ or ‘hammering’ in Mill; these words are not used elsewhere in The Subjection of Women, and as a consequence their freshness is able to support their claim to accuracy.

    Like Sandra Herbert, I look forward to further discussion of Gillian’s point that Darwin lacked a vocabulary with which to discriminate between sex and gender. In passages about how traits can be transferred between the sexes in non-human creatures, Darwin uses ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ alongside ‘male’ and ‘female’, for example, when he describes ‘the female’ of one species of painted snipe as having ‘acquired an eminently masculine character’ (533). But he does not seem to share some of his contemporary non-scientific writers’ fascination with failures in the alignment of sex and gender in humans. (I am thinking particularly of highly-charged discussions of ‘masculine women’ and ‘feminine’ or ‘effeminate’ men in periodical literature of the 1860s.) Was it partly the sense of oxymoronic parody or unnaturalness which typically colours the idea of the fluidity of gender across sex boundaries in non-scientific writing of the period that made the distinction between human sex and gender problematic for Darwin’s purposes?

    Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, second edition , 1879, introduction James Moore and Adrian Desmond (London: Penguin, 2004)

  • Alexandra Lewis

    Thank you, Gillian, for the invitation to contribute to this discussion and for your thought-provoking and elegant essay.

    In addition to reiterating Vanessa’s appreciation of the way Gillian has drawn out nuanced historical tensions here, I would like to pose a question about the way the ‘rush of social assumptions’ gathering behind Darwin’s statements concerning ‘Man’ in Descent are continued – or might they be seen to be calibrated? – in that offshoot work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. It is striking that Darwin, in the chapter on ‘Surprise – Astonishment – Fear – Horror’, appears to approach an emotion central to the evolutionary process (fear, and the impulse to fight or flight) in universal terms, with emphasis placed on ‘individual’ and ‘person’, and observations regarding the physiological responses of frightened men and women used interchangeably. This is intriguing given Darwin’s emphasis on male courage, energy and perseverance in Descent. Notably, the earlier chapter in Expression in which Darwin moves away from explicit discussion of the expanded family of man and animal to consider the ‘Special Expressions of Man: Suffering and Weeping’ produces, in distinction, an explanation informed by socially conditioned ideas of men’s and women’s behavioural roles. Darwin demonstrates an awareness of the artificiality of gendered norms even as he reinforces them here: if weeping expresses physical pain in children more so than in adults, ‘especially of the male sex’, this ‘may be accounted for by its being thought weak and unmanly by men, both of civilized and barbarous races, to exhibit bodily pain by any outward sign’ (ed. Paul Ekman, OUP, 1998, p.156). A curious exception is offered which would appear to attest to the highly-developed sensitivity of so-called ‘savages’, and a further telling distinction is drawn between men of the Continent and Englishmen; ‘the insane’ present a different case again, where disproportionate weeping is said to occur (here Darwin cites Dr J. Crichton Browne) regardless of sex: that is, in the absence of (gendered) self-control.

    As Gillian beautifully illustrated in a recent public lecture on ‘Darwin and the Descent of Woman’ (Cambridge, 2 June 2010), the responses of a number of Darwin’s female correspondents and contemporary female poets such as Emily Pfeiffer (1827-1890) resonate with the questions we might ask him today, given the chance. There is, indeed, the troubling way in which the gender inscriptions that seem to inhere in Darwin’s theory of evolution prevent an otherwise ‘wholesome and enfranchising’ framework from revealing the possible extent of future social change. As Gillian observed, Pfeiffer’s powerful sonnets ‘To Nature’ show, too, how the image of ‘Mother Nature’ in a conventional nurturing role did not fit with the implications of Darwin’s theory: although ‘of old we loved to see / A nursing mother’, Pfeiffer exposes instead a ‘matricide’, a ‘Dread Force […] / Churning the Universe with mindless motion’ (from Sonnets, 1886).

    No such mindless motion in this forum – I look forward to reading further comments posted here and Gillian’s response.

  • Gillian Beer

    Several stimulating lines of enquiry emerge from the generous responses to ‘Late Darwin and the Problem of the Human’ and I shall go on thinking about them over some time.

    Questions arose about gender, about language and its inhibiting capacities, about form and structure as in themselves defining thought, about ‘lateness’ as an artistic category, about the degree to which prejudice has become bound into the evolutionary process itself (a dark and challenging thought). To give a little more context for what I’m up to: in the much longer version of the essay, mentioned by Alexandra Lewis, I show how a number of contemporaneous women writers such as Emily Pfeiffer, Constance Naden and Mathilde Blind engaged with the Descent and pursued its implications, sometimes in directions averse to Darwin’s own (and specifically through the brilliance of their contributions!). The present essay is part of work I’m doing on Darwin’s later writing and its relation to the early Notebooks, and on the significance of the arts in his creativity. I’m concerned with the troubles he has left for us, that at the time of the Origin don’t seem particularly to trouble him: extinction as inevitable, forgetfulness as fundamental. Emotion, beauty, consciousness gather theoretical importance for him in the 1870s, but they have also been thrilling topics for his imagination in the private Notebooks.

    Late Darwin, like the snake with its tail in its mouth, is often early Darwin. From about 1867 he turns back to topics that were broached with extraordinary intensity in the notebooks of the late 1830s: animal behaviour, the prevalence of consciousness in organic life beyond the human, what emotion is and what it means, the significance of gesture, expression and gait, the primal appetite for art across species, the relations between instinct and intent, the choice-making capacities, even the aesthetics, of humble life-forms such as worms. And he feels delight in thought and touch, sound and weather, worms and babies, and in the detail of sustained observation and the sinew of developed argument.

    ‘Consciousness is sensation no 2 with memory added to it…Evidence of consciousness, movements/?/ anterior to any direct sensation, in order to avoid it. – beetles feigning death on seeing object, – are Planariae conscious – [Planariae are non-parasitic flatworms]

    Consciousness bears same relation to time & memory (Barrett, 125)

    In working on Darwin it is hard not to become too fond of him, to seek to absolve him from the Victorian prejudices he shared. He is not all sweetness and light, nor does he especially love us. He shares his generation’s assumptions about racial hierarchy even while he persistently reminds himself when studying other life forms not to say higher or lower and even though he was a convinced monogenist, and anti-slavery. He is obdurate in his recognition that humankind is not exempt, or central, or necessary to the universe. But at the same time he is a man (and specifically gendered as such in his historical circumstances), speaking to other people. Language thus becomes the register of this fundamental human kinship, and a form of fundamental autobiography, though even here he warns himself in the Notebooks not to exaggerate its exclusivity.

    The distinction /as often said / of language in man is very great from all animals – but do not overrate – animals communicate to each other. Lonsdale’s story of Snails, Fox of cows, & many of insects – they likewise must understand each other’s expressions, sounds, and signal movements – some say dogs understand expression of man’s face. – How far they communicate not easy to know, -but this capability of understanding language is considerable. Thus carthorses and dogs – birds many cries, monkeys communicate much to each other.- ( Barrett, p.23-4)

    This alertness to the variety of communicative powers among the range of organic life might seem to open the way for him to find a language that would distinguish gender from sex, though in the event he doesn’t quite manage it. By this I mean that gender is the performance of sexual difference in the terms created by the particular culture and period inhabited.(Stefan Helmreich very helpfully gives a list of references to books on the questions of gender and sex that lie behind my argument here.) Equally, as was pointed out by Cannon Schmitt, Darwin recognises that there is no single standard or criterion of beauty among human cultures, and music that is pleasing to some is jarring to others. In the Descent he insists on the importance of dialects of bird-song and on the way in which song is learnt within the terms of local habits. That perception is an important corrective for his seeming assumption in the Descent of fixed differences between human sexes since it implies the possibility of change over time as well as from place to place. It implies the fluidity of culture, among human beings, as among birds.

    Cannon Schmitt observes that sexual selection ‘destabilises the natural/artificial distinction’. This might, as he suggests, produce collision between mutually exclusive possibilities, but it might also produce , as Stefan Helmreich proposes, ‘unsteady relations between form and fluctuation’ in biological transformation. And that might lead on not only to fresh creative possibilities but equally, or more, as Ash Amin reluctantly proposes, to ‘an evolutionary knot that maintains inequality in rather obdurate and hidden ways’. So we are confronted with the possibility that language, that ‘half art, half instinct’, as Darwin twice calls it in the Descent is so implicated in evolutionary process (as indeed he argues) that it cannot offer us an independent resource, indeed, traps us in repetition of ‘old frameworks’, escaped from by means of ‘swerves of focus and eruptions in tone’, as Vanessa Smith suggests. And Alice Jenkins wonders why Darwin seems so unconcerned with the issues of ‘mannish women’ and crossing of gender–roles that became prominent in the late nineteenth century: perhaps he was a bit early for the full eagerness of that debate, but, then, he must have come across it in his and Emma’s daily sessions of novel-reading: intriguing that he took it in his stride without pursuing its possible theoretical potential .

    Yet Darwin did manage to reach new ideas, ideas now fundamental to our experience, which is why they are worth studying in their ellipses and their difficulties as well as their successes. Sambudha Sen indeed puts the question in a different context: may it be that this is not a question predominantly of language but that Darwin, like other scientific writers, allows himself ‘only limited access to the domain where women’s lives play themselves out as actual events’. There is a paradox here, since Darwin was deeply immersed in family life, a devoted and appreciative husband, an observant father, a friend of distinguished women like Harriet Martineau. Moreover, his daughter Henrietta was his invited critic and editor while he was writing the Descent. Sandra Herbert mentions his brother Erasmus’s support for women’s higher education in the 1870s and Darwin himself was one of the first contributors to a fund for a biological laboratory for women students at Newnham and Girton at Cambridge in 1881. So in the practice of his life he was, perhaps unusually, open to the company of women and appreciative of their concerns, living his life as a scientist in the daily midst of a growing family. Was there something in the practice of contemporary science and social science that told against recognition of the value of such experience? In the Expression of the Emotions he cites without embarrassment his children’s doings alongside statistical and scientific writing. And in that next book the congruences between the human and other animals are explored with greater resilience and humour than he is able to sustain in the Descent. But it is the case that he has recourse in his evidence to a great number of anthropological writers of the period who describe, one may say ‘prescribe’, the cultural differences between diverse groups of human beings. Indeed, a problem for Darwin intellectually at the end of the 1860s is that he has been reading at large among ethnographers who have themselves been profoundly influenced by his theories, so that what appear to be separate strands of evidence are often in fact caught into an evidential loop.

    What most frees Darwin personally in his late writing, later than the Descent perhaps, as David Amigoni perceives, are the ways in which age and death have become part of his natural history, but, it’s also important to note, without driving out sex. In an essay I wrote many years ago on ‘The Death of the Sun: Solar Physics and Solar Myth’ (1989) I ended with a reading of the worms essay which emphasised Darwin’s respect for these constant and powerful unseen workers with their delicate tastes and their Saturnian survival, out of the sun’s rays. But in the ‘Autobiography’, in the same period, he expresses for the first time a recognition that there may be universal death without survival, cataclysmic death for all the inhabitants of some future time as the sun cools :

    the sun with all the planets will in time grow too cold for life, unless indeed some great body dashes into the sun and thus gives it fresh life. Believing as I do that man in the distant future will be a far more perfect creature than he now is, it is an intolerable thought that he and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long-continued slow progress. To those who fully admit the immortality of the human soul, the destruction of our world will not appear so dreadful.

    In that passage he stoically refuses the comforts of the ‘after-life’, holding to the full implications of his emphasis on benignity and ‘improvement’ in his conception of natural selection. ‘All sentient beings’ are still at one, even in this vision of extinction: that emphasis is the ground of his theory and his life. Perhaps that abiding emphasis on a horizontal map of life helps to explain his comparatively tepid concern with racial and gender human hierarchies. The discussion Darwin has generated again here has been anything but tepid and I thank all the participants for their learned and suggestive contributions.


    • Metaphysics, Materialism, and the Evolution of Mind: Early Writings of Charles Darwin, transcribed and annotated Paul H. Barrett (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980)
    • ‘The Death of the Sun: Solar Physics and Solar Myth’, in J. B. Bullen (ed.), The Sun is God: Painting, Literature and Mythology in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989)
    • The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters, edited Francis Darwin (New York: Dover Publications, 1958) p.65
  • I was invited to contribute to a forum on ‘Late Darwin and the Problem of the Human‘, but didn’t manage to formulate a response in time. Instead, I have finagled a villanelle from Gillian Beer’s phrases, which I find delicious and suggestive.