Reaction to Darwin's Descent

When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, he largely avoided the issue of human evolution. The implication that our species had evolved was there, and many were concerned with our connection to "lower" animals, but Darwin did not provide his opponents any extra ammunition in this area. In 1871, however, Darwin's two-volume The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex was printed, and this was a somewhat belated contribution to debates already stirred by T.H. Huxley's 1863 pamphlet Evidences as to Man's Place in Nature and Charles Lyell's Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man published the same year.

How was Descent received? Much time is spent over reactions to On the Origin of Species, yet I have rarely seen reactions to Darwin's later work given much attention. With the help of Google Books, I skimmed up a few reviews to get at least some indication of how the book was received.

As was the case with many reviews I have seen from the time, the anonymous reviewer gets the complementary portion of the review out of the way first. They write;

In his earlier writings a certain reticence veiled, though it did not hide, his ultimate conclusions as to the origin of our own species ; but now all possibility of misunderstanding or of a repetition of former disclaimers on the part of any disciple is at an end, and the entire and naked truth as to the logical consequences of Darwinism is displayed with a frankness which we had a right to expect from the distinguished author. What was but obscurely hinted in the ' Origin of Species ' is here fully and fairly stated in all its bearings and without disguise. Mr. Darwin has, in fact, ' crowned the edifice,' and the long looked for and anxiously awaited detailed statement of his views as to the human race is now unreservedly put before us.

This was more an appreciation of clarity on the subject of human origins than praise for the overall contents of the book, however, as the reviewer then stated "We rise from the careful perusal of this book with mingled feelings of admiration and disappointment." Darwin had amassed a great body of facts and had become a better writer, yet the reviewer was not content to judge Descent alone. Instead they decided to review the sum total of Darwin's work.

If Darwin changed his views drastically then there would be little reason to trust the new ideas put forward in Descent. According to this reviewer, Darwin had all but abandoned natural selection, and his "over-hasty" conclusions had spread stirred distrust of his work. This pulled the rug out from under the idea that our species had evolved, for if Darwin could not be trusted in terms of the accuracy of his own theories, then this more controversial assertion also came into doubt. Sexual selection, particularly the role of female choice in selection, was also anathema to the reviewer.

Darwin's case may have superficially sounded good, but the reviewer did not find it convincing enough to connect humans with "brutes." Language, "moral sense," and the perceived superiority of Europeans over everyone else all contributed the reviewer's rejection of Darwin's ideas, and such reactions make it no wonder that Darwin did not discuss the evolution of humans in On the Origin of Species. In all, the reviewer thought that "Mr. Darwin's power of reasoning seems to be in an inverse ratio to his power of observation."

This review starts off with a more bombastic style, "The pleasure of reading Mr. Darwin's long-promised volumes, which has been keenly anticipated, is at length gratified. Both the subject and the man exercise a strange fascination upon the public mind." The question of human origins made Darwin's latest work all the more fascinating, yet the reviewer notes that is is sexual selection that was the more important idea. Human origins might be more controversial, but given the time and effort devoted to sexual selection, it should have been the one of greater interest.

Still, this reviewer (as well as the author of the Quarterly Review article) was not keen on Darwin's perceived "dogmatism" that humans had evolved. The reviewer did not doubt that humans had evolved from some "lower" ape form, but Darwin's strong assertion on this point was uncomfortable. (The reviewer's sentiments are similar to those of people today who say they do not doubt that evolution is a reality, yet complain that scientists are being too dogmatic when they say as much!)

Cobbe's review kicks off in a resentful tone;

It is a singular fact that whenever we find out how anything is done, our first conclusion seems to be that God did not do it. No matter how wonderful, how beautiful, how infinitely complex and delicate has been the machinery which has worked, perhaps for centuries, perhaps for millions of ages, to bring about some beneficent result -- if we can but catch a glimpse of the wheels, its divine character disappears. The machinery did it all. It would be altogether superfluous to look further.

Yet Cobbe was not setting things up to attack the entire body of Darwin's work entirely. It was not derogatory to think that we sprung from brutes. It was more demeaning to think that everything had been made just as it is 6000 years ago, and Cobbe wrote "But that, beyond all these prejudices, there should lurk in any free mind a dislike to Darwinism on religious grounds, is wholly beyond my comprehension."

What Cobbe found objectionable, however, was that Darwin's work intruded onto religious grounds by attempting to explain the development of "Moral Sense." If moral sensibility evolved through instinct and sociality, then there was no reason to respect a Higher Authority and obey the commands of that deity. If the moral code was absolute and handed down to us, then we could not rightly object to it, but if we constructed it ourselves, Cobbe feared, we could then decide to do away with it and plunge into chaos.

The author of this review felt let down by Descent. They took their time, reading it carefully, and while it was a book "worthy of the author" it did not provide the strong evidence for human evolution that they expected. They were convinced Darwin was correct on all the major points, yet the origin of humans was still "misty and complicated." Putting their words into the mouths of hypothetical naturalists responding to Darwin, the reviewer wrote, "You are right as to your theory of man's origin ; he undoubtedly has come from the monkey class, but we cannot accept your transition line as perfect, and we somewhat regret that you have drawn it so far at present."

This review reads like an extended version of the British Quarterly Review article. I would not be surprised if it were written by the same author.

This review starts off with a brief statement of the controversy stirred by the book;

Since the publication of the ' Origin of Species ' in 1859, no book of science has excited a keener interest than Mr. Darwin's new work on the ' Descent of Man.' In the drawing- room it is competing with the last new novel, and in the study it is troubling alike the man of science, the moralist, and the theologian. On every side it is raising a storm of mingled wrath, wonder, and admiration.

Like Frances Power Cobbe, however, this anonymous author was concerned by the philosophical and religious implications of Darwin's work. If we believe that we are only animals, will we not start acting like animals? That Darwin was a keen observer could not be denied, but where this trait was admired his "logical power" and soundness of reasoning were attacked.

Evolution of form could be regarded as true, but evolution of mind and morality was something more sacred, a refuge that evolution was not allowed to encroach upon lest humans realize their savage ancestry. The author ends with a jab at Darwin for trying to explain intellect with evolution, "...man's intellect and moral sense are now, as they ever were, inscrutable from the point of view offered by natural history ; and only to be comprehended from far higher considerations, to which, as a mere naturalist, Mr. Darwin has not attained."

This review did not appear to be overly positive or negative. It merely stated the contents of a few chapters and left some questions about the origins of belief and language up for discussion.

The author of this review starts with the proposition that evolution by natural selection is false to begin with. In their view, evolution by natural selection depends on "the theory of progress" that had already been refuted in that magazine in another context, and therefore anything Darwin said became automatically questionable. Humans could never have been savages, the review asserted, and therefore evolution from brute to civilized human could never have happened. The reviewer was therefore not "a little surprised that even a professed scientist [such as Darwin] could put forth such a mass of unwarranted inductions and unfounded conjectures as science."

This is not a full collection of reviews by any means, but a particular trend is prevalent. Whether the reviewers accepted evolution by natural selection or not was based upon their prior experience with Darwin's work. For some, the morphological evolution of humans could be accepted in principle, even if the transition forms linking humans and apes were missing. What was far more controversial (and distasteful to nearly every reviewer) was Darwin's efforts to get at the evolution of intelligence, language, and intellect. The physical similarities between humans and apes were easy enough to see, but if our most treasured traits had really evolved and not been gifted to us, then what reason would there be to keep acting "civilized"?

Such fears of chaos and disorder have not come to pass, but the targets of the arguments are important to recognize. Human evolution, in Darwin's time, was more controversial in terms of language and intellect rather than morphology. When we think of "human evolution" today numerous fossil hominids most readily come to mind, yet none of these were known in Darwin's time save for the Neanderthal (which was the center of much argument and thought by Huxley to be within the variation of our own species).

Even if such fossils existed, though, Darwin had frightened and frustrated critics by daring to explain how our minds evolved. From my experience, this holds true even today. I have encountered those who can accept our ape ancestry, yet religious belief prevents them from fully accepting the fact that our minds evolved as well as our bodies. God must have intervened somewhere, and therefore evolutionary interpretations are seen as encroaching on the last great refuge of divine intervention in our development.

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The most interesting aspect of the parts you've quoted is how rational they seem. That is, the reviewers seem to have genuinely read the book, thought about it, considered pros and cons, and reached a conclusion that was at least partly based on the evidence Darwin presented and the arguments he made. At least as I'm reading your presentation, the reviewers weren't rejecting or accepting the conclusions from a kneejerk reaction, or a preconception. I wonder how that would compare to reviewers of a similar book in the popular press today.

Thanks for this good article.

Very interesting read. It's somehow funny, but the arguments presented in this reviews just sound so much like the ones I hear in discussions with religious people*.

Especially the part that some things just aren't meant to be known seems to be very widespread in my experiences.

* Religious in a European sense, meaning accepting Evolution but still insisting on god somewhere.

By student_b (not verified) on 15 Oct 2008 #permalink

interesting. i happen to have purchased a copy of the "edinburgh review 1839" a few weeks ago. one of the articles from july 1839 is a review of the "Narratives of the Voyages of H.M.S. Adventure and Beagle; detailing the various Incidents which occurred during their Examination of the Sourther Shores of South American and during the Beagle's Circumnavigation of the Globe." by Captains King and Fitzroy, and Charles Darwin, Naturalist.

if you would like, i can scan and forward to you. it gave me shivers when i saw it as i was browsing in the bookstore. lots of other good stuff in it as well, but that article clinched it for me.