Darwin, sexist asshat

That same bozo who sent me the Hitler quote sent me another image in reply:


Fair enough. Darwin got a lot of things wrong. I'm actually going to be lecturing my intro biology students on where Darwin screwed up in a few weeks, focusing mainly on his bad genetics, but I'll toss that quote into the mix, too. To be perfectly fair, I'll also include the more complete quote below the fold…and no, nothing in the larger context excuses it.

The quote is from the Descent of Man, and not only is it a sexist comment, he throws in some casual racism, too.

Difference in the Mental Powers of the two Sexes.—With respect to differences of this nature between man and woman, it is probable that sexual selection has played a highly important part. I am aware that some writers doubt whether there is any such inherent difference; but this is at least probable from the analogy of the lower animals which present other secondary sexual characters. No one disputes that the bull differs in disposition from the cow, the wild-boar from the sow, the stallion from the mare, and, as is well known to the keepers of menageries, the males of the larger apes from the females. Woman seems to differ from man in mental disposition, chiefly in her greater tenderness and less selfishness; and this holds good even with savages, as shewn by a well-known passage in Mungo Park's Travels, and by statements made by many other travellers. Woman, owing to her maternal instincts, displays these qualities towards her infants in an eminent degree; therefore it is likely that she would often extend them towards her fellow-creatures. Man is the rival of other men; he delights in competition, and this leads to ambition which passes too easily into selfishness. These latter qualities seem to be his natural and unfortunate birthright. It is generally admitted that with woman the powers of intuition, of rapid perception, and perhaps of imitation, are more strongly marked than in man; but some, at least, of these faculties are characteristic of the lower races, and therefore of a past and lower state of civilisation.

The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man's attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands. If two lists were made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, painting, sculpture, music (inclusive both of composition and performance), history, science, and philosophy, with half-a-dozen names under each subject, the two lists would not bear comparison. We may also infer, from the law of the deviation from averages, so well illustrated by Mr. Galton, in his work on 'Hereditary Genius,' that if men are capable of a decided pre-eminence over women in many subjects, the average of mental power in man must be above that of woman.

Amongst the half-human progenitors of man, and amongst savages, there have been struggles between the males during many generations for the possession of the females. But mere bodily strength and size would do little for victory, unless associated with courage, perseverance, and determined energy. With social animals, the young males have to pass through many a contest before they win a female, and the older males have to retain their females by renewed battles. They have, also, in the case of mankind, to defend their females, as well as their young, from enemies of all kinds, and to hunt for their joint subsistence. But to avoid enemies or to attack them with success, to capture wild animals, and to fashion weapons, requires the aid of the higher mental faculties, namely, observation, reason, invention, or imagination. These various faculties will thus have been continually put to the test and selected during manhood; they will, moreover, have been strengthened by use during this same period of life. Consequently, in accordance with the principle often alluded to, we might expect that they would at least tend to be transmitted chiefly to the male offspring at the corresponding period of manhood.

Darwin was a man of his time, and he takes for granted the narrow Victorian view of gender roles, and also mistakes a cultural imposition for a biological disposition. That last paragraph is particularly interesting, though, for the way his theory of heredity was creeping in. Darwin subscribed to pangenesis, a Lamarckian way of thinking, so that practice of a trait during life, such as frequent exercise to build up physical strength, would actually be transmitted to your children -- and in particular, that male traits, identified as male because his culture defined them as male, would be specifically transmitted to male children.

He was wrong, you know.

It would actually be an educational and entertaining exercise to go through all of Darwin's books and pluck out the stuff he got totally wrong -- it would be a long effort, though, and as we see here, would be thoroughly misinterpreted by creationists. Darwin is not our prophet. He came up with some really good ideas, and some really bad ideas, and they've been winnowed by experiment and evidence over the last century and a half, with the bad ones getting mostly discarded (sadly, there are still some scientists who argue for the inferiority of women and non-white people) and the good ones being retained. The Descent of Man is not holy writ, and we now see it as an interesting historical document…but more current papers are much more relevant to modern scientific thinking about evolution.

I'll also point out that modern Christianity works the same way -- they've winnowed out most of the bad ideas about slavery and race and justice, for instance, from the Bible, although they also tend to pretend that the flaws weren't there in the first place, unlike scientists, who tend to readily repudiate errors, even when held by extremely eminent people. Religious believers also tend to be far slower at expunging fallacies than scientists -- I think you'll find more conservative Christians agreeing with the extended Darwin quote above than you will scientists.

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Of course Charles Darwin was wrong in many respects during his working years, but his main idea lives on uncontested. If he made those comments today, especially about females he would be derided, as he most certainly and rightly be. But he is as he is, a man who knocked the crap out of religion, and for that we are indebted.

By James Jordan (not verified) on 01 Oct 2014 #permalink

Love the way the daft and hard of thinking imagine that, if they can find fault with something Darwin said, the entire TOE is rendered false.

Presumably, they imagine that if they can find fault with something Einstein said, gravity would cease to be fact and nuclear weapons would become harmless.

It's almost as though they don't know how to do basic joined-up thinking.

By Rosa Rubicondior (not verified) on 01 Oct 2014 #permalink

He definitely seems to be mixing up genetics with culture, but I can see that the thing that most upsets you is that Darwin accepts that it is possible that "intelligence" (poorly defined as it is) is one of the characters that exhibits differently according to sex. Or race.
It seems to me he supports his position with facts, whereas your objection is based on modern philosophy.

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 01 Oct 2014 #permalink

It is not selection the cause that men occupies the top of mental realizations. The proof will came in the future, when the list will be half and half. The cause are natural laws that comes from beyond biological evolution. We can see at every natural system (from atoms to galaxies) that the tool of a system performing male functions works as opened system and the tool performing female function works as closed system. At human species, man inherited this tendency from inside to outside of opened systems, and woman inherireted the opposite tendency. So, man is more mental power at the external world while woman is mental power at the internal body, sexy, internal house, family, etc. How could Darwin forget the notable dualistic aspect of nature coming since the origins of the Universe? That the natural dualism determines that the opposite are equal about phenotyype, but different about tendency? Darwin wanted that biological systems like human beings could excape from those universal laws?! By the way, there are multiple causes and there are multiple solutions to be observed by men and women about this issue, and you can see it translating the article " A Diferença dos Sexos: Darwin Descreveu Certo o Poder Mental Superior Masculino Mas Errou na Causa". Google it.

By Louis Morelli (not verified) on 02 Oct 2014 #permalink

It seems to me he supports his position with facts, whereas your objection is based on modern philosophy.

Lolno. Darwin supported this position with very superficial observations and a few armchair speculations. If you have facts instead, bring them on!

We can see at every natural system (from atoms to galaxies) that the tool of a system performing male functions works as opened system and the tool performing female function works as closed system.

What is a male function, and what is a female function?

How could Darwin forget the notable dualistic aspect of nature coming since the origins of the Universe?

I'm sorry, there's no polite way to say it: you're making shit up. You assert that nature has a "dualistic aspect": evidence, or it didn't happen.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 02 Oct 2014 #permalink

If it's not superior intelligence, what is the reason? We're in the realm of Darwin, so tracking from the invention of sex a billion years ago forward to the late 19th century, why had men become eminent in every intellectual field? Blaming it on patriarchy does not make sense, unless you want to posit that evolution had made a mistake somewhere along the way. --bks

By Bradley K. Sherman (not verified) on 02 Oct 2014 #permalink

Mr. Sherman.... "Blaming it on patriarchy" DOES make sense if you realize that most science was restricted to men of means, and that before more modern times, women rarely controlled wealth, which by law was to be controlled by their fathers and then their husbands. Next comes to pernicious tendency to downplay the contributions of women. There have been numerous studies that show that simply replacing a masculine name on a paper with a feminine one, will cause it to be judged as lower quality and of lower importance. This is why so many women have used masculine pen names... and why the quip, "anonymous was a woman" is so apt. Other studies have shown that a woman must be, by objective measures, considerably more competent, to be considered merely equal to men... to be considered their superior takes very obvious superiority. Consider as demonstration of my assertion, that the number of women in major orchesctras went up dramatically when blind auditions were instituted. So... yes, patriarchy as the reason for fewer emiment men DOES make sense.

By Candice H. Bro… (not verified) on 03 Oct 2014 #permalink

Blaming it on patriarchy does not make sense

Lolwut? In Darwin's time, and even ten years after his death, most universities didn't even allow women to study, let alone to teach or to do research.

Things have obviously improved since then, but I still heard the story of a dean who probably retired just a few years ago and once said at the meeting of a hiring committee "let's see what the girl can do". The "girl" was the applicant for a job as full professor; he didn't take her seriously because she was a woman.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 07 Oct 2014 #permalink

Sam Harris recently got into trouble when someone asked him why there are more male than female atheists. The only answer is "I don't know". Or better yet, "Who cares?", or "That's a stupid question", and finally, How so you know that?"

But Darwin's good ideas were really good.