Darwin on human evolution

 150 years ago in June the famous confrontation over evolution took place between Bishop Wilberforce and TH Huxley. We begin a three-part series where we look at Darwin’s theory of human evolution and the reaction of Marx and Engels to it.

 On the Origin of Species (1859) was, arguably, the most shattering book of the 19th century, and Darwin’s most famous book. It was not, of course, his only book, nor was it the one in which he dealt with the evolution of the human species, even though it sparked off the “Man’s place in nature” debate. In fact, it took Darwin just over 11 years to publish his first book on the human species, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Yet it did not have the same social impact as The Origin, and it is unlikely that the same celebratory hoopla will accompany its 150th anniversary in 2021.

 Unlike The Origin, there is no evidence that either Marx or Engels bought a copy or even read The Descent, as there are no references to it in their collected works. However, the fact that Engels continued to discuss Darwin and Darwinian literature, especially in the context of German socialism, most importantly in Anti-Dühring (1878), and wrote the uncompleted The Role of Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man in 1876 (he broke off the work in order to write Anti-Dühring, which makes extensive references to Darwin), shows that he kept up an interest in at least some of Darwin’s later writings.

Darwin on Human Descent
 The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex was published on the 24 February 1871, in two large volumes, at around 700 pages in length, and selling at 24 shillings (The Origin cost 15 shillings). The first print run was of 2,500 copies (compared to 1,250 for The Origin), increasing to 4,500 by the end of March, and 7,500 by the end of the year.

 The Descent was the first of Darwin’s works to deal with the human species, and was followed in 1872 by The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. Originally, Darwin had planned to discuss emotions in The Descent, but, as with much of his work, the material on it just piled up and required a separate volume. The only other published work dealing with humans was A Biographical Sketch of an Infant. This was published in Mind, the first psychology journal, and was based on observations of his first child, his son William (affectionately called Doddy) carried out 37 years earlier.

 This latter fact shows that Darwin had from the beginning included human beings in the scheme for his big book on Natural Selection (The Origin was only an abstract of this proposed big book) and it would not be something he needed to think anew for The Descent. In 1839 he had written:

 “Looking at Man, as a Naturalist would any other Mammiferous animal, it may be concluded that he has parental, conjugal and social instincts, and perhaps others. The history of every race of man shows this, if we judge him by his habits, as another animal. These instincts consist of a feeling of love (& sympathy) or benevolence to the object in question. Without regarding their origin, we see in other animals they consist in such active sympathy that the individual forgets itself & aids & defends & acts for others at his own expense.” (cited in White and Griffin Darwin: A Life in Science, 1995, p.248)

Publish and Be Damned!
 The application of natural selection to the human species would be the ynchpin in the argument against critics, and it is likely that, as with other criticisms he rehearsed before the publication of The Origin, he would be aware that any failure to meet his critics would be fatal to the future of the concept of natural selection as a naturalistic explanation. So rather than being a late issue in the debate, Darwin saw it as being a necessary foundation from the very beginning of his studies.

 Nevertheless, Darwin was famously reluctant to include the human species in The Origin. Even in 1857 (22 December), he wrote to Alfred Russel Wallace about his reluctance to write about human evolution:

 “You ask whether I shall discuss Man; I think I shall avoid the whole subject, as so surrounded with prejudices, though I fully admit that it is the highest and most interesting problem for the naturalist.”

 In The Origin, he famously wrote that the application of natural selection to human kind would be possible only in the far future:

 “In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researchers…. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”
(Darwin On the Origin of Species, 1859; Penguin edition, 1968, p. 458)

 But although he didn’t discuss the human species, everybody knew he did. His readers were from the very beginning eager to jump the species gap. It was the human implications of natural selection that they were keen to discuss. Whilst it took Darwin until 1871, by which time the heat of the controversy had cooled somewhat, to publish his views on human evolution in the two volume The Descent, others were not so reticent.

 Unwilling or unable to defend his position, or the all too obvious implications of it, in the bear-pit of public debate, Darwin left it to his bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley, to defend the theory from religious onslaught. Barely six months after the publication of The Origin, the famous British Association debate between Huxley and Bishop Samuel (Soapy Sam) Willberforce took place in Oxford on 30 June, 1860. It was here that Huxley brilliantly replied to Willberforce’s snide query as to whether Huxley was descended from an ape on his father’s side or his mother’s side, by retorting that he would rather have an ape for a grandfather than a man who misused his gifts to obscure scientific discussion by rhetoric and religious prejudice.

 By the time Darwin came to publish The Descent, a number of others had already dealt with the issue of human origins: Huxley, Haeckel, Lubbock, Galton, Wallace, Tyndall, and Bagehot. But the Master had not spoken and the public were keen for him to make his pronouncements and settle the matter. Darwin dreaded this expectation. It is not improbable to think that he was glad that others has spoken first (and perhaps too hastily and without adequate evidence), but at least they had taken the first mad hail of flak. By now, some of the heat had been taken out of the battle, and there might be less anger directed his way. However, he knew he was going to be on the receiving end of some fury. As he wrote in a letter to St George Mivart, “Whenever I publish my book I can see that I shall meet with universal disapprobation, if not execution.”

 And at Christmas 1870 he told  Batholemew Sullivan that The Descent “would disgust you & many others.” But after 11 years he was ready to show the world his views on the human species. However, even the political climate seemed against him. Radicals and agitators were causing problems and Darwin feared he might be depicted as a black-caped anarchist.

 Darwin’s fear of all hell breaking loose on him was not confirmed. To his relieved surprise, the reviews were muted. It seemed that the other Darwinians had successfully shifted the reading public towards acceptance of the evolution of the human species.

  What he included in The Descent was to some degree conditioned by what his supporters had written earlier. In particular, unlike Huxley, who had dealt only with human physiological evolution, Darwin wanted to discuss the origins of some of the mental and moral faculties of humans in terms of natural selection. This was necessary as a riposte to what Wallace, especially, had said in his articles of 1864 and 1870. Wallace had come to the conclusion that whilst natural selection could account for human bodily development, it could not do so for human mental development and the brain. To explain human mental development, Wallace resorted to the idea that humans were endowed with mind by an unseen spiritual power. Such a position was anathema to Darwin and he had written to Wallace saying that he feared that he might have murdered their child (that is, natural selection). It was, therefore, essential for Darwin to show that natural selection could account for human intellectual and moral features, without the resort to some ineffable “unseen spirit.”

 Wallace did in fact have a good enough reason to believe that the human mind had raised humans above all other animals, ensuring that they were not subject to the Malthusian hell that would later frighten and disgust Huxley in his lectures on Evolution and Ethics (1893). For Wallace it was the human ability to create objects that would compensate for any natural weaknesses in dealing with the struggle for existence. In some respects, this difference is similar to that recognised by Marx and Engels, but they dealt with it materialistically rather than by an idealistic unseen spirit. (while Wallace became a believer in spiritualism).


Next month: Marx’s criticism of the ideology of “Darwinism”.

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