“The Descent of Man,” 150 years on

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Science  21 May 2021:
Vol. 372, Issue 6544, pp. 769
DOI: 10.1126/science.abj4606

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  • Racism, sexism, and the idolization of Darwin

    In the last months, a crucial event is taking place within the fields of evolutionary biology and biological anthropology. This is because in a chapter1 published in a book including several renowned scholars, and subsequently in this Science editorial2, Agustin Fuentes stated that Darwin's works, in particular the Descent3, included several ethnocentric, racist and sexist assertions. This is an unequivocal fact that everybody can confirm: the Descent is freely available. What is particularly revealing and crucial, even more than those two publications by Fuentes, is the very harsh reaction to them by numerous scholars. In particular, by several Western scientists, including very prominent ones, who often try to portray Fuentes as a radical and/or an outcast within the scientific community. This is a typical strategy used against any evolutionary biologist that puts in question the quasi-religious idolization of Darwin. Here I am providing a short commentary that provides not only a contextualization of Fuentes' publications but, more importantly, also of the attacks against it and the inaccurate and often quasi-religious narratives they are based on. In fact, those narratives confirm what Browne, who knows Darwin's works and their context more profoundly than almost nobody else, recognized in Darwin Voyaging4: "[In Victorian society] scientific ideas and scientific fame did not come automatically to people who worked hard and collected insects.. a love...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • RE: Fuentes' lack of negative capacity

    Agustin Fuentes, in his ‘celebration’ (21 May 2021) of the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Descent of Man, remarks that scientists like Darwin were often blinded by prejudice in analyzing the data right before their eyes. Fuentes himself performs a complementary prejudicial interpretation of Darwin’s accomplishments, reading the Descent as if it were produced in our own awakened intellectual environment. He consequently accuses Darwin of blatant racism, while ignoring Darwin’s anti-slavery declarations in the Voyage of the Beagle and his “abomination” of that institution in his Autobiography. Nor does Fuentes recognize Darwin’s admiration for the courage of the Patagonian Indians as opposed to the timidity of the Spanish gauchos, who were trying to exterminate them. Fuentes charges Darwin with attributing “agency” to males while assigning “passivity” to females in the evolutionary process, a charge that signals his own blindness to the fundamental role for female choice in Darwinian sexual selection. Fuentes’s ‘celebration’ of the Descent is a moral indictment of Darwin for failure to be wiser than his times would allow. A good historian cultivates what might be called historical negative capacity, that is, the ability imaginatively to leave one’s own comfortable time and come to inhabit that of one’s subject. Instead, Fuentes highlights what to our eyes might seem like racist or sexist remarks, while remaining oblivious to the mitigating texts standing right before his...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • RE: Whiten et al.'s response to Fuentes on Descent of Man's 150th

    Whiten et al. described Fuentes’ editorial as a “distorting treatment” of Darwin’s writing in Descent of Man. As counterpoint to Fuentes’ points about Darwin’s racism and sexism, Whiten et al. wrote that, “On sexism, Darwin suggested that education of “reason and imagination” would erase mental sex differences (1, p. 329).”

    From that sentence, a reader might reason that Darwin wrote about how educating women could make them equal to men in mental powers. And, a reader might imagine that Darwin advocated for such a thing. Darwin did neither in the quoted passage which says,

    “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. The whole body of women, however, could not be thus raised, unless during many generations the women who excelled in the above robust virtues were married, and produced offspring in larger numbers than other women. As before remarked with respect to bodily strength, although men do not now fight for the sake of obtaining wives, and this form of selection has passed away, yet they generally have to undergo, during manhood, 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 bet...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • RE: "The Descent of Man", 150 years on

    “The Descent of Man” 150 years on

    In this 150th anniversary year of Darwin’s “The Descent of Man” (1), Science published one article celebrating the progress in human evolutionary science built on Darwin’s foundations (2), along with a second, Editorial article, three quarters of which instead pilloried Darwin for his “racist and sexist view of humanity” (3). Fuentes argues that students should be “taught Darwin as [a] man with injurious and unfounded prejudices that warped his view of data and experience”. We fear that Fuentes’ vituperative exposition will encourage a spectrum of anti-evolution voices and damage prospects for an expanded, more gender and ethnically diverse new generation of evolutionary scientists.
    What Darwin wrote was of course shaped by Victorian realities and perspectives on sex and racial differences, some still extant today, but this is not a new revelation [4]. Rather than calmly noting these influences, Fuentes repeatedly puts Darwin in the dock for the Victorian sexist and racist norms within which he presented his explosive thesis that humanity evolved. Fuentes incorrectly suggests that Darwin justified genocide. Darwin was frequently and notably more modern in his thinking than most Victorians. In The Descent he demolished the slavery-justifying view of different races as separate species, so inspiring the anti-racist perspectives of later anthropologists like Boaz (5). On sexism, Darwin suggested that education of “reason and ima...

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    Competing Interests: None declared.
  • RE: “The Descent of Man,” 150 years on

    Agustín Fuentes skillfully uses a 19th century scientific tome to call attention to the moral issues embedded within modern science. The morally dubious scientist has been an object of public apprehension for centuries, from Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, through Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, and Michael Crichton’s John Hammond (who, as an entrepreneur, can ominously just purchase the scientists he needs for his theme park). And if the 20th century showed anything at all about science, it showed that science is not, and can never be, amoral. It takes place along an axis of accurate/inaccurate, but as a human activity, it also takes place along an axis of good/evil.
    Science once had the luxury of pretending to stand outside of politics and morality, but history also shows us that it never really did. What we are left with, then, is a modern science of human origins and diversity that explicitly rejects older values like racism, sexism, and colonialism, and more importantly, trains its practitioners to recognize and reject those values as well. Moreover, discussing the ideas that are toxic in Darwin’s work in addition to those that are prescient and revolutionary helps to make Darwin seem more real, and his followers seem less cult-like.

    Competing Interests: None declared.

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