on 5 March 2004
Aside from the fascinating (and mostly accurate) accounts of natural and sexual selection, confirmed decades later by new discoveries in the fossil record and the advent of DNA, this volume presents a fascinating letter from Darwin to Wallace confirming what a superficial examination of species makes apparent: that Darwin was well aware that 'blending' inheritance couldn't be right, and that hereditary traits must be passed on by some particulate process. This is obvious when we realise that our parents are male and female, but we are not born intermediate hermaphrodites. In this sense, and in so many others, Darwin was well ahead of his time.
It is naive, as Dawkins points out in his introduction, to consider the views of this Victorian gentleman (politically conservative, scientifically radical) through post-Nazi hindsight. Contrary to popular belief, Darwinism does not excuse mass extermination in pursuit of 'perfection'; indeed, lengthy passages of this book are given over to emphasising that 'savage' races (an uncontroversial label at the time, whose meaning has since drifted) are not separate species or sub-human. Darwin's limited recommendations for improving ourselves must be considered with this qualification; let us not forget that at the time such views were entirely acceptable.
Darwin accounts for racial differences through sexual selection: superficial but diverse surface differences masking underlyingly highly similar organisms. Skip forward 130 years, and Dawkins's introduction also reminds us that DNA has re-affirmed this and led many scientists to advocate the abandonment of 'race' as a biological concept; through humanity passing through what Dawkins calls an "evolutionary bottleneck" in the last few thousand years, there is more genetic difference between any two groups of chimpanzees than there is between any of the human 'races'.
A great book, which can be dipped into through the highly-entertaining index. Darwin's knowledge of natural history was phenomenal; here we can read at length and leisure the amazing range of creatures' adaptive behaviours, with a plausible explanation of how they share a common ancestry.
Wonderful, in each sense of the word.
on 21 May 2003
A seminal work, such as this, deserves to be read as it represents original, source material for ideas that rocked the world. Unfortunately Darwin is often criticised by people who may never have accessed his original work but take a political and chronologically privileged dislike to how this important source material may, or may not, have been subsequently interpreted. I refer of course to the above review.
Such works as this need to be read with an appreciation of the context in which they were written i.e. a long time ago and within an entirely different world view. Cheap, agenda-ridden, pseudo-intellectual critisism made with the benefit of hindsight and taking a twenty-first century perspective will hopefully not dissuade people from accessing fantastic source material such as this and making their own minds up. Read it, and make your own mind up (before somebody else does it for you).
on 14 April 2003
This book is brilliant. However, you must read it in it's own time. Darwin wrote this at a time when people saw humans as being at the top of the ladder that was evolution. This was also a time when Europeans thought themselves to be superior to the rest of the world. This seemed a natural conclusions since they were more advanced, richer and had conquered almost the whole world.
This book is beutifull. Darwin had obviously found mass condemnation from The Origin Of Species,. but also mass acceptance by many, especially from the scientific community. This book is written by a true scientist, who backs up his arguments with as much evidence as possible, but without going overboard. His target audience is not the ignorant who refuse to accept evolution regardless of the available evidence. When read in context, and freed from the fear of mass condemnation which haunted Darwin throughout The Origin Of Species we are given a chance to really see Darwin's genius. When reading this I got the impression that Darwin, freed from the narrow minded ideas of his own time, and given a slight push, could have taken the theory of evolution and advanced it to it's modern state.
It is true that Darwin's theory has been twisted as a justification of the holocaust, and other racial crimes. However, it must be pointed out that Evolution is not alone, many theories can be twisted to justify evil. Also, there is another way of looking at the ladder theory of evolution, which is the way in which the British empire took it. The British helped out other peoples throughout the world, and the plan at least was to stand them up on their own two feet.
There is a very interesting point in thie edition. Karl Marx loved the idea of survival of the fittest. He interpreted man as a being which always advanced to the next level. He therefore concluded that since Capitalism would collapse, something he spent his life writing about, that man would implement the better system, ie Communism. However, Darwin comments that man does not instinctivly advance to the next level, commenting that many "savages" don't advance. Also, neither did the Romans, who were quite content to continue as they were, disproving Marx's supposition.
This is an excellant book, which must be read in it's time, not with a modern mind, or with retrospective knowledge of the holocaust.
(This review relates to the Penguin Classics Edition)
Gosh, this is a long book.
There are three sections. Sections I and III look at the evidence for the development of humans from more primitive creatures and sexual selection in humans. Section II (about half the book) is devoted to sexual selection in everything from insects to mammals.
So is it worth reading? In their introduction, Adrian Desmond and James Moore suggest that it forms the second volume of a trilogy (with On the Origin of Species and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals) and that you really need to read all three to understand Darwinism as Darwin saw it. Part of this is to do with Darwin's two big ideas: natural selection and sexual selection. The other part is about the interrelationship of Darwin's science with the worldview of a Victorian country gentleman and the politics of the day; not least the politics of race, which is explored more thoroughly in Desmond and Moore's recent Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human Origins.
If you're serious about Darwin and have read "On the Origin of Species", I would recommend tackling this, although you might be forgiven for not ploughing through the whole of Section II. As other reviewers have mentioned, Darwin's language, his views on race and gender and his ideas on the "improvement" of the human race can make uncomfortable reading in the 21st century.
In addition to the text and original black and white illustrations, there is an excellent introduction, a comprehensive index and the occasional foreign language quotations are given in both the original and an English translation.
on 11 September 2013
Charles Darwin published this book 12 years after 'The Origin of Species', his very controversial volume that had introduced his idea of evolution by natural selection to the public, on which Darwin had worked on for 20 years before he dared publish it.
By the time he got round to writing this follow up `The Descent of Man', everyone who was going to be shocked or alienated by his theories already had been shocked or alienated and Darwin now had less to lose. Hence he could write less cautiously and produce a livelier read than what I have read of the Origin of Species.
Darwin's brilliance, hard work and love for and knowledge of the natural world shine out from the abundance of interesting and detailed examples he uses to support his arguments.
However, publisher please note, a modern zoologist should have annotated when any of these examples has been qualified by later research or the scientific name of a species has changed since Darwin's day.
In the first part of the book Darwin says plainly what he could only imply in his earlier evolution book, about the origins of "Man" i.e. us, Homo Sapiens. [You can't expect a Nineteenth Century writer to have the recent modern politically correct inhibitions about using the word 'Man' to mean 'Humanity Male and Female'. I use "Man" in Darwin's sense below only for brevity.]
Likewise probably no modern author would get way with Darwin's politically incorrect `thought experiment' in this book, even if there was an element of truth in it at the time, as to whether natural selection would favour the survival of wild and improvident Irish `Celts' or sober Scottish `Teutons'. (His question was whether the Irish, who were presumed to yield to their impulses and marry and have children regardless of whether they could afford to look after them, would in the long term increase more or less than the more responsible Scots, who were presumed to marry and have children only when they could afford to do so, resulting in fewer children born but a higher proportion surviving.)
When Darwin wrote, there was not a single known fossil of any species directly ancestral to ours. There were also none to show a connection between early Man and Africa nor kinship between Man and Apes. Just by reasoning from what he could observe, Darwin concluded that man and ape evolved from a common ancestor, and probably did so in Africa. Pure conjecture at the time, but, most experts now agree, absolutely right.
(Fossils were already known then from Germany of the extinct parallel human species Homo Neanderthalis, but Neanderthals were mostly our species' cousins and early contemporaries, rather than our ancestors.)
In this book, published in 1871, Darwin was already and correctly sceptical of the received wisdom of his time that Man is unique in being `a tool using animal'. He was finally vindicated only by Jane Goodall's observations of chimpanzees in the 1960s.
Apart from human evolution, the other big idea in this book is evolution by "Sexual Selection". That is, species evolve not only from the pressure of direct competition for food, resistance to disease, avoiding predators etc. but also due to choices of mates. What the opposite sex find attractive can lead in time to the peacock's tail, the male Bower Bird's decoration of his ground nest and the human's blonde hair, all of which on the face of it are an unnecessary waste of resources and/or make their owners dangerously visible to predators. However, there are reasons why mates may choose those who are healthy and successful enough that they can afford to display these extravagant traits
This takes up the second half or more of the book and Darwin deploys interesting and effective examples. The problem is that there has been so much research since his day and so many species have been re-classified that one cannot know which of the many examples can still be relied on as accurate science and which species are still known by the same names. This could surely have been clarified by modern notes. Due to the lack of this, many readers will want only to dip into this part of the book to get the gist of Darwin's argument and a sense of how much work and detailed knowledge as then available he had put into developing his theories.
Overall, this is an especially impressive achievement given that Darwin did all this for the love of it, without any academic salary or career need to complete or publish research, with his ability to work limited by a chronic illness and despite people telling him he risked eternal Hell Fire in daring to speculate scientifically on Man's origins. Fortunately, if a just God should exist, I am sure He is kinder than that.
on 29 July 2011
You might want to know that this only contains Volume 2 of the Descent of Man so if you want to start at the beginning you will have to get Volume 1. I have found that the one drawback of Kindle books is that the pages do not have nearly as much information as the pages on paper books, for instance there is often nothing to say which edition is being used.
on 26 October 2014
Let's put it his way, Richard Dawkins loves Darwin, as did Karl Marx and Marx wrote Engels regarding his wife's inhertence, of which he couldn't wait to get his hsnds on. Bath? The poor woman and when last has anyone seen Richard Dawkins with a woman? Wendy Wright doesn't count, she merely exposed his ass for thebliar he is. Ausrtolepithicus in deed... the fossil record? My point though is women are NOT as intelligent as men FACT,
I will live and die for them regardless, as intelligence does not define human quality.
on 21 February 2009
This book is amazing. A demonstration of how man could have come about with out resorting to mysticism etc. Unfortunately this is one area in which Darwin and Wallace disagreed. Instead Wallace decided to believe in a divine intervention in the formation of man and their morals/ conscientiousness. In this book however Darwin extends his theory of evolution to encompass mankind.
Ultimatly an easy to follow interpretation of the evolution of man without complex genetics (because they didn't know about them then) written by one the most influential writers of all time.
on 14 October 2010
This book is heavily, in its first part, speaking of a lot more than genetics, and certainly not of sexual preferences in that field. In fact this first part tries to show and discuss the superiority of the human species over all other animal species. Since I am not a geneticist I will concentrate on this first part.
The first remark I will make here is that he overuses the terms "barbaric", "barbarian", "savage", "primitive" and "primeval", this last one being the least reprehensible. This dates the book as a 19th century book. But when we have said that, we can overlook that stylistic element even when it is systematically opposed to "civilized" meaning the western world of the time.
He fundamentally reduces everything to genetics. Everything is explained with a "natural" argumentation that is to say an argumentation that refers to genetic rules and functioning. His discussion of rudimentary organs, organs that are evolving out of an organism (wisdom teeth, coccyx, etc), and nascent organs, organs that are appearing and have a great use, seems to lead to the fact that the non-use of an organ makes it disappear and a systematic action over several generations is bringing in the organ necessary to do it. In fact the rudiments are typically organs that are not mutating out but regressing because of the absence of use and what he calls nascent organs are in fact the development of some muscles or organs that are there and are used intensively in some environments. His best example is the thin legs of some Amazonian tribes whose men spend their life sitting in canoes. When compared with the legs of a long distance runner we could say the latter has nascent leg muscles and the former rudimentary leg muscles. Ut us not because we eat fat that we develop a gall bladder, but exactly the reverse. The function does not produce the organ but the organ produces the function. (Nothing to see with Montaigne's discussing justice)
This idea is essential when he starts dealing with the mental capabilities, moral qualities and linguistic abilities of man. He says over and over again that those things are acquired in some situations in which human beings live or have to live. But yet he seems to more or less imply that some moral qualities like love and sympathy could be the human development of an animal instinct: human love, in spite of what he may say, has little to do with the "love" (it looks more like dependence) of a dog for his master.
But his approach of language is absolutely and amazingly simplistic. First he speaks of the linguistic abilities of some monkeys but does not analyze them. Then he speaks of man inventing language from his attempt to imitate nature, hence reducing the linguistic ability to onomatopoeias. And then he moves to nothing but the great variety of consonants and vowels. But he does not question why man and no other "speaking" animal has developed those numerous consonants and vowels, and the ability to associate them, and what's more the possibility to conceive words by associating a cluster of sounds to a meaning, and then the ability to build sentences by building up functions that have to come from the social discursive situation in which man is always living.
It is this reduction of man's "mental powers" as he says that more or less prevent him from understanding what moral values and empathy and many other human feelings can be and he never gets close to the real nature of thought. His discarding the belief in god, or any superior being (he does not take into account superior forces) as some kind of unacceptable fancy of some human communities is typical of his inability to understand that the conceptual power he hints at from time to time is the way man will try to explain the world and language will be the tool for that explanation to be built and then to be shared and then to be honored and then to be ritualistically reinforced. God or no god is not the question. Even the canonical Buddhists who do not believe in god believe in the existence of a superior force in nature that governs us entirely because we are part of nature.
Thus he can conclude on this subject: "the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind." This is passé, outdated and it does not understand that articulated language and articulated language only gives man and man only the capability to conceptualize and hence to develop a thought that no other animal can develop.
on 19 September 2010
Just something that you should read if you are going to study Psychology like me. The book doesnt really need that much explaining as if your looking for it you know what it is.
Well worth a read for anyone, but a certain for Psych students.