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Posts Tagged ‘Descent of Man’

Gaston de SaportaIn March 1872 Gaston de Saporta, a French paleobotanist, penned a letter to Darwin offering two pieces of evidence in support of Darwin’s theory on the common ancestry of man and ape.

The first point of similarity between the two species, Saporta argued, was dentition; the arrangement of teeth in the mouth of humans and simians , he said, “seems to denote an exclusive link with the Monkeys of the old continent“. The second similarity was decidedly more risqué, namely “female menstruation and, as a corollary, the odour which makes women attractive to many monkeys“.

Alongside other similarities – including bald foreheads and the direction of hairs on the forearm – analogous dentition in apes and humans was something which Darwin had already discussed at length in Descent of Man, published the previous year. Nowhere in the body of Descent, however, did Darwin mention the menstrual cycle or, more specifically, scent-based sexual attraction between monkeys and humans.

Latin footnote from Descent of Man (vol., 1, p. 13)That is not to say, however, that Darwin was ignorant of the issue. Embedded in a footnote and suitably “veiled in Latin”(just as his cautious editor, John Murray, had recommended) Darwin refers to the role of smell – “odoratu” – in the courtship processes of humans and apes alike. By presenting this sort of content in Latin, Darwin was able to protect the sensibilities of his general readership without depriving his learned audience of a piece of evidence which corroborated his theory of the shared heredity of man and ape. [1] 

Interestingly, even once shrouded in a decorous cloak of Latin, Darwin remained sketchy on detail: “Males from various species of mammals”, he said, “clearly distinguish anthropomorphous females from male. First, I believe,  by smell, then by appearance.” In conceding that the topic in question was “turpius” (i.e. unseemly) in character, one can justifiably conclude that the odaratu to which Darwin referred was similar in kind to that observed and communicated by Saporta.

What was it about this topic which rendered it taboo? Evidence from elsewhere in the correspondence suggests that Darwin felt uncomfortable discussing the topic of menstruation, at least in public. When the medical director of Wakefield Asylum wrote to him to report the case of a woman inmate who believed that she was pregnant until “a distinct return of menstruation”, for example, he replied that while “truly wonderful” the topic could not feature “in any work not strictly medical”. “Perhaps I may manage to give it wrapped up,” he said, “or anyhow allude to it”.

Descent of Man (Punch 64, 1873)Darwin might also have felt uncomfortable about the potential impropriety of drawing parallels between the courtship processes of man and ape. As Gillian Beer has noted, in the wake of the publication of Descent there existed a certain “sexual distate…for many Victorians in the idea of kinship with other animal species”. [2]

That Troubles Over Our Monkey Again (Fun 16, 1872)Distaste at the sexual implications of Darwin’s theory of shared heredity was played out at length in the popular press where images such as The Descent of Man and That Troubles Over Our Monkey Again encapsulated Victorian society’s sense of unease with the notion that humans had, at some stage, shared their beds with apes. [3]

Gaston de Saporta’s correspondence helps bring to light the strategies which Darwin could (and indeed did) employ in order to pitch his work both as a palatable read for his respectable popular audience and – at the same time – a robust and convincing work of science. It also helps us to better understand hierarchies of impropriety in Victorian Britain. Thus, while Darwin deemed certain risqué topics to be suitable for a learned (if not popular) readership, other subjects – including menstruation –  remained taboo in all but the most private of contexts.

[1] For more on this subject see Gowan Dawson, Darwin, Literature and Victorian Respectability, (Cambridge, 2007), p. 37.

[2] Gillian Beer, ‘Forging the Missing Link’ in Open Fields: Science in Cultural Encounter, (Oxford, 1999), pp. 131 – 132. 

[3] Gordon Thomson, That Troubles Over Our Monkey Again (Fun 16, 1872) featured Darwin as half-man half-monkey, complete with conspicuously erect tail. George du Maurier, Descent of Man (Punch 64, 1873) complete with lewd reference to a sexual encounter between an ape and the featured character’s ancestor.


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Emma and Leonard DarwinCharles Darwin was not just a eminent Naturalist – he was also the head of a thriving family economy who drew on the help of his relatives at any (and, it seems, every!) opportunity. His eldest son, William, was regularly tasked with observing plants and animals for him, while Charles’ second son, George, helped him with complex maths problems. Francis, meanwhile, was always on hand to check and correct Darwin’s mediocre Latin.

Darwin’s women relatives weren’t left out; his daughter, Henrietta, acted both as an observer and a trusted editor, while his wife, Emma, would copy out his manuscripts and check his proofs. As Francis Darwin recalled, Emma would read Charles’ work, “chiefly for misprints and to criticise punctuation; & then my father used to dispute with her over commas especially”. [1]

Darwin’s workforce wasn’t limited to his nuclear family; he also drew on the advice of his cousin, on the observational skills of his nieces and, later in life, on the advice of Henrietta’s husband and the observational skills of Francis’ fiancée.

Darwin’s work, then, was the product of a collective familial effort and his private letters suggest that he was extremely grateful for the contribution made by his relatives; “All your remarks, criticisms doubts & corrections are excellent, excellent, excellent”, he told Henrietta in 1867. “My dear Angels!,” he wrote to his nieces in 1862, “I can call you nothing else.—I never dreamed of your taking so much trouble; the enumeration will be invaluable.”

While Darwin clearly valued the work of his relatives regardless of their sex, in the public sphere the case was very different. Thus, while the contributions of Charles’ male relatives were methodically acknowledged in his published works, the input of women was not.

George DarwinIn his 1862 publication The Fertilisation of Orchids, for example, Charles publicly acknowledged the observational contributions made by “my sons” George (p. 16), William (p. 99) and Francis (p. 273). Charles was careful to acknowledge his sons’ work in all of its forms; regular – and notably proud – references were made in Insectivorous Plants, for examplenot just to his boys’ skills of observation but also to other sorts of labour, including the illustration of botanical diagrams (p. 3) and mathematical skills (p. 173).

Charles was equally careful to acknowledge the contributions – however fleeting – of other male family members. Richard Litchfield’s contribution to a discussion of music (discussed in this letter), for example, was carefully referenced in Expression (p. 89). Similarly, Hensleigh Wegwood – Darwin’s cousin – was acknowledged for the contribution that he made (discussed here) to a section on language in Descent (p. 56).

Darwin’s published materials give only a partial insight, however, into the workings of the Darwin family economy.  Indeed, without Darwin’s letters, a large and significant part of his workforce would remain entirely invisible. The key question, of course, is why did Darwin’s female workforce remain invisible to the public eye?

Image from section on cats in Expression of EmotionIt wasn’t, it seems, an issue of trust: Evidence shows very clearly that Charles respected the work undertaken by his women relatives. Henrietta’s observations of domestic cats and her (and her female friends’) observations of babies, for example, both featured (albeit anonymously) in Expression of Emotion. [2] Samples and observations provided by Lucy Wedgwood were similarly referenced in Forms of Flowers (p. 70),  referred to simply (and anonymously) as having been provided by “a friend in Surrey”.

It seems, then, that Charles’ anxiety lay not with the type or quality of work that his women relatives produced but with the consequences of making that work public.  At a time when a middle class woman’s femininity was measured by her modesty and unwavering dedication to the well-being of her home and family, Darwin’s concerns about making the work of his daughter, wife and other female relatives public were, on some level, entirely understandable.

[1] The recollections of Francis Darwin; CUL DAR 112:144.

[2] See, for example, Expression, pp. 126 – 9. See also letter 5332 and 7153 in which Henrietta and Mary Lubbock provide observations which fed into Expression (p. 153). Henrietta’s observations on house cats’ cries from DAR 189:7 are also mentioned on p. 60 of Expression).


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What’s the difference between a woman and a peahen?

Seems a silly (if not insulting) question.  But in Descent of Man Darwin proposed a theory which, uncharacteristically, set women decisively apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.

According to Darwin, certain features  (such as the beautiful plumage of peacocks) could not be accounted for by natural selection but were instead the product of sexual selection (i.e. aesthetic taste). Crucially, in the animal kingdom it was the female who acted as mate selector; Female birds, Darwin explained in a letter, “select the victorious or most beautiful cock”. (see the letter) Since female birds often selected their mates according to their plumage, so generation after generation male birds evolved with excessively extravagant plumage. Thus, according to Darwin, across the whole of the animal world – from birds to bees and everything in between – females were the driving force behind sexual selection.

There was, however, one important exception: human females. When it came to human courtship men chose their wives – of this Darwin was absolutely sure.  “The members of our aristocracy,” he reported in Descent of Man, “… from having chosen during many generations from all classes the more beautiful women as their wives, have become handsomer, according to the European standard of beauty, than the middle classes; ”

The crucial question here, of course, is why was the story different for humans? Could it be that Darwin was inadvertently (maybe even consciously) reflecting the respectable values of Victorian society? It’s possible that this was an element of his thinking, but a book with so much frank discussion of human and animal sexuality would have already trespassed many boundaries of respectable literature.

We can never know for sure, but maybe Darwin’s uncharacteristic eagerness to separate the human and non-human worlds in Descent testifies the extent to which his scientific viewpoint was influenced by the patriarchal culture  in which he lived? Perhaps the notion that human evolution was driven by feminine aesthetic taste and that males had evolved not for their brute force or intelligence but for their mere beauty was just one step too far for Victorian Britain?

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Editors. All good writers need them, and Darwin was no exception. Although many members of the Darwin family helped refine his manuscripts, it was his daughter Henrietta on whom Darwin arguably relied the most, particularly during the 1860s when he edited the Descent of Man. This is a fascinating point in itself of course, but it becomes all the more interesting when we consider the subject matter of the Descent. With its frank discussions of sexual display and its argument that sexual selection (and thus evolution) was driven ultimately by feminine aesthetic taste,  Descent was considered both racy and controversial — a point confirmed by the anxious comments of Darwin’s publisher, John Murray.

We might wonder, then, what Darwin thought his daughter’s perspective might bring to his work? Did he perhaps hope that Henrietta’s feminine perspective might temper his work and ensure its all-important respectability? Was Henrietta a kind of female censor for Darwin?

Although we can never be certain, it would seem that the answer is no.  What’s clear from their exchanges is that Darwin had a high estimation of Henrietta’s intellect and editorial judgement; she helped him tighten his prose, making it more active and readable. After sending her the second chapter Darwin asked her to, “Please read the Ch. first right through without a pencil in your hand, that you may judge of general scheme… I particularly wish to know whether parts are extra tedious”. Darwin was worried that “parts are too like a Sermon: who wd ever have thought that I shd. turn parson?”.   (see the letter).

While we can never know for sure whether Henrietta’s sex played a part in her involvement in Darwin’s editorial process, it’s clear that Henrietta’s role was to help Darwin sharpen and clarify his arguments rather than merely to sanitise or civilise his work.


Source: Browne, Janet. 1995. Charles Darwin : The Power of Place. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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