The front cover of ‘Darwin Revisited’


The complete text, excepting the Appendix by Obersteiner, of

Darwin Revisited

Simon G. Sheppard BSc. ISBN 1-901240-10-X, 1998

Rejected by: Quarterly Review of Biology, Genetics, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Nature, Journal of Biosocial Science.


Three of Darwin’s major works are reviewed and contemporaneous reactions to his theory are recalled. Darwin’s concept of evolutionary competition is described and challenge is made to the current notion of the hereditary mechanism, which is identified as Weismannism; Darwin, at least in his published works, is revealed as a Lamarckist. Darwin’s attitude to race is discussed and particular attention is given to sexual selection in humans. Inbreeding, crossing and reversion are re-examined and Darwin’s notion of prepotency is detailed. In a short conclusion, the wide disparity between the perception of racial differences in Darwin’s day and now is explained in terms of a quasi-religion.

The human pendulum swings inexorably to and fro. Or, as Sir Stanley Unwin remarked, ‘The unpopular views of today are the commonplaces of tomorrow’ (Unwin 1976: 225). ‘Alternative’ views can quickly become orthodox and what was formerly ‘mainstream’ can become virtually ‘alternative.’ As an example, the journal of the Institute of Race Relations, Race and Class, which describes itself as ‘a journal for Black and Third World liberation,’ now has a circulation which is significantly higher than that of many orthodox anthropological journals, including the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute and Human Organization.

When Darwin’s Origin of Species was first published in 1859 his theory was considered ‘alternative’ and some of his ideas, at least, are now ‘mainstream.’ However despite the impact Darwin has made on contemporary thought, a scant awareness exists of what he actually wrote. Because of this a review of Darwin’s major works was undertaken. The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man and, less exhaustively, the two volumes of The Variation of Plants and Animals Under Domestication were reviewed. Darwin believed that domestication accelerated evolutionary change and hence that this state was particularly useful for study. It shall be demonstrated that some of Darwin’s propositions, although entirely consistent with the remainder of his theories, have not just been relegated to ‘alternative’ status, they have been completely marginalized.

Darwin is hardly an obscure author and neither was he a lone voice pleading against an established orthodoxy. Darwin’s initial popularity may have been due to the theory of Natural Selection being perceived as a weapon against a Church which was powerful at the time. His thesis clearly arrived at a moment when the public was receptive to it because 1250 copies of The Origin sold out on its day of publication. As is well-known, A. R. Wallace arrived at similar conclusions independently and Lamarck had proposed the evolutionary thesis fifty years previously. Darwin’s long-term influence may be due more to the supreme eloquence of his writing than the uniqueness of his ideas. That eloquence is well illustrated by the following passage from Descent:

He who rejects with scorn the belief that the shape of his own canines, and their occasional great development in other men, are due to our early forefathers having been provided with these formidable weapons, will probably reveal, by sneering, the line of his descent (1901: 60-61).

His perception is clinical and his language is precise, succinct and incisive.

Despite the initial popularity of The Origin, the theory of Natural Selection was not received with universal acclaim, as the following Times review of The Descent of Man, which appeared on 7-8 April 1871, testifies. It will give an indication of the flavour of the review to borrow a few passages from the lengthy text, with some licence in this instance, but its nature is such that in this single case it is irresistible:

This proposition will not, we think, in the minds either of the mass of men or of the learned, lose its first character of enormous and painful improbability by any amount of that preparatory exercise in cognate speculations on which Mr. Darwin relies... We wish we could think that these speculations were as innocuous as they are unpractical and unscientific, but it is too probable that if unchecked they might exert a very mischievous influence... A man incurs a grave responsibility who, with the authority of a well-deserved reputation, advances at such a time the disintegrating speculations of this book. He ought to be capable of supporting them by the most conclusive evidence of facts. To put them forward on such incomplete evidence, such cursory investigation, such hypothetical arguments as we have exposed, is more than unscientific – it is reckless.

The reviewers relieved their lambast with humour, for ridicule was an accepted weapon of the age. ‘It is impossible to maintain unbroken gravity in discussing such a dream’ they wrote, and unequivocally set their encampment upon the high ground:

We are reminded, in fact, by such speculation, of the famous story which Corporal Trim endeavoured so ineffectually to recite to Uncle Toby. ‘There was a certain king of Bohemia,’ said Trim, ‘but in whose reign, except his own, I am not able to inform your honour.’ Uncle Toby was more accommodating than we are able to be from a scientific point of view. But we recommend the gracious permission he accorded to the Corporal as a most appropriate motto for speculations of this kind. ‘Leave out the date entirely, Trim’ said my Uncle Toby. In almost similar language: ‘There was a certain Monkey,’ says Mr. Darwin; of that he is quite sure, and he frequently reiterates his assurance. ‘There was a certain Monkey, but in what period or country, except his own, I am not able to inform my readers.’

Of course, Mr. Darwin was an amateur which, according to the 11 August 1870 edition of Nature (p. 298), was an objection raised at the French Academy. There it was said that ‘if the ideas and the works of Darwin are such as some of his opponents represent, how can they have obtained the support in less than ten years of such men as Lyell, Hooker, Huxley, Karl Vogt, Lubbock, Haeckel, Filippi, and Brandt...?’ In fact Darwin was preceded in his amateur status by men such as Hunter and Faraday. These were early days, before insecure self-importance and over-sensitivity to others’ inadequacies stifled a good, ribald snipe at one’s opponents. A further example can be found in the 15 December 1870 issue of Nature (pp. 122-123) where in ‘Works in Natural History’ the journal’s founding editorial staff (i.e. Huxley) gleefully demolished a clergyman, a chaplain to a duke no less, who had attacked Darwin’s theory in a somewhat tactless pamphlet.

The Nature of Evolutionary Competition

Instincts are impelling, so that precisely the same mechanisms operate whether the animal is human or not. The default state of humans is to follow relatively basic instincts, unless other factors intervene. For example, people normally pursue happiness, but happiness ensues when instincts are satisfied; and humans may merely modify their perception to be consistent with their emotions. Humans are undoubtedly animals and people are generally more predictable than they like to suppose.

The following observations in The Origin regarding the nature of evolutionary competition provide valuable clues as to why civil wars occur, why the French make jokes about the Belgians, the Norwegians dislike the Swedes and the British go to war against the Germans. Darwin wrote that ‘the competition will generally be most severe between those forms which are most nearly related to each other in habits, constitution, and structure’ (1968: 165). Further, this competition is ‘between the forms which are most like each other in all respects. Hence the improved and modified descendants of a species will generally cause the extermination of the parent-species’ (1968: 324). Thus ‘the extinction of old forms is the almost inevitable consequence of the production of new forms’ (1968: 342).

Framing this thesis in more territorial terms, ‘for as all the inhabitants of each country are struggling together with nicely balanced forces, extremely slight modifications in the structure or habits of one inhabitant would often give it an advantage over others; and still further modifications of the same kind would often still further increase the advantage’ (1968: 132). Then ‘the struggle for the production of new and modified descendants will mainly lie between the larger groups, which are all trying to increase in number. One large group will slowly conquer another large group, reduce its numbers, and thus lessen its chance of further variation and improvement’ (1968: 168).

Perhaps in Darwin’s day, and now, it is the sheer ruthlessness of the evolutionary thesis which makes the concept instinctively abhorrent to non-scientists. Lamarck, for example, found it difficult to countenance the extinction of species; it seemed too cruel. ‘I am still doubtful whether the means adopted by nature to ensure the preservation of species or races have been so inadequate that entire races are now extinct or lost’ he wrote (1963: 44). Darwin was more dispassionate: ‘For as all organic beings are striving, it may be said, to seize on each place in the economy of nature, if any one species does not become modified and improved in a corresponding degree with its competitors, it will soon be exterminated’ (1968: 147). Moreover:

He who believes in the struggle for existence and in the principle of natural selection, will acknowledge that every organic being is constantly endeavouring to increase in numbers; and thus if any one being vary ever so little, either in habits or structure, and thus gain an advantage over some other inhabitant of the country, it will seize on the place of that inhabitant, however different it may be from its own place (1968: 217).

It may be fitting to recall Axelrod’s proposition that a rule which is collectively stable is territorially stable (1984: 160). Darwin had already made the observation that ‘although some species may now be increasing, more or less rapidly, in numbers, all cannot do so, for the world would not hold them’ (1968: 117).

Evolutionary Mechanisms: Pangenesis

One of Darwin’s observations in Variation was that ‘we are led to look at inheritance as the rule, and non-inheritance as the anomaly. But this power often appears to us in our ignorance to act capriciously, transmitting a character with inexplicable strength or feebleness’ (1875: 2/57). The contemporary view of the evolutionary process seems inadequate to explain certain observed phenomena, such as speed of adaptation, and this perception is shared by a great number of people except, it seems, professional biologists. Rapidity of adaptation, if it were to evolve, would clearly confer a competitive advantage.

Richard Dawkins is a forceful proponent of ‘the gene, the whole gene and nothing but the gene’ school; according to him and others, the genes are quite fixed and the only hereditary mechanism is genetic. Dawkins is unequivocal: ‘I can think of few things that would more devastate my world view than a demonstrated need to return to the theory of evolution that is traditionally attributed to Lamarck. It is one of the few contingencies for which I might offer to eat my hat’ (1982: 164-165). Since Dawkins casts doubt whether Lamarckism (the principle that characteristics acquired or modified during the lifetime of an organism are inheritable) was actually proposed by Lamarck, verification is in order. Lamarck’s propositions were set out as follows:

FIRST LAW. In every animal which has not passed the limit of its development, a more frequent and continuous use of any organ gradually strengthens, develops and enlarges that organ, and gives it a power proportional to the length of time it has been so used; while the permanent disuse of any organ imperceptibly weakens and deteriorates it, and progressively diminishes its functional capacity, until it finally disappears.

SECOND LAW. All the acquisitions or losses wrought by nature on individuals, through the influence of the environment in which their race has long been placed, and hence through the influence of the predominant use or permanent disuse of any organ; all these are preserved by reproduction to the new individuals which arise, provided that the acquired modifications are common to both sexes, or at least to the individuals which produce the young.

Otherwise, elaborated Lamarck,

We should not have race-horses shaped like those in England; we should not have big draught horses so heavy and so different from the former, for none such are produced in nature; in the same way we should not have basset-hounds with crooked legs, nor grey-hounds so fleet of foot, nor water-spaniels, etc.; finally, we should be able to cultivate wild plants as long as we liked in the rich and fertile soil of our gardens, without the fear of seeing them change under long cultivation (1963: 113-114).

There also, superficially at least, appears to be a perception that Lamarckism and Darwinism are mutually opposed. With the ignorance which seems to prevail about what Darwin actually wrote, it becomes unsurprising that this is yet another misnomer. ‘How can the use or disuse of a particular limb or of the brain affect a small aggregate of reproductive cells, seated in a distant part of the body, in such a manner that the being developed from these cells inherits the characteristics of either one or both parents?’ asked Darwin, ‘even an imperfect answer to this question would be satisfactory’ (1875: 2/367). In fact an entire chapter of Variation is dedicated to the ‘provisional hypothesis’ of pangenesis, the notion that modifications to any part of an organism are transmissible to its progeny.

Darwin’s theory, and pangenesis in particular, occupied a number of Nature’s early columns. Francis Galton (author of Hereditary Genius and also Darwin’s cousin) attempted to demonstrate pangenesis by transfusing blood between two distinct varieties of rabbit. Besides the correspondence which appeared in the pages of Nature, Darwin recorded that after the publication of Galton’s paper he ‘continued his experiments on a still larger scale for two more generations without any sign of mongrelism showing itself in the very numerous offspring’ (1875: 2/350).

Darwin’s perception is perhaps demonstrated most clearly in the following passage: ‘Some intelligent actions, after being performed during several generations, become converted into instincts and are inherited, as when birds on oceanic islands learn to avoid man’ (1901: 102). Neuter insects caused Darwin considerable difficulty because they ‘leave no progeny to inherit the effects of long-continued habit’ (1968: 447). And again:

It is a most singular fact that the motmots, as Mr. Salvin has clearly shewn, give their tail feathers the racket-shape by biting off the barbs, and, further, that this continued mutilation has produced a certain amount of inherited effect (1901: 587).

The underlying theme is a progression from habit to heritable instinct. Dawkins’ stance is properly described as Weismannism.

Extending the theme to humans, Darwin wrote that:

A great stride in the development of the intellect will have followed, as soon as the half-art and half-instinct of language came into use; for the continued use of language will have reacted on the brain and produced an inherited effect; and this again will have reacted on the improvement of language (1901: 932).

He also surmised that ‘there can, I think, be no doubt that residence during many generations at a great elevation tends, both directly and indirectly, to induce inherited modification in the proportions of the body’ (1901: 52). Several isolated reports of ‘Hereditary deformities’ and ‘Hereditary instinct’ appeared in Nature before 1873.

‘But’ wrote Darwin in the second edition of Variation,

the evidence which admits of no doubt is that given by Brown-Séquard with respect to guinea-pigs, which after their sciatic nerves had been divided, gnawed off their own gangrenous toes, and the toes of their offspring were deficient in at least thirteen instances on the corresponding feet’ (1875: 2/392; see also 1/467-469).

Brown-Séquard’s results now seem to be regarded as anomalous but that similar effects were observed by Obersteiner (1875: 179-188) appears to have been overlooked.

Dawkins’ assertion may ultimately illustrate that it is unwise to be dogmatic about mechanisms which remain poorly understood. Who would have thought that mast cells – components of the immune system – would appear in the brain of the Ring Dove Streptopelia roseogrisea after a brief period of courtship? (Silver et al., 1996).


Darwin was an unabashed racist and, it may be argued, his clarity of perception and the successful exposition of his theory could only have been achieved before the advent of the dogma of political correctness which now prevails. Darwin, the possessor of ‘a certain intense and almost passionate honesty’ (Huxley, 1882), met a similar problem that challengers of the current orthodoxy have to face: ‘Although naturalists very properly demand a full explanation of every difficulty from those who believe in the mutability of species, on their own side they ignore the whole subject of the first appearance of species in what they consider reverent silence’ (1968: 454).

Darwin took his Occidental superiority for granted with the reasoning, we might suppose, that if the truth hurt then it was not his problem. ‘We are not here concerned with hopes or fears, only with the truth as far as our reason permits us to discover it’ he wrote (1901: 947). It is as if Darwin, by his exhaustive examination of flora and fauna, had forced himself into a habit of observation which made him treat humans with the same uncompromising objectivity. Man, he proposed,

has diverged into distinct races, or as they may be more fitly called, sub-species. Some of these, such as the Negro and the European, are so distinct that, if specimens had been brought to a naturalist without any further information, they would undoubtedly have been considered as good and true species (1901: 929).

Although Darwin preferred the term sub-species to race, it is evident that race was the accepted terminology of his day.

Braving the threat of a charge of ‘sub-specism’ then, we start close to home, genetically speaking, at which point Darwin allows a Mr. Greg to put the case:

‘The careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishman multiplies like rabbits: the frugal, foreseeing, self-respecting, ambitious Scot, stern in his morality, spiritual in his faith, sagacious and disciplined in his intelligence, passes his best years in struggle and in celibacy, marries late, and leaves few behind him. Given a land originally peopled by a thousand Saxons and a thousand Celts – and in a dozen generations five-sixths of the population would be Celts, but five-sixths of the property, of the power, of the intellect, would belong to the one-sixth of Saxons that remained. In the eternal “struggle for existence,” it would be the inferior and less favoured race that had prevailed – and prevailed by virtue not of its good qualities but of its faults’ (1901: 213).

A comparable finding has been reported by Lynn (1995). Darwin might be suspected of harbouring some animosity towards Catholics, but this would be nothing compared to what that Church would formerly have done for him:

Who can positively say why the Spanish nation, so dominant at one time, has been distanced in the race. The awakening of the nations of Europe from the dark ages is a still more perplexing problem. At that early period, as Mr. Galton has remarked, almost all the men of a gentle nature, those given to meditation or culture of the mind, had no refuge except in the bosom of a Church which demanded celibacy; and this could hardly fail to have had a deteriorating influence on each successive generation. During this same period the Holy Inquisition selected with extreme care the freest and boldest men in order to burn or imprison them. In Spain alone some of the best men – those who doubted or questioned, and without doubting there can be no progress – were eliminated during three centuries at the rate of a thousand a year. The evil which the Catholic Church has thus effected is incalculable, though no doubt counterbalanced to a certain, perhaps to a large, extent in other ways; nevertheless, Europe has progressed at an unparalleled rate (1901: 217-218).

With the more remote races, Darwin maintained that ‘the American aborigines, Negroes and Europeans are as different from each other in mind as any three races that can be named’ (1901: 276). ‘Nor,’ he wrote,

is the difference slight in moral disposition between a barbarian, such as the man described by the old navigator Byron, who dashed his child on the rocks for dropping a basket of sea urchins, and a Howard or Clarkson; and in intellect, between a savage who uses hardly any abstract terms, and a Newton or Shakspeare. Differences of this kind between the highest men of the highest races and the lowest savages, are connected by the finest graduations (1901: 99).

In one of the many footnotes in the second edition of Descent Darwin commented on the improbability of morals being socially conditioned: ‘Others believe that the moral sense is acquired by each individual during his lifetime. On the general theory of evolution this is at least extremely improbable’ (1901: 150). He observed that ‘with savages, for instance, the Australians, the women are the constant cause of war both between members of the same tribe and between distinct tribes’ (1901: 854).

A number of passages in Descent remark on the tendency of certain races to imitate. One was that ‘the strong tendency in our nearest allies, the monkeys, in microcephalous idiots, and in the barbarous races of mankind, to imitate whatever they hear deserves notice, as bearing on the subject of imitation’ (1901: 133). Another observation was that ‘apes are much given to imitation, as are the lowest savages’ (1901: 198).

In The Origin we read that ‘the barbarians of Tierra del Fuego’ would eat their old women, in times of dearth, before they killed their dogs (1968: 94); from Descent we learn that the physical beauty of the Jollof Negroes was due to their long-continued tradition of selling their ugly concubines (1901: 895); that North American Indians would leave their feeble comrades to perish on the plains and elected a chief solely on the length of his hair (1901: 156, 921-922); that it was the sacred duty of an Aborigine widower to kill a woman of another tribe (1901: 175-176) and that the Fijians, finding the lingering of their aged inconvenient, would bury them while they were still alive (1901: 156).

Another illustration of the small numbers of people who have actually read Darwin is the claim that the Tasmanians were driven to extinction by British colonists – that, it has been said, ‘the only true case of genocide was of the native Tasmanians by the British.’ Reading Descent however we learn that, whatever had gone on before, the authorities made a determined effort to prevent their demise, relocating them at their request, but despite these efforts their birth-rate plummeted and they expired (1901: 284-286). The Tasmanians had the habit of killing their half-castes, usually at birth (1901: 264).

Darwin considered that:

A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection (1901: 203).

He had also stated that ‘as a tribe increases and is victorious, it is often still further increased by the absorption of other tribes.’ A footnote adds that ‘after a time the members or tribes which are absorbed into another tribe assume... that they are the co-descendants of the same ancestors’ (1901: 197). His conviction, expressed in the closing pages of Descent, was clearly stated:

For my part I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper, or from that old baboon, who descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs – as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions (1901: 946).

Darwin would have had little truck with the popular notion of the ‘missing link’ because he believed it was staring him in the face. ‘At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world... The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider’ (1901: 241-242).

Characters, Roles and Selection In Relation To Sex

Darwin employed the notion of primary and secondary sexual characters: ‘The term, secondary sexual characters, used by Hunter, applies to characters which are attached to one sex, but are not directly connected with the act of reproduction’ (1968: 188). An example of a male secondary sexual character is the beard. ‘Secondary sexual characters are often widely different in closely-allied forms, though it is a very rare circumstance when such differences relate to the female sex’ observed Darwin (1901: 727). He went on to elucidate their mechanism of development: ‘With many closely-allied species, following nearly the same habits of life, the males have come to differ from each other chiefly through the action of sexual selection, whilst the females have come to differ chiefly from partaking more or less of the characters thus acquired by the males’ (1901: 759). Darwin further wrote:

With animals having separated sexes there will in most cases be a struggle between the males for possession of the females. The most vigorous individuals, or those which have most successfully struggled with their conditions of life, will generally leave most progeny. But success will often depend on having special weapons or means of defence, or on the charms of the males; and the slightest advantage will lead to victory (1968: 442).

An example with chickens illustrates one of a number of issues raised by Darwin which are surprisingly topical. ‘Natural instincts are lost under domestication’ he wrote in The Origin: ‘When animals and plants are removed from their natural conditions, they are extremely liable to have their reproductive systems seriously affected’ (1968: 240; 279). The following remarks in Variation may be pertinent to the modern phenomenon of men pushing prams:

With male animals, it is notorious that the secondary sexual characters are more or less completely lost when they are subject to castration. Thus, if the operation be performed on a young cock, he never, as Yarrel states, crows again; the comb, wattles, and spurs do not grow to their full size, and the hackles assume an intermediate appearance between true hackles and the feathers of the hen. Cases are recorded of confinement, which often affects the reproductive system, causing analogous results. But characters properly confined to the female are likewise acquired by the male; the capon takes to sitting on eggs, and will bring up chickens; and what is more curious, the utterly sterile male hybrids from the pheasant and the fowl act in the same manner, ‘their delight being to watch when the hens leave their nests, and take on themselves the office of a sitter.’ That admirable observer Réaumur asserts that a cock, by being long confined in solitude and darkness, can be taught to take charge of young chickens; he then utters a peculiar cry, and retains during his whole life this newly acquired maternal instinct (1875: 2/26-27).

The importance of sex in the human evolutionary process was evident to Darwin and he was equally aware of man’s contradictory attitude to it. ‘I conclude that of all the causes which have led to the differences in external appearance between the races of man, and to a certain extent between man and the lower animals, sexual selection has been the most efficient’ (1901: 925). Commenting on the habits of animals, he observed that ‘from the ardour of the male throughout the animal kingdom, he is generally willing to accept any female; and it is the female which usually exerts a choice’ (1901: 491). The theme is extended to humans and the observation is made that ‘in utterly barbarous tribes the women have more power in choosing, rejecting, and tempting their lovers, or of afterwards changing their husbands, than might have been expected. As this is a point of some importance’ Darwin postulated, ‘I will give in detail such evidence as I have been able to collect.’ The following excerpt from Descent is considered to be a significant contribution to human ethology and of no lesser value now than it was in Darwin’s day.

Hearne describes how a woman in one of the tribes of Arctic America repeatedly ran away from her husband and joined her lover; and with the Charruas of S. America, according to Azara, divorce is quite optional. Amongst the Abipones, a man on choosing a wife bargains with the parents about the price. But ‘it frequently happens that the girl rescinds what has been agreed upon between the parents and the bridegroom, obstinately rejecting the very mention of marriage.’ She often runs away, hides herself, and thus eludes the bridegroom. Captain Musters who lived with the Patagonians, says that their marriages are always settled by inclination; ‘if the parents make a match contrary to the daughter’s will, she refuses and is never compelled to comply.’ In Tierra del Fuego a young man first obtains the consent of the parents by doing them some service, and then he attempts to carry off the girl; ‘but if she is unwilling, she hides herself in the woods until her admirer is heartily tired of looking for her, and gives up the pursuit; but this seldom happens.’ In the Fiji Islands the man seizes on the woman whom he wishes for his wife by actual or pretended force; but ‘on reaching the home of her abductor, should she not approve of the match, she runs to some one who can protect her; if, however, she is satisfied, the matter is settled forthwith.’ With the Kalmucks there is a regular race between the bride and bridegroom, the former having a fair start; and Clarke ‘was assured that no instance occurs of a girl being caught, unless she has a partiality to the pursuer.’ Amongst the wild tribes of the Malay Archipelago there is also a racing match; and it appears from M. Bourien’s account, as Sir J. Lubbock remarks, that ‘the race, “is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong” but to the young man who has the good fortune to please his intended bride.’ A similar custom, with the same result, prevails with the Koraks of North-Eastern Asia.

Turning to Africa: the Kafirs buy their wives, and girls are severely beaten by their fathers if they will not accept a chosen husband; but it is manifest from many facts given by the Rev. Mr. Shooter, that they have considerable power of choice. Thus very ugly, though rich men, have been known to fail in getting wives. The girls, before consenting to be betrothed, compel the men to shew themselves off first in front and then behind, and ‘exhibit their paces.’ They have been known to propose to a man, and they not rarely run away with a favoured lover. So again, Mr. Leslie, who was intimately acquainted with the Kafirs, says, ‘it is a mistake to imagine that a girl is sold by her father in the same manner, and with the same authority, with which he would dispose of a cow.’ Amongst the degraded Bushmen of S. Africa, ‘when a girl has grown up to womanhood without having been betrothed, which, however, does not often happen, her lover must gain her approbation, as well as that of the parents.’ Mr. Winwood Reade made inquiries for me with respect to the negroes of Western Africa, and he informs me that ‘the women, at least among the more intelligent Pagan tribes, have no difficulty in getting the husbands whom they may desire, although it is considered unwomanly to ask a man to marry them. They are quite capable of falling in love, and of forming tender, passionate, and faithful attachments.’ Additional cases could be given.

We thus see that with savages the women are not in quite so abject a state in relation to marriage as has often been supposed. They can tempt the men whom they prefer, and can sometimes reject those whom they dislike, either before or after marriage. Preference on the part of the women, steadily acting in any one direction, would ultimately affect the character of the tribe; for the women would generally choose not merely the handsomest men, according to their standard of taste, but those who were at the same time best able to defend and support them. Such well-endowed pairs would commonly rear a larger number of offspring than the less favoured. The same result would obviously follow in a still more marked manner if there was selection on both sides; that is, if the more attractive, and at the same time more powerful men were to prefer, and were preferred by, the more attractive women. And this double form of selection seems actually to have occurred, especially during the earlier periods of our long history (1901: 912-915).

Darwin went on to conclude that our powerful male ancestors had harems: ‘Looking far enough back in the stream of time, and judging from the social habits of man as he now exists, the most probable view is that he aboriginally lived in small communities, each with a single wife, or if powerful with several, whom he jealously guarded against all other men’ (1901: 901). He also considered that ‘during these times all the conditions for sexual selection would have been more favourable than at a later period, when man had advanced in his intellectual powers but had retrograded in his instincts’ (1901: 907). According to Darwin, the Best Man tradition derives from him being the accomplice who assisted his friend in capturing a bride from a neighbouring village (1901: 903-904).

Concerning physical attractiveness, Darwin observed that ‘with all barbarous races, ornaments, dress, and external appearance are highly valued; and that the men judge of the beauty of their women by widely different standards’ (1901: 892). He asked his reader to ‘remember that with savage races of man various hideous deformities – deep scars on the face with the flesh raised into protuberances, the septum of the nose pierced by sticks or bones, holes in the ears and lips stretched widely open – are all admired as ornamental’ (1901: 650). The theme is elaborated:

As the face with us is chiefly admired for its beauty, so with savages it is the chief seat of mutilation. In all quarters of the world the septum, and more rarely the wings of the nose are pierced; rings, sticks, feathers, and other ornaments being inserted into the holes. The ears are everywhere pierced and similarly ornamented (1901: 876).

In one anecdote which is narrated, ‘the wife of the chief of Latooka told Sir S. Baker that Lady Baker “would be much improved if she would extract her four front teeth from the lower jaw, and wear the long pointed polished crystal in her under lip”’ (1901: 877). ‘We thus see how widely the different races of man differ in their taste for the beautiful’ he concluded (1901: 886).

But, noted Darwin, and here he strikes upon man’s ambivalence regarding sex,

Man scans with scrupulous care the characters and pedigree of his horses, cattle, and dogs before he matches them; but when he comes to his own marriage he rarely, or never, takes any such care. He is impelled by nearly the same motives as the lower animals (1901: 944).

Another of several similar observations is that ‘excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed’ (1901: 206). In Variation the dysgenic message is still more bluntly put: ‘It is unfortunately too notorious that men and various domestic animals endowed with a wretched constitution, and with a strong hereditary disposition to disease, if not actually ill, are fully capable of procreating their kind’ (1875: 2/94).

Elaborating further on human evolutionary mechanisms in Descent, he concluded that:

Without the higher powers of the imagination and reason, no eminent success can be gained in many subjects. These latter faculties, as well as the former, will have been developed in man, partly through sexual selection,– that is, through the contest of rival males, and partly through natural selection,– from success in the general struggle for life; and as in both cases the struggle will have been during maturity, the characters gained will have been transmitted more fully to the male than to the female offspring. It accords in a striking manner with this view of the modification and re-inforcement of many of our mental faculties by sexual selection, that, firstly, they notoriously undergo a considerable change at puberty, and, secondly, that eunuchs remain throughout life inferior in these same qualities. Thus man has ultimately become superior to woman. It is, indeed, fortunate that the law of the equal transmission of characters to both sexes prevails with mammals; otherwise it is probable that man would have become as superior in mental endowment to woman, as the peacock is in ornamental plumage to the peahen (1901: 859-860).

In Darwin’s day it was ‘generally admitted that with woman the powers of intuition, of rapid perception, and perhaps of imitation, are more strongly marked than in man’ but it may not have been accepted that ‘some, at least, of these faculties are characteristic of the lower races, and therefore of a past and lower state of civilisation’ (1901: 858). When Darwin wrote of the inferiority of instincts he clearly meant that they were inferior to rationality (1901: 102).

Romanes incorporated many fragments of Darwin’s unpublished writings into his books after his death, including the following, a precursor to ‘emotional intelligence’:

It will be universally admitted that instincts are as important as corporeal structures for the welfare of each species under its present conditions of life. Under changed conditions of life it is at least possible that slight modifications of instinct might be profitable to a species; and if it can be shown that instincts do vary ever so little, then I can see no difficulty in natural selection preserving and continually accumulating variations of instinct to any extent that was profitable (1883: 178).

Darwin asserted in Descent that ‘the views here advanced, on the part which sexual selection has played in the history of man, want scientific precision’ (1901: 924). The pursuit of this rigour has been the object of this author’s recent investigations and these have led to the development of a new psychonomic system called Procedural Analysis (Sheppard, 1998).

Inbreeding, Crossing and Reversion

Common knowledge exists of the hazards associated with interbreeding between closely related individuals and this has probably led to the common incest taboo, which nevertheless Darwin reported was not universal (1901: 176; 1875: 2/102-104). He considered that ‘close interbreeding continued during several generations between the nearest relations, especially if these be kept under the same conditions of life, always induces weakness and sterility in the progeny’ (1968: 281). However only a small amount of cross-breeding is required to prevent these ill-effects; the perils of interbreeding have almost certainly been over-stated. Turning to a contemporary study, O’Riain et al. (1996) detailed a morphological variant – a dispersive morph – of the mole rat which is specifically predisposed to cross-breeding. Mole rats are hairless, subterranean rodents described as ‘normally xenophobic’ which will usually fight members of other colonies if they meet. The morphological variant however persistently attempts to disperse and expresses a strong mating preference for members of other colonies. Out of 1000 animals in 48 captive colonies, only 19 such animals were found. A Nature commentator concluded that ‘a surprisingly small amount of gene-flow is required to maintain the heterogeneity required for reproductive compatibility between isolated populations.’ In fact Dawkins predicted the existence of this mole rat dispersive morph (1989: 315).

A significant proportion of these dispersive morphs, 95% of which are male, will probably fail in their objective; some will be attacked by members of the foreign colony instead of gaining admission and, since they are fat to equip them for a long overground journey in unfamiliar territory, many are likely to be killed and eaten en route by a predator. Translating this finding into human terms then, the degree of exogamy required to maintain heterogeneity is equivalent to perhaps 1% of a population cross-breeding with members of a neighbouring village, with more remote crosses occurring less frequently.

Considering this theme in The Origin, and initially concerning dogs, Darwin wrote that:

The possibility of making distinct races by crossing has been greatly exaggerated. There can be no doubt that a race may be modified by occasional crosses, if aided by the careful selection of those individual mongrels, which present any desired character; but that a race could be obtained nearly intermediate between two extremely different races or species, I can hardly believe. Sir J. Sebright expressly experimentised for this object, and failed. The offspring from the first cross between two pure breeds is tolerably and sometimes (as I have found with pigeons) extremely uniform, and everything seems simple enough; but when these mongrels are crossed one with another for several generations, hardly two of them will be alike, and then the extreme difficulty, or rather utter hopelessness, of the task becomes apparent. Certainly, a breed intermediate between two very distinct breeds could not be got without extreme care and long-continued selection; nor can I find a single case on record of a permanent race having been thus formed (1968: 81).

The principle is reiterated: ‘So it is with hybrids, for hybrids in successive generations are eminently liable to vary, as every experimentalist has observed’ (1968: 280).

Darwin was convinced that this variation in hybrids is due to the principle of reversion: ‘We have seen... that when two races or species are crossed there is the strongest tendency to the reappearance in the offspring of long-lost characters, possessed by neither parent nor immediate progenitor’ (1875: 2/22). Thus:

It is a very surprising fact that characters should reappear after having been lost for many, perhaps for hundreds of generations. But when a breed has been crossed only once by some other breed, the offspring occasionally show a tendency to revert in character to the foreign breed for many generations – some say, for a dozen or even a score of generations. After twelve generations, the proportion of blood, to use a common expression, of any one ancestor, is only 1 in 2048; and yet, as we see, it is generally believed that a tendency to reversion is retained by this very small proportion of foreign blood (1968: 196).

If this is representative of Darwin’s mathematical ability however he might not have fared so well as an evolutionary biologist today. Continuing on this topic,

How strongly these domestic instincts, habits, and dispositions are inherited, and how curiously they become mingled, is well shown when different breeds of dogs are crossed. Thus it is known that a cross with a bull-dog has affected for many generations the courage and obstinacy of greyhounds; and a cross with a greyhound has given to a whole family of shepherd-dogs a tendency to hunt hares (1968: 239; see also 1875: 1/43).

We are also told of ‘a dog, whose great-grandfather was a wolf, and this dog showed a trace of its wild parentage only in one way, by not coming in a straight line to his master when called’ (1968: 239-240).

Then the reader of The Origin is introduced to the concept of prepotency: ‘Some species have a remarkable power of crossing with other species; other species of the same genus have a remarkable power of impressing their likeness on their hybrid offspring’ (1968: 275). This prepotency might also extend to sex:

I think these authors are right, who maintain that the ass has a prepotent power over the horse, so that both the mule and the hinny more resemble the ass than the horse; but that the prepotency runs more strongly in the male-ass than in the female, so that the mule, which is the offspring of the male-ass and mare, is more like an ass, than is the hinny, which is the offspring of the female-ass and stallion (1968: 287; see also 1875: 2/43).

There is a more fundamental argument however; if the mule and the hinny were not distinct, they would not have different names.

Darwin noted ‘the statements, so frequently made by travellers in all parts of the world, on the degraded state and savage disposition of crossed races of man.’ He continued with the remark that ‘When two races, both low in the scale, are crossed the progeny seems to be eminently bad’ (1875: 2/21). Like the true moderate that he was, he included in his consideration the possibility of environmental influence, but this argument is invalidated by several animal accounts he had detailed only a couple of pages before. In one of the cases recorded in Variation, which is typical, ‘the Earl of Powis formerly imported some thoroughly domesticated humped cattle from India, and crossed them with English breeds, which belong to a distinct species; and his agent remarked to me, without any question having been asked, how oddly wild the cross-bred animals were’ (1875: 2/19).

Darwin was not above stating the obvious, because it seems that sometimes the obvious needs stating: ‘No man in his senses would expect to improve or modify a breed in any particular manner, or keep an old breed true and distinct, unless he separated his animals’ (1875: 2/62-63). He observed that ‘cats, from their nocturnal rambling habits, cannot be matched, and, although so much valued by women and children, we hardly ever see a distinct breed kept up’ (1968: 99).


Although Darwin’s works may sometimes tend to pedantry, because of their close attention to biological detail, every so often one comes across an enthralling anecdote which gives extraordinary insight into the natural world. A pike was conditioned not to eat certain fish, providing a clear perception of the workings of the fish brain (1901: 115). Somewhat implausibly, we read that hermaphrodite snails ‘appear also susceptible to some degree of permanent attachment’ (1901: 404-405). Then there is an account of a delightfully conspicuous caterpillar, the riddle of its gaudiness being resolved by Mr. Wallace with his ‘innate genius for solving difficulties’ (1901: 499). Another excerpt from Descent gives a glimpse of Darwin’s basic humanity and his acute awareness of ethical principles:

In the agony of death a dog has been known to caress his master, and every one has heard of the dog suffering under vivisection, who licked the hand of the operator; this man, unless the operation was fully justified by an increase of our knowledge, or unless he had a heart of stone, must have felt remorse to the last hour of his life (1901: 106).

Near the conclusion of Descent Darwin proposed that:

False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for every one takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness: and when this is done, one path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened (1901: 926).

Here, however, Darwin failed to account for the imposition of taboos and humans’ capacity for false perception. It is clear that some delusion exists, because the basic concept of evolution has not changed since Darwin’s day yet a greater gulf in perception could hardly be imagined. Man has certainly not changed so much in the interim as his perception of himself.

A new faith exists today: a more insidious version of what Dawkins termed ‘the BBC Theorem’ (1982: 236-237) is the utopian ambition of a multiracial, ‘rainbow’ society in which racism has been eradicated and everyone, irrespective of colour or creed, will live together in harmony. This, in social psychological terms, is a phantom: an unattainable goal (Pratkanis & Farquhar 1992; Pratkanis 1995). Dawkins remarked that faith ‘is capable of driving people to such dangerous folly that [it] seems to me to qualify as a kind of mental illness’ (1989: 330). Wolpert (1992: 141) wrote that ‘the capacity for self-delusion, even among scientists, should never be underestimated: conviction can have profound effects on observation.’ Both Dawkins and Wolpert are noted Humanists but may have adopted a faith of a different kind.

The sheer power of evolutionary theory (ET) in understanding human and animal behaviour is profound yet many practical applications have yet to be realized. The impact of ET on psychology and anthropology is presently minimal; it is clear that the evolutionary revolution is incomplete. Who nowadays dares to suggest an origin of group traits such as the persecution and inferiority complexes? In the modern ‘Unholy Inquisition’ the inability to confront these issues openly and impartially confers the advantages which were the very evolutionary genesis which led to their inception. Current policies seem bent on accommodating the lowest common denominator instead of aspiring to the heights attained by men such as Galton, Huxley, Wallace and Darwin, and these great figures were all the product of a single generation. The product is a society which discriminates in every subtle and significant way against the very people who are most valuable to it.

The criticism of contemporary science implied here is not that it is pseudoscience, for that charge would be manifestly unjust. However the accusation may be yet more serious – it completely fails to address the big issues. Despite fervent opposition Darwin was still able to present his ideas but frankly discussing the full implications of his theory is nowadays almost entirely disallowed; challenge of the new quasi-religion is not permitted. Perhaps the longevity of the Christian faith was because it was a robust approximation to Benthamism and ‘kept most of the people happy most of the time,’ but that faith seems to have been superseded by another, less honest and considerably less tolerant one. It seems in many ways now as if the human race, having learned of its phylogeny, has elected to regress.


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Darwin, C. R. (1901). The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (2nd ed.). London: John Murray.
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Pratkanis, A. R. & Farquhar, P. H. (1992). A brief history of research on phantom alternatives: Evidence for seven empirical generalizations about phantoms. Basic and Applied Social Psychology 13: 103-122.
Pratkanis, A. R. (1995). How to sell a pseudoscience. Skeptical Inquirer 19: 19-25.
Romanes, G. J. (1883). Mental Evolution in Animals. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench.
Sheppard, S. G. (1998). Procedural Analysis. Hull, Yorkshire: Heretical Press.
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Wolpert, L. (1992). The Unnatural Nature of Science. London: Faber & Faber.

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