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Leisure • Self-Knowledge • Behaviours

Charles Darwin and The Descent of Man

It is completely understandable that we are often maddened by what might be called ‘normal’ humanity. The way in which emotion so regularly triumphs over careful reasoning; the power of group loyalty, even when the group doesn’t seem to deserve much devotion; the vast mechanisms of status-seeking that drive so much excess consumption; widespread selfishness and indifference to the greater needs of more distant others. And we can find ourselves — in the privacy of our heads, or in the occasional late-night outburst — railing against the fools and idiots who (so unfortunately) seem to occupy so many of the prominent places of power, wealth and influence. 

Man is But a Worm” Cartoon in Punch almanac, 1882

In such moods the 19th century naturalist Charles Darwin has much to say to us. He was born in England in 1809 into a well-to-do and intellectually distinguished family. He was much influenced by visiting, in his twenties, the Galapagos Islands where he could see first hand species remarkably different from those that existed elsewhere. In later life he was a quiet, rather withdrawn man (he became the world’s leading expert on barnacles). He achieved worldwide fame for his great work On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection but he felt that people had not quite understood the implications of his ideas and in 1871, when he was in his sixties, he brought out The Descent of Man. 

Title page of The Descent of Man, 1871

Darwin liked to say that he had thought of calling his book ‘the Ascent of Man’ — but that that would suggest some idea of progress. Rather what he wanted to do was show that despite the obvious technical advances of past centuries modern people were still at the same moral level, or perhaps slightly worse, than their remote ancestors. 

His big point is that the basic psychological characteristics of human beings evolved to aid survival in the remote past. At the simplest level, we are (generally) attracted to sweet things because in the very extended period of early human development that meant eating wild berries which are great for our health. It has only been in very recent times that this inbuilt desire has turned against us and given us a craving for sugar, which by Darwin’s time had become a major industrial commodity. 

We also evolved to be highly conscious of our position within our own immediate group, since so much of our survival —  in the past — depended on that; so today being ‘liked’ feels as if it a life or death issue because in the past it indicated that you would be served when the spoils of the hunt were being distributed. 

Practically everything — then — depended on having a mate and reproducing. And so our minds are massively preoccupied by these questions, even though today, they are not at all central to our individual survival or even happiness. And, obviously, emotive behaviour is much earlier and much more deeply rooted than elaborate reasoning, which is a very recent and still terribly fragile development in human culture. 

We can put on clothes and drive in cars, but we’re still carrying our primate heritage and that, though disappointing, is not our fault. 

Caricature of Darwin from The Hornet magazine, 1871

Charles Darwin teaches us to feel compassion for the very large primitive part of who we all are.

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