On the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s The Descent of Man, scientists break down his theories on race and sex

To mark the 150th anniversary of The Descent of Man, paleoanthropologist Jeremy DeSilva has gathered a team of experts, mostly scientists, to pen reflections and update Darwin’s analysis: one essay each on The Descent of Man’s introduction and its seven chapters about human evolution, one summarizing the eleven chapters Darwin devoted to sexual selection, one on sexual selection in humans, and a conclusion. The essays in A Most Interesting Problem collectively present an image of Darwin as both “remarkably prophetic” with regard to some predictions and “flat out wrong” with others.

Unsurprisingly, the most controversial of Darwin’s claims, in his time and ours, regard race and sex. It is in the essays on racialized differences and sexual selection in humans—written by Agustín Fuentes and Holly Duns­worth, respectively—that his ideas come under direct fire. Fuentes calls out Darwin’s “ethnocenetric, Eurocentric, and anti-African biases.” Dunsworth suggests that for Darwin, “women were wives, but men were so much more than husbands.”

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Still, Fuentes countenances Darwin such a “good scientist” that he speculates the Victorian would agree that the division of humans into biological races is scientifically unsound, if only he were presented with our current data on biological diversity.

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DeSilva’s volume provides a welcome opportunity to reflect on the history of evolutionary theory as a legacy complicated by Darwin’s prescience as well as prejudice.

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