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The Descent of Man (1871)

by Charles Darwin

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,3471010,780 (3.89)49
In the current resurgence of interest in the biological basis of animal behavior and social organization, the ideas and questions pursued by Charles Darwin remain fresh and insightful. This is especially true of The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, Darwin's second most important work. This edition is a facsimile reprint of the first printing of the first edition (1871), not previously available in paperback. The work is divided into two parts. Part One marshals behavioral and morphological evidence to argue that humans evolved from other animals. Darwin shoes that human mental and emotional capacities, far from making human beings unique, are evidence of an animal origin and evolutionary development. Part Two is an extended discussion of the differences between the sexes of many species and how they arose as a result of selection. Here Darwin lays the foundation for much contemporary research by arguing that many characteristics of animals have evolved not in response to the selective pressures exerted by their physical and biological environment, but rather to confer an advantage in sexual competition. These two themes are drawn together in two final chapters on the role of sexual selection in humans. In their Introduction, Professors Bonner and May discuss the place of The Descent in its own time and relation to current work in biology and other disciplines.… (more)
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» See also 49 mentions

English (5)  Dutch (2)  Italian (1)  Catalan (1)  French (1)  All languages (10)
Showing 5 of 5
Science
  hpryor | Aug 8, 2021 |
Very interesting to read, and definitely a very important work of science, though nowadays somewhat outdated...

I do very much enjoy and appreciate Darwin's writings. He is very thorough and really delved into his subject. Sometimes this makes the reading a bit difficult because there's so much information, but mainly it greatly strengthens his theories. He also relates his ideas to the findings of other scientists and gives elaborate descriptions of examples, observations, and readings.
I do feel that this book is less 'strong' than his 'On the Origin of Species'.
One important part from a modern perspective is his ideas on inheritance and his theory of pangenesis. As we now know this theory to be incorrect - and scientifically speaking not to be able to explain the issues he discusses - this actually weakens his argument. In 'On the Origin of Species' he leaves the system of inheritance somewhat in the dark. He acknowledges that this is problematic, but this admittance of the problem works better than an incorrect theory - again, from a modern perspective. I do understand that he felt a need to provide this theory, since evolution doesn't work without some theory of inheritance, but the incorrectness of his theories makes this book less convincing.
Furthermore, I found the build-up of this book somewhat less structured than 'On the Origin of Species'. There, Darwin takes you by the hand and leads you along all the evidence he has collected, making for a coherent, logical whole. The problem with 'The Descent of Man', I think, is the fact that he is really writing about two things, namely the origins of the human species and sexual selection. He discusses both ideas pretty much separately, which means the book is less of a whole. It might have been nicer had he split up the subjects and discussed both more extensively in separate volumes.

Aside from these issues, it is still a great pleasure to read, full of interesting facts and great descriptions. ( )
1 vote Britt84 | Jul 4, 2016 |
This is Darwin's final major book with a focus on man. The primary focus is on man's origin in Part I, and sexual selection in Parts II & III. I found the discussion of moral sense and social instincts to be particularly enlightening with his focus on "sympathy" and "habit" as discussed by the Scottish philosophers (cf. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments). Notably he rejects God as the source of conscience. The bulk of the text, however, contains detail examples and discussion of the process of sexual selection. ( )
  jwhenderson | May 6, 2009 |
This is a difficult book to read in some ways. The main one being that it is so dense, the amount of information, observations, and evidence presented to the reader is staggering, all of it with the purpose of supporting the central theories of the book. These being that sexual selection plays a part in evolution as well as natural selection, with the former being a specific mechanism of the latter. The book is about man, and his evolution, but the majority of the examples are from other species, which support homologous principles in human evolution. There are quite a few pictures, which aren't bad. Some readers may be put off by the authors regard of different races of people, which will be considered "non p.c" by many, though it is really just scientific observation, despite it getting some geneticists into trouble to this day. The main problem is that this book is very long, and the evidence in support of the theory is greatly in excess to what would have been sufficient. At the time the theories were not things which were going to be readily accepted, and this is probably why the book goes into so much detail. I would struggle to recommend this book to anyone, as it seems so long and unnecessary, and does not make fascinating reading, as you can tell where a chapter is going when you start reading it, and then it seems like a painful slog to finish it. I have no doubt that this book made good reading when first published, but today it just seems like flogging a dead horse to read it as we don't need convincing of the theories. Maybe an evolutionary sceptic would enjoy it much more than I. ( )
2 vote P_S_Patrick | Apr 15, 2008 |
TBR
  miketroll | Feb 23, 2007 |
Showing 5 of 5
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» Add other authors (10 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Darwin, Charlesprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Birx, H. JamesIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bonner, John TylerIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cravens, HamiltonIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Darwin, FrancisEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dawkins, RichardIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Desmond, AdrianEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Egozcue, JosepTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ghiselin, MichaelEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hartogh Heys van Zouteveen, H.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Heberer, GerhardIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hellemans, LudoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hellemans, LudoPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kredel, FritzIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
May, Robert McCredieIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Montagu, AshleyPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nicolas, SergeIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Paparo, FrancoEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rovira, JoanForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schmidt, HeinrichTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Uddenberg, NilsForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vogel, ChristianIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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He who wishes to decide whether man is the modified descendant of some pre-existing form, would probably first enquire whether man varies, however slightly, in bodily structure and in mental faculties; and if so, whether the variations are transmitted to his offspring in accordance with the laws which prevail with the lower animals.
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In the current resurgence of interest in the biological basis of animal behavior and social organization, the ideas and questions pursued by Charles Darwin remain fresh and insightful. This is especially true of The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, Darwin's second most important work. This edition is a facsimile reprint of the first printing of the first edition (1871), not previously available in paperback. The work is divided into two parts. Part One marshals behavioral and morphological evidence to argue that humans evolved from other animals. Darwin shoes that human mental and emotional capacities, far from making human beings unique, are evidence of an animal origin and evolutionary development. Part Two is an extended discussion of the differences between the sexes of many species and how they arose as a result of selection. Here Darwin lays the foundation for much contemporary research by arguing that many characteristics of animals have evolved not in response to the selective pressures exerted by their physical and biological environment, but rather to confer an advantage in sexual competition. These two themes are drawn together in two final chapters on the role of sexual selection in humans. In their Introduction, Professors Bonner and May discuss the place of The Descent in its own time and relation to current work in biology and other disciplines.

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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