Item of the Month: Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection Related to Sex

By Danielle Aloia, Special Projects Librarian

Charles Darwin. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Charles Darwin. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

The Descent of Man is a groundbreaking work, as relevant today as when it was first published in 1871. The Center for History owns 8 copies of this title, published 12 years after Darwin’s most well known work, On the Origin of Species. Both books sold out quickly, a sign both of Darwin’s persuasive writing, and people’s persistent interest in their origins! In the Descent of Man, Darwin explained the development of the human species by evolutionary processes. He particularly focused on two points: whether the ability to reason and to make moral judgments could evolve in the same way as could physical forms, and how beauty and other seemingly extraneous factors could have an evolutionary role. These were contentious issues, as mental abilities seemed to be a sharp divide between humans and animals, and the existence of order, harmony, and beauty seemed inconsistent with evolution. To think that man had “evolved from apes” seemed nonsensical and was much criticized; Darwin sought to make it plausible.

Here we examine a 1915 copy of the second edition, first published in 1874, which was greatly revised and augmented with extra illustrations in comparison to the first edition. In the preface, Darwin stated, “When naturalists have become familiar with the idea of sexual selection, it will, as I believe, be much more largely accepted; and it has already been fully and favourably received by several capable judges.” He also acknowledged the criticism he received, referring to the “fiery ordeal through which the book has passed,” and welcomed the observations “of Prof. Huxley, on the nature of the differences between the brains of man and the higher apes.” In a series of debates in the early 1860s with noted anatomist Robert Owen, Darwin’s compatriot T.H. Huxley had demonstrated the essential structural continuity of human and ape brains, providing another piece to the puzzle. Darwin knew and accepted that his theories would provoke a backlash, and he modified the details as needed, but he also held steadfast to his original concepts.

A Table of the Principal Additions and Corrections to the Edition of 1874 compares the 1st edition of 1871, the 2nd of 1874, and the 2nd edition “new printing” of 1888, and is included in the opening pages. Especially interesting are: “Cases of men born with hairy bodies”, and “Resemblances between idiots and animals”.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

The engravings reference the differences among males and females of the same species, to illustrate the concept of sexual selection. The species depicted ranged over many classes, including insects, crustaceans, reptiles, birds, and mammals. The engraving below helps to explain how the beautiful plumage of the male bird attracts the female.


Click to enlarge.

This edition also includes a reprint from an article in Nature, from November 2, 1876, which Darwin wrote to explain his misinterpretation of the “brightly-coloured hinder ends and adjoining parts of monkeys.” He was wrong in assuming that the bright color was for attracting the opposite sex. He read an article by Herr J. von Fischer, who studied monkeys, even keeping them in his house, which explained that the reason was more straightforward: the species would “turn this part of their bodies . . . to him when they are pleased, and to other persons as a sort of greeting.” Surely, Darwin was unafraid to own up to his mistakes.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

The book also hosts a tightly-worded index of over 40 pages, where can be found references to the color of Kingfishers, dogs dreaming, and the liability of monkeys to the same diseases as man.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

This volume of work has long been the cause of both scientific inquiry and challenge, and continues to be a work of enduring scientific importance.


Darwin, Charles. (1915). The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Alter, Stephen G. (2007). Race, Language, and Mental Evolution in Darwin’s Descent of Man. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. 43(3): 239-255.

The Darwin Centenary and “The Descent of Man.” (187-).The American Review of Reviews. 239-240.

Of Unicorns on Land and Sea

By Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator and Reference Librarian for Historical Collections

This spring the Cloisters, the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that showcases the art and architecture of medieval Europe, is celebrating its 75th anniversary.  The most famous (and probably most beloved) items in the collection are the Unicorn Tapestries, the seven tapestries that tell the story of the hunt for this elusive animal.  A special exhibit about the unicorn is on display at the Cloisters through August 18th.

Unicorn horns and their purported medicinal uses are described in a variety of early books on drugs and natural history.  One of these, Pierre Pomet’s Histoire generale des drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux, & des mineraux… (Paris, 1694) contains a detailed section on the unicorn, complete with an illustration of the five types of unicorns:

Pomet (1658-1699), a druggist to Louis XIV, also maintained an apothecary shop in Paris.  His Histoire was first translated into English in 1712, and appeared in a second edition in 1725.  The book contains detailed information about plant-based remedies, but also describes the compounding of various cures made from parts of exotic animals, metals, minerals, stones, and a variety of other substances.  In the case of the unicorn, Pomet admits almost immediately that what is sold by apothecaries as unicorn horn comes not from a unicorn at all, but from a fish, the narwhal, whose attributes he describes later in the animal section of the book. Of course, Pomet was wrong to describe the narwhal as a fish, as it is really a species of whale and whales are mammals.

The horns of unicorns and narwhals were believed to be effective as an antidote to all kinds of poisons and to cure various unspecified plagues and fevers.  Some people wore the horns as protective amulets, while others collected complete horns as curiosities for display.  While Pomet offers many details about both unicorns and narwhals, he hedges his bets regarding their efficacy, explaining that while some people believe in their worth, “I shall neither authorize nor contradict, having never had sufficient Experience of it.”

78 Years of Anonymity

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) celebrates June 10 as the anniversary of its founding. But why and how did the organization form?

As William L White explains in Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, A.A.’s founding occurred soon after the end of Prohibition, a time when there were a lack of places for alcoholics to turn to for help. Most institutions specializing in sobriety closed during Prohibition, and those still open were available only for the upper echelons of society. Overcrowded hospitals and sham home cures only worsened the problem. With the repeal of Prohibition and the start of the New Deal, the time was right for A.A.¹

Alcoholics Anonymous can trace its roots to the Oxford Group, a spiritual movement begun in the early 20th century looking to heal the world “through a movement of personal spiritual change.”¹ In 1934, Bill Wilson (known as Bill W.), a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, heard about the Oxford Group from a member who had stopped drinking with the group’s support. After experiencing a spiritual awakening (which may have resulted from hallucinogenic medications) while at a New York hospital to treat his alcoholism, Bill W. started attending Oxford Group meetings.¹

AlcoholicsAnonymousIn 1935, Bill W. met co-founder Dr. Robert Smith (known as Dr. Bob), an alcoholic trying to remain sober with the help of the local Oxford Group in Akron. The date of Dr. Bob’s last drink—June 10, 1935—marks the founding of A.A, which formally separated from the Oxford Group in 1937 (New York) and 1939 (Akron).¹ In 1939, A.A. published Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism. The book listed and explained A.A.’s 12 steps for the first time. As White notes, it also “broke the mold on earlier books by writing, not only about alcoholism, but to alcoholics.”¹ And by alcoholics, laying out its central tenets in a way that makes it clear that the authors had been through a great deal before regaining sobriety:

“If you are as seriously alcoholic as we were, we believe there is no middle-of-the-road solution. We were in a position where life was becoming impossible, and if we had passed into the region from which there is no return through human aid, we had but two alternatives: one was to go on to the bitter end, blotting out the consciousness of our intolerable situation as best we could; and the other, to accept spiritual help. This we did because we honestly wanted to, and were willing to make the effort.”²

Today, we know even more about recovery from alcoholism. Treatment options still include support groups like A.A., and now also incorporate medications and behavioral therapies, often used simultaneously. In addition, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s (NIAAA) National Epidemiological Study on Alcohol and Related Conditions found that some people with alcohol dependence may recover without treatment.³ And researchers have identified genes that can both increase and reduce a person’s likelihood of becoming dependent on alcohol.4

The landscape of alcohol recovery has greatly altered since June 10, 1935. And yet tenets first written down in 1939 retain significance for A.A.’s more than two million members.5

For more on alcohol dependence, visit the NIAAA’s site Rethinking Drinking.

1. White, W. (1998). Slaying the dragon: The history of addiction treatment and recovery in America. Bloomington Ill.: Chestnut Health Systems/Lighthouse Institute.

2. Alcoholics Anonymous: The story of how many more than one hundred men have recovered from alcoholism. (1939). New York: Works Pub. Co.

3. In this issue. (2006).Alcohol Research & Health, 29(2), 72–73. Retrieved May 30, 2013 from

4. NIH Fact Sheets – Alcohol Dependence (Alcoholism). (n.d.). Retrieved May 30, 2013 from

5. A.A. General Service Office. (n.d.). A.A. at a Glance. Retrieved May 30, 2013 from