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.

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

  1. Pingback: Darwin and Behavior | Books, Health and History

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