Charles Darwin's The Descent of Man Summary

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  • 0:03 The Descent of Man:…
  • 0:54 Chapters One to Four
  • 2:49 Chapters Five to Seven
  • 4:03 Chapters Eight to Eighteen
  • 4:41 Chapters Nineteen to Twenty
  • 5:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Audrey Farley

Audrey is a doctoral student in English at University of Maryland.

This lesson presents a comprehensive summary of 'The Descent of Man' published by Charles Darwin in 1871. In the book, Darwin expands on his theories first presented in 'On the Origin of Species.'

The Descent of Man: Introduction

In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin expands on his theories of natural selection, which he first articulated in On the Origin of Species. Darwin wrote this book to explore the following three concepts: whether man descended from a pre-existing form, the manner of that development, and the importance of racial variation among the species of man.

Darwin admits that some of the ideas in The Descent of Man have been explored by other figures, such as Boucher de Perthes, Sir Charles Lyell, Sir John Lubbock, and Henry Huxley. Unlike these other writers, however, Darwin's purpose is not merely to outline similarities and differences between man and apes; it is to explain the origin of such similarities and differences as well as their impact on the process of sexual selection.

Chapters One to Four

In Chapters One to Four, Darwin begins by examining the 'notorious' similarity between the human skeleton and the skeletons of primates, as well as the likeness between the human brain and the brains of other primates. He also discusses the shared behaviors of man and monkeys and the easy communicability of infection between the two. Some of the similarities that he notes are: the manner of reproduction, the dependency of offspring, tissue structure, body hair, and the correlation between memory and sense of smell. Darwin argues that the link between man and monkey is apparent and that only prejudice and pride prevent humans from recognizing this link.

He then discusses individual variation among humans. For instance, he explains how humans differ in face, height, skull shape, teeth, arteries, muscle structure, and internal organs. He explains that human breeding practices account for these variations, as well as the use and disuse of certain body parts.

Darwin asserts that the mental faculties of man and higher mammals are not fundamentally different. He supports this claim by citing the shared cognitive instincts of man and ape, including shared learning capacities. For instance, he claims that apes are naturally curious, suspicious, and playful, like humans, and that they, too, need stimulation.

Darwin claims that people are reluctant to acknowledge the mental faculties of higher animals, but insists that careful observation of animal behaviors, such as toolmaking, readily reveals animal intelligence. Darwin observes a significant difference between man and the lower animals: conscience. Here, he responds to challenges from Immanuel Kant and other moral philosophers, who have sought to explain how man came to develop a moral sense. While Darwin agrees that moral sense sets man apart from other beasts, he argues that conscience is nothing more than an evolved trait.

Chapters Five to Seven

In Chapters Five to Seven, Darwin outlines his theories about the development of habitual social behaviors. He argues that humans, like animals, desire the praise of peers, and this likely contributed to the development of cooperative traits. He also explains civilization in terms of its evolutionary function.

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