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Mistakes In The ‘Origin’

Well, the main proponent of the Theory of Evolution had possibly made more than a mistake! Once in his lifetime, he had an opportunity to experiment with a human skull. However, he couldn’t recognise the skull properly.

Charles Robert Darwin (February 12, 1809 – April 19, 1882) and his wife Emma Wedgwood (May 2, 1808 – October 2, 1896) reached London in the last week of August 1864, and found shelter at No 4 Chester Place Road, the residence of Darwin’s sister-in-law Sarah Elizabeth Wedgwood. Darwin arrived in London from his ancestral home in Kent County’s Downe Village due to his illness, as he, at that time, was throwing up on a regular basis. In a letter to his closest friend and founder of Geographical Botany Joseph Dalton Hooker, the English Naturalist, Geologist and Biologist reportedly wrote that doctors had advised him to stay in London.

One fine morning, Scottish Geologist, Botanist, Palaeontologist and Paleoanthropologist Hugh Falconer (February 29, 1808 – January 31, 1865) arrived at Darwin’s place to meet the latter. He had brought a fossil with him, which was actually a skull of an extinct human being, found in Gibraltar. Although the finding did not trigger a sensation, Falconer and his friend George Busk, a British Anthropologist, decided to unveil the skull at the next session of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in the English city of Bath. Before that event, Falconer wanted to show Darwin the skull.

Charles Darwin

Darwin saw the fossil, but did not study it minutely. Falconer passed away just five months later, and neither Falconer nor Darwin mentioned their meeting in their writings. In a letter to Hooker, Darwin had written: “Both (Scottish Geologist) Charles Lyell and Hugh Falconer called on me, and I was very glad to see them. Falconer brought me the wonderful Gibraltar skull.” It was the only time when Darwin got an opportunity to see a fossilised human skull. However, he did not mention it in the letter. Perhaps, he did not feel anything special after studying it. Otherwise, he would have been mentioned his feeling in his works.

Unfortunately, Charles Darwin, too, had made a mistake. The scientist, who dedicated his entire life in searching for anthropological items and penned his theory on the basis of all those specimens, failed to realise the significance of the best specimen. This is science… to move on in the dark. That’s why famous author Arthur Koestler, in his 1959 publication The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe, called the scientists Sleepwalkers. Otherwise, Darwin would have realised the significance of the Gibraltar skull, and penned the best book of his life in 1864. He did not have to wait another seven years to publish The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (February 24, 1871). This book is mainly on Theory of Human Evolution, and also on Theory of Sexual Selection, a form of biological adaptation distinct from, yet interconnected with, Natural Selection. The year 2021 marked the 150th anniversary of that publication. On The Origin of Species (published on November 24, 1859) is one of the important works of Darwin, but The Descent of Man is the most important one!

Hugh Falconer

In his On the Origin of Species, Darwin explained the evolution from one animal to other. However, Man was not free from that Evolution. In 1871, Darwin made it clear that Humans, too, were Evolutionary Animals. Twelve years ago, he analysed only the evolution of animals, saying: “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history, later.” (p. 488, On the Origin of Species) He was well aware of the fact that discussions on human evolution was important, as animals, unlike human beings, do not read books. Human beings have always been interested to know where they came from. Darwin used to communicate with British Naturalist, Explorer, Geographer, Anthropologist, Biologist and Illustrator Alfred Russel Wallace (January 8, 1823 – November 7, 1913) through the postal service. In one of his letters to Wallace written on December 22, 1857, he called the origin of human beings the Highest Most Interesting Problem for the Naturalists.

Darwin made an attempt to solve this highest most interesting problem in his 1871 publication The Descent of Man. He mentioned that the way animals had taken their forms from animals, man, too, had taken the form from animals. Hence, human beings should be considered as Modified Animals. Once, Sigmund Freud was heard mentioning that The Descent of Man could easily secure its place among the top 10 significant books. The book has a great impact not only on Science, but also on Literature, Theology and Philosophy. After that, Darwin had penned only one book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), on the same subject.

This important issue had been on Darwin’s mind for a long time. However, he did not discuss the issue in On the Origin of Species. It may be noted that Darwin was, by no means, a professional scientist. His parents wanted him to become a doctor. So, they had sent him to the University of Edinburgh. As Darwin wanted to become a pastor, he left the University of Edinburgh, and took admission at the University of Cambridge. The global community would have had Pastor Darwin, unless something had happened in his life. His 1831-36 voyage to different parts of the globe changed Darwin. In those five years, he visited different countries, watched innumerable animals, and met many primitive tribes. He also came across the inhuman practice of Slavery! It seems that the White-skinned human beings had every right to enslave the Dark-skinned ones, as the latter were considered as a different species, altogether. Those, who used to support the practice of Slavery, believed that God created the Blacks separately, and they were worthy of being slaves! It may be noted that the English women did not have the Voting Right at that period of time, and Slavery played the central role during the American Civil War (April 12, 1861 – May 9, 1865). In fact, the Slave System prompted Darwin to prove that there were no differences between animals and humans beings. Hence, he showed that all human beings had come from a single source (animal).

Meanwhile, the influence of religion was strong in the English society, and religion used to support slavery. Darwin’s friend Lyell, too, backed this system. He advised Darwin to go through the pamphlet authored by the American Pastor, the Reverend John Buckman, Jr (April 2, 1745 – December 21, 1792). The Pastor had stated that Whites and Blacks should remain united, although the two races were different. According to Reverend John Buckman, Jr, Whites were ahead of Blacks in intelligence. Darwin rejected the Pastor’s view; however, he did not argue with Lyell. No matter Darwin mentioned in On the Origin of Species that “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history, later”; readers started thinking about the human evolution soon after the book was published. They assumed that Darwin would reject the role of God as the creator of Nature, and push the society towards Atheism by proving that the story of Adam and Eve was a lie. They demanded the evidence that Natural Selection was actually happening. They were of the opinion that Natural Selection was a mechanical process, with full of potential. So, how could it give birth to wonderful human qualities, like beauty, morality or language? Darwin made an attempt to address all these issues in his The Descent of Man. The title of the book is noteworthy… The Descent of Man, and not the Origin of Man!

Charles Lyell

The book was first published in two volumes in 1871… The Descent of Man and the Sexual Selection. In addition to Natural Selection, Darwin imported another concept in this book… Sexual Selection. The rules of Sexual Selection are a significant factor in human evolution. In April 1860, Darwin wrote: “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick.” He explained that those fancy tails did not make the bird more fit to survive. Instead, the 5ft-long feathers of the tail make flying harder for peacock. On the other hand, the peahens do just fine with small tails. However, the colourful long tails help peacocks find a mate. According to Darwin, the long tails of peacocks were not the outcome of Natural Selection, but of Sexual Selection. Females choose males with the best ornaments, and hence elegant peacocks have the most offspring. With this, Darwin also developed the radical idea of Females’ Power to choose their mates, despite it being at odds with his own notions of women as inferior. “We must suppose that peahens admire the peacock’s tail, as much as we do,” he wrote. Darwin stressed that Sexual Selection was also responsible for creating the concept of Human Race (Whites and Blacks), as the concept of beauty depends on place and time.

After the publication of The Descent of Man, Alfred Russel Wallace became a fierce critic of Darwin’s Sexual Selection Theory, as one of the main proponents of the Theory of Evolution attacked the Theory of Aesthetics among the Female species. According to Darwin, only the developed animals have a sense of beauty or aesthetics. He argued that not only women, but also female animals have this sense. Wallace and some other naturalists opined that there was no need to make a separate theory, called Sexual Selection; as the Theory of Natural Selection could explain everything.

Alfred Russel Wallace

In the first volume (The Descent of Man), Darwin discussed the comparison between man and animals. He claimed that there were similarities between them, as far as consciousness, logic, morality, memory, imagination, and even language were concerned. According to Darwin, the human mental capacity came from animals, gradually, through Natural Processes. While concluding of The Descent of Man, he wrote: “We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system – with all these exalted powers – Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.

Darwin had rightly predicted that the publication of On the Origin of Species would trigger a controversy. He responded to all the criticism in The Descent of Man. That is why the contemporary scholars called this book The Other Missing Half. Darwin used the term evolution widely in The Descent of Man. He also used the phrase Survival of the Fittest, which was first coined by English Philosopher, Biologist, Anthropologist, and Sociologist Herbert Spencer (April 27, 1820 – December 8, 1903) in his 1863 publication Principles of Biology while explaining Natural Selection. Spencer frankly admitted that the phrase had come to his mind when he read The Origin of Species. Interestingly, Wallace, one of the proponents of the Theory of Evolution, also liked this book as soon as it was printed. He had repeatedly urged Darwin to use such an appropriate phrase in his works. There was a confusion as to when Darwin first used the phrase Survival of the Fittest in his writings. Janet Browne, the biographer of Darwin, resolved the issue in his two publications, Charles Darwin: Voyaging and Charles Darwin: The Power of Place. According to Browne, Darwin had first used the phrase in 1868 in his The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. When the fifth edition of The Origin of Species was published in 1869, he incorporated the phrase Survival of the Fittest to it.

The publisher of The Descent of Man was John Murray, the person who had published The Origin of Species 12 years ago. Murray had an idea that Darwin used to make new statements in his new work. Hence, he was quite sure that The Descent of Man would trigger a fresh controversy and all the copies would be sold. After receiving the manuscript from Darwin in 1870, Murray handed it over to his friend Reverend Whitwell Elwin, an English clergyman, critic and editor of the Quarterly Review magazine. Elwin advised Murray not to publish this book, as it was “full of nonsense“. However, the publisher rejected his friend’s advise, and printed The Descent of Man.

Murray published 2,500 copies of The Descent of Man on February 24, 1871. Next month, another 2,500 copies were published after correcting some mistakes. In the US, D Appleton & Company published the book at the same time. The Franco-German War already rocked Europe at that period of time. Nevertheless, The Decent of Man was translated into Dutch, French, German, Russian, Swedish, and Polish. This publication changed the fortune of Darwin, as Murray sent him a royalty of GBP 1,470. Although the book triggered a sensation, the Hornet magazine published a cartoon of Darwin, portraying him as an Orangutan, with the caption: ‘A Venerable Orang-Utan, a Contribution to Unnatural History’.

The cartoon in the Hornet magazine

The most important chapter of The Descent of Man is Chapter Four. In this chapter, the author discussed how human beings differ from animals, despite their embryonic, anatomical, and behavioural similarities. According to Darwin, human character has four specialties: Usage of arms, shortening of the gums, walking on two legs, and the enlargement of the brain. He stated that human beings started walking on two legs, instead of crawling, when they used their hands to hold arms. Darwin wrote that Hominids needed to walk on two legs to free up their hands. He added: “…the hands and arms could hardly have become perfect enough to have manufactured weapons, or to have hurled stones and spears with a true aim, as long as they were habitually used for locomotion.” According to Darwin, humans are strange creatures, as they walk upright on two legs and possess supersized brains. They also invented tools to meet their every need, and expressed themselves using symbols, apart from conquering every corner of the planet. He had outlined a theory, linking freedom of the hands from locomotion, granted by terrestrial bipedality to manual dexterity, tool manufacture, reduced canine teeth and an armed, predatory lifestyle.

More than 150 years have passed since the publication of The Descent of Man. Even today, anthropologists are concerned about the issues that once haunted Darwin. Why human beings stood up straight? Did they pick up weapons before they could walk on two legs? Yet, Darwin’s mistake amazes the modern anthropologists. It is a fact that fossils were not discovered in large numbers during his lifetime. Still, Darwin got an opportunity to touch the fossil of a human skull. A portion of a human skull was unveiled at a session of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1863. Anglo-Irish Geologist William King (April 22, 1809 – June 24, 1886) claimed that it was found in Kleine Feldhofer Grotte, a karstic limestone cave, in the Neander Valley of Germany.

King called the cavemen Homo Neanderthalensis, who were extinct Europeans. The skull, which Falconer showed to Darwin, was that of a Neanderthal woman. A single skull could have confused Darwin. However, two skulls indicated a particular pattern. Nowadays, at times, it is heard that Darwin should have identified that the skull was of a human ancestor, because of the small teeth and the large brain. Then, he would not have to wait another seven years to pen The Descent of Man. Unfortunately, human beings make mistakes!

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