“He [Darwin] was prevented from harvesting all the fruits of his fertile imagination because he did not follow through with the logic of his own argument – to discover how female choice influenced the origin of the hominids; that is, to show how sexual selection was important at the very onset of human evolution. Because of an unfortunate blind spot engendered by his own cultural background, Darwin was unable to explicate the necessary interrelationships and carry his own work on to its more logical conclusion.” (Nancy M. Tanner, On Becoming Human (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 167.)
Charles Darwin suggested the possibility that humans were descended from tribal cultures characterized by matrifocal social structures that were driven by female sexual selection. He referenced Morgan’s writings. After suggesting the possibility, he rejected it as being incongruent with his experience of contemporary and primitive society, featuring a focus on male hierarchical dominance patterns with a complementary pattern of female compliance. If Darwin had instead embraced what he rejected, it is unlikely that the history of evolutionary theory would have been changed. Female sexual selection was almost ignored for 100 years. It is with the work of Geoffrey Miller (2000) that sexual selection theory integrated with evolutionary psychology achieves a robust acceptance. Charles Darwin’s vision transcended not only his contemporaries, but his culture.
“Nevertheless, from the strength of the feeling of jealousy all through the animal kingdom, as well as from the analogy of the lower animals, more particularly of those which come nearest to man, I cannot believe that absolutely promiscuous intercourse prevailed in times past, shortly before man attained to his present rank in the zoological scale.”
“…We may indeed conclude from what we know of jealousy of all male quadrupeds, armed as many of them are, with special weapons for battling with their rivals, that promiscuous intercourse in a state of nature is extremely improbable.” (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (London: John Murray, 1871), pp. 611-612.)
Observing the battle occurring in America today, conservative elements are behaving like they are on the defensive. This is for good reason. Imagine what our times would look like to Charles Darwin. Would he have come to the same conclusions regarding sexual selection and human evolution in an environment featuring women’s ability to inherit, women’s right to vote, women’s access to a wide range of professions, abortion, the Pill, divorce, women choosing to have children later in life, and families having little influence on women’s choice of a mate? This year more female doctors graduated than male doctors.
The Left exhibits little awareness of the profound distance our society has come in six generations. So much has changed that we live in a totally new theorizing environment. Evolutionary developmental biology is partly based on a concept of evolution not yet understood or embraced by the status quo, evolution guided by the environmental influences on womb conditions. What happens to the mother has a whole lot to do with how we evolve. The American Right is still trumpeting Judeo-Christian mythology with a transcendent male in total control. This male frame of reference in no small way influenced Darwin. This frame of reference is on the wane.
Charles Darwin composed our culture’s origin myth. Evolutionary evangelists like Richard Dawkins pound the pulpit, pursuing very specific interpretations of the gospel. In just the way that the Bible’s text was influenced by the culture that it came from, Darwin’s life work was influenced by his position as a nineteenth-century, Western, wealthy, white male.
Evolutionary theory is our society’s origin myth. Six generations have passed since its composition. It would be useful to examine Darwin’s work in the context of its time.