I am reading Darwin’s Descent of Man, published 12 years after Origin of Species when he felt the atmosphere was more conducive to including man in the animal kingdom. It is a curious book in many ways. I did not know what a thoroughly knowledgeable naturalist he was; his knowledge of anatomy across the animal and plant kingdoms is encyclopedic (Look at his bibliography on Wikipedia). And he was corresponding with many others who informed him of many particulars. He has some of the prejudices of his age, like dark skinned people have keener senses and are less adaptable than light skinned people. And he retained the belief attributed to Lamarck that extended use of an organ causes changes in that organ to be passed on to the next generation (think giraffes extending their necks to eat higher leaves have progeny with longer necks). However, he also recognized the genius (Darwin’s word) of Francis Galton and incorporated his many ideas into his own thinking. Now I can vaguely remember learning about Galton as the originator of statistical correlation, regression towards the mean and the normal curve of statistical distribution of intelligence, but when I looked up more on him, wow, this was one great pioneer thinker (much like Darwin). Galton came up with the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’ (of course now we know it is both), the first weather maps, the idea of fingerprints as identification, and others.
So anyway Darwin wrote in one chapter of the Descent of Man that his object was “to show that there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties,” a lesson often lost over these many years, I think, in the fog of a religious prejudice about the (human) soul’s supremacy. Darwin does this by showing how completely we are related to all of life as he covers many details from various disciplines. I will end this post by citing two of his observations and plan on another post, Darwin 2.0, later. He says that human and other animals abilities do differ in one way, that a beaver can build a dam and a bird a nest without imitation or practice while a human must imitate, improve and practice to form an axe or canoe. And he addresses my two favorite mysteries thusly: “In what manner the mental powers were first developed in the lowest organisms is as hopeless an enquiry as how life itself originated. These are problems for the distant future if they are ever to be solved by man”. Indeed, and so we travel on.