Professor Tina Beattie, known for her writings on biblical theology and feminism, explains that “Darwin was a Whig who supported the abolition of slavery and welcomed the Great Reform Act of 1832 which made British government more democratic, but he took little active interest in politics” (1). However, even though he maintained these liberal views on certain racial theories, he was still “a man of his time who viewed both non-European cultures and women with an inherent sense of Victorian male superiority.”
For example, when he developed his theory in The Descent of Man, especially the social side to it, he “explained that the inferiority of women to men could be attributed to natural selection. The evolutionary struggle for survival favoured those men who, in their rivalry for women, showed greater intellectual skills as well as physical strength” (2).
Darwin’s own words are most insightful, he wrote that “Woman seems to differ from man in mental disposition, chiefly in her greater tenderness and less selfishness’, men’s intellectual and physical superiority is evident… The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman – whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands… the average of mental power in man must be above that of woman” (3).
And whatever “faculties” women uniquely possessed (such as the powers of intuition, of rapid perception, and perhaps of imitation) are “characteristic of the lower races, and therefore of a past and lower state of civilisation.” Clearly Darwin would send any feminist into orbit. Naturalist Paul Meyers explains that “Darwin was a man of his time, and he takes for granted the narrow Victorian view of gender roles, and also mistakes a cultural imposition for a biological disposition” (4). Beattie agrees with both Meyers and evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden “that Darwin’s understanding of the rules of natural selection was distorted by Victorian sexual stereotypes, not least in the suggestion that [quoting Roughgarden:] “social life in animals consist[s] of discreetly discerning damsels seeking horny, handsome, healthy warriors.” She argues that there is far greater sexual diversity in the natural world and among humans than Darwin’s cultural bias allowed him to recognise… Darwin was simply reflecting views which were common for his time” (5).
Meyers concludes that “He was wrong, you know… He came up with some really good ideas, and some really bad ideas… The Descent of Man is not holy writ, and we now see it as an interesting historical document” (6).
1. Beattie, T. 2007. The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion. p. 35 (Scribd ebook format).
2. Beattie, T. 2007. Ibid.
3. Darwin, C. 1871. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.
4. Meyers, P. 2014. Darwin, Sexist Asshat. Available.
5. Beattie, T. 2007. Ibid. p. 35.
6. Meyers, P. 2014. Ibid.