by Molly Gabler-Smith ,
Darwin published “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex” in 1871, 150 years ago. In his first edition, he presented many different hypotheses about human evolution: some of these hypotheses have withstood centuries of science, while others have not. The book “A Most Interesting Problem: What Darwin’s Descent of Man Got Right and Wrong about Human Evolution” consists of 10 chapters, evaluating Darwin’s ideas and hypotheses and presents new evidence as to which of these ideas Darwin had right, and which ones he had wrong.
So here are eight reasons why I think you should read this book:
- The book humanizes Darwin. The book presents many examples of Darwin, a famous scientist, being human and making errors. Though he presented many scientific findings, some of which uprooted other science at the time, he too was human and made mistakes. The book begins with an anecdote about how Darwin held an ancient fossilized skull in his hands, but did not recognize it as important (i.e. the skull of an extinct human female Neanderthal) because he was ill. This has become one of the most important human remains today…. I wonder what Darwin would think now if he saw it!?
- It’s easy to read! The book breaks down many of the chapters of Darwin’s “The Descent of Man”, into more digestible pieces. Each chapter contains the evidence to disprove his hypotheses or provide recent data suggesting that his ideas from the 1800s are still true. You don’t have to read it in order, so if you find one chapter more interesting, you can skip ahead!
- Being friendly and cooperative is one of the biggest evolutionary successes. After decades of research, Darwin correctly predicted that many cognitive components that allow for our moral behavior are shared through common descent with our close ape cousins. One example that is described in the book is from bonobos. When given the opportunity to fulfill their own selfish desire to eat all of the food they are given, or share the food with another bonobo, bonobos will choose to eat together instead of eating alone!
- You find out that dogs and humans share a physiological bond. This involves regulation of the neurohormone, oxytocin. This hormone is present in all vertebrates and drives social bonding in animals, controlling a parent’s willingness to protect their young. Dogs and humans are the first species known to have a between-species oxytocin connection. This happens when you stare into your dog’s eyes….so love can evolve between human and non-human species! I know that when I look into my dog Silas’s eyes, I can feel our bond. I hope he feels it too.
- The biological background of race is discussed. Darwin believed there was evidence for monogenic common origins for human races, meaning there was a shared common ancestor as opposed to different ancestors (polygenic). By examining a number of superficial differences (like skin color and eye color) between the “races”, Darwin concluded the majority of these differences were based on the fact that diverse groups of humans live in geographically distant places suggesting that nothing about the external variation in humans is explained by natural selection. For the past 35,000 years, there has only been one kind of humans on the planet – Homo sapiens sapiens.
- It’s full of interesting anecdotes. Like how Darwin used a piece of human hair from his wife’s head to try and trigger a Venus flytrap to snap shut!
- The book shows scientific progress in action! With new tools and techniques, like DNA and genetics, scientists can ask different questions and answer old ones with new data. The chapters in this book demonstrate how this has happened over just 150 years.
- It’s historical science. Darwin set the framework for which we examine human evolution. The book shows how ideas emerge, evolve and how they are corrected!
Overall, the book is a very unique presentation of the many scientific ideas and hypotheses of Darwin’s “Descent of Man”. It is a very interesting book about how sometimes scientific beliefs that have existed for decades can easily be debunked using modern technology.
Though ICB has many papers surrounding evolution, we are sharing this free to read
paper by Sih et al
Behavior as a Key Component of Integrative Biology in a Human-altered World
connect with blogger/scientist , Molly Gabler -Smith on Twitter @MarBioMoll