Academy,  2 (1870–71), 177–83.

[Review of The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, by Charles R Darwin]

Alfred R Wallace



Publications reviewed:

Darwin 1871a


Reading, Popularization, Natural History, Sex, Genius, Human Species, Descent, Evolution, Darwinism, Morality, Utilitarianism, Gender, Language, Ornithology, Entomology, Instinct, Natural Law

    Observes that Charles R Darwin's latest book is 'one of the most remarkable works in the English language' (183) and 'will prove almost equally attractive to the naturalist and the general reader', being 'throughout written in the author's clearest style'. In addition, many of the non-specialist 'readers of this book', accustomed to 'the reticence with which the sexual relations of animals have been treated in popular works', will 'be astonished to find that a new and inner world of animal life exists, of which they had hitherto no conception', and this 'new branch of natural history is one of the most striking creations of Mr. Darwin's genius, and it is all his own'. Wallace provides a 'sketch in outline' of the book's main facts and arguments, before discussing 'certain points which seem open to criticism'. (177) Praises Darwin's views on the origin of the moral sense as an 'advance in the history of the utilitarian philosophy', although noting that on their logic 'intemperance and licentiousness are never counted as vices, because they do not immediately concern any one but the individual and his family' (178). Before beginning his criticism of Darwin's views, Wallace announces 'I am glad to have this opportunity of showing to what extent a study of his facts and arguments have modified my opinions' (180) as well as indicating where 'Mr. Darwin adopts the views of the present writer' (178). The Descent, according to Wallace, 'consists of two books mixed together' and a 'rearrangement could easily be effected in a future edition, and would have many advantages', while much of the writing is 'certainly not in accordance with our author's usual precision of language', although Darwin's imprecise use of the term 'Instinct' is 'no doubt mainly due to the poverty of our language' (180). Also questions Darwin's 'argument that the female exerts a choice, and has the power of rejecting any particular male', as 'this hardly seems to follow, for it may well be maintained that when the more active male seizes a female she cannot escape, and that she has no means of rejecting him and practically never does so' (179). Wallace's main criticisms relate to the efficacy of the principle of sexual selection in cases other than birds, as well as the evolution of the human species. Throughout all of the different orders of insects, for instance, 'there is no direct evidence whatever of sexual selection as regards colour', and instead Wallace attributes variations in insect colours to 'unknown laws'. From his researches on 'many islands of the Malay Archipelago' he suggests that there exists 'some local modifying influence which is certainly not sexual selection' but which is nevertheless 'capable of differentiating the sexes'. (182) Similarly, contends that 'the superiority of man to his nearest allies', and in particular 'the almost infinite capacities of his brain', are 'too great to be accounted for by the struggle for existence of an isolated group of apes in a limited area', and must rely on 'unknown causes which may have aided in the work' (183).


Wallace 1871a

See also:

Desmond and Moore 1991, 581–82

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