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Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin and Gender Projects by Harvard Students

Working in collaboration with Professor Sarah Richardson and Dr Myrna Perez, Darwin Correspondence Project staff developed a customised set of 'Darwin and Gender' themed resources for a course on Gender, Sex and Evolution first taught at Harvard University in 2011. On these pages we feature some of the student projects that were created as a result. Links to the resources and to the course syallabus can be found to the right.

Containing extracts from Darwin's published works as well as from his private correspondence, the resources were designed to encourage students to explore disparities between Darwin's public ideas and those he expressed in private.

More generally, the resources are designed to encourage students to investigate the relationship between science, culture and constructions of gender. Core questions raised by the resources include:

  • To what extent were Darwin's ideas about the sexes influenced by the culture in which he lived?
  • Did the work of scientists like Darwin help to reinforce patriarchal order?
  • What do Darwin and his correspondents' private ideas, actions and language tell us about the impact of gender ideology in 'real life'?

Featured Harvard student projects from 2013-14:

Sarah Amanaullah

 

 

Sarah is a recent Harvard graduate. Her interest in the relationship between biology and gender was developed in her concentration in Human Evolutionary Biology. She now works at the UCSF non-profit Alliance Health Project.

Sarah’s project captures one of the key insights of the DCP’s research into Darwin’s understandings of sex and gender. In his 1871 book, the Descent of Man Darwin argued that women were intellectually inferior to men based on their stunted evolutionary and physiological development. He argued, for instance, that in “formation of [women's] skull, is said to be intermediate between the child and the man” (Descent 2: 317). Darwin believed, however, that although women were less intelligent, that they were actually morally superior to men.

Sarah argues that understanding Darwin’s belief in the higher morality of women reveals much about his understanding of gender. She warns not to exonerate Darwin for views that are flagrantly sexist by today’s standards, but to “give a window into Darwin’s more personal and complex thoughts and opinions about women.”

Miranda Morrison

 

Miranda graduated from Harvard with a degree in Government. She was drawn to Professor Richardson’s class after growing up in Carlisle, Massachusetts where she could conduct her own scientific explorations in the swamp surrounding her house.

Miranda focuses on the role that Darwin’s domestic life played in his experience of gender roles. Recently, historians have highlighted the role that Darwin’s eldest daughter Henrietta played in editing his work. Indeed, Darwin asked Henrietta to help him with the manuscript of The Descent of Man (1871), the very same work that claimed that women did not have the same ability for deep thought as men!

In this video rendition of Miranda’s project, you can learn more about Darwin’s reliance and trust in Henrietta’s intelligence and editorial eye. Darwin sent the manuscript of the Descent of Man to Henrietta, telling her that “the more time you can give for deep criticism or corrections of style, the more grateful I shall be.”(Letter to Darwin, H. E., [8 Feb 1870]) Although Miranda acknowledges that we can never know for sure what role Henrietta’s sex played in Darwin’s choice to have her edit the Descent of Man, she offers us a glimpse into the complex gender landscape of Darwin’s private and domestic world.

Amalia Salcedo-Marx

 

 

Amalia originally took Professor Richardson’s course on a whim, interested in the relationship between social stereotypes and science. She now hopes to concentrate in History of Science and will graduate in 2017.

Amalia also believes that there is room to complicate Darwin’s published views on sex and gender by looking further into his correspondence. She also focuses on Darwin’s letters to Caroline Kennard, and argues that Darwin’s “personal communications reveal that while he may have been a firm believer in male intellectual superiority, he did not view female inferiority as immutable.”

Amalia delves into Darwin’s exchanges with Kennard; exchanges that he marked as “for your private use.” (Letter to Kennard, C.A., 9 Jan 1882) In this personal exchange, she finds evidence that Darwin believed women could improve their intellectual capabilities through training and education; in others Amalia argues that Darwin did not believe that women’s intellectual inferiority was entirely a matter of innate ability, but was also due to the work of society.

Vanessa Tan

 

 

Vanessa graduated from Harvard with a degree in Computer Science, with a particular interest in artificial intelligence. Her personal experiences in both research laboratories and technology settings have led her to develop a strong interest in theories of gender difference as well as the sociology of science.

Vanessa takes a creative approach to the tension between Darwin’s published views and his private letters on the subject gender. She asks us to imagine that Darwin was a feminist, and creates an “anachronistic tabloid-style article” that exposes Darwin to his society as a subversive and hypocrite. She highlights Victorian society’s “gendered perceptions of scientific ability by portraying ‘feminist leanings as ruinous to Darwin’s reputation.” By asking us to consider a historical counterfactual, Vanessa emphasizes both the subtle gendering of Victorian language about female scientists, as well as the explicit condemnation of women’s ability to be “objective”. Darwin emerges through the piece as a champion of women, and is condemned by the social strictures of his time.

Her goal, however, was not to convince her audience that Darwin was a feminist. Instead she shows us the “power of Victorian social norms” in a project that is both incisive and playful.

Featured Harvard student projects from 2011-12:

Nora Garry

Nora is a freshman. She studies predominantly in the English department but also has an interest in science and gender. Nora enjoyed utilizing a non-conventional medium to explore the intersection between Darwin and gender; her quirky cartoon strip sets out a research agenda for the Darwin and Gender initiative and raises some interesting research questions about the gendered nature of content, language and tone in Darwin's letters.

Mark Khanin

Mark is a junior who specialises in the History of Science. He was especially interested in taking Sex, Gender, and Evolution to further explore the way in which society's conception of conventional gender roles has developed over time. Mark's comparative essay on Darwin's letters to his son, George, and daughter, Henrietta, explores the theme of family, labour and gender in Darwin's private world. What does the relative length, content and tone of the letters that Darwin wrote to his children tell us about his attitude to men and women more generally?

Jasmine Rencher

Jasmine is a senior concentrating in History of Science. Her interest in the intersection of gender studies and evolutionary science led her to take Professor Richardson's "Sex, Gender, and Evolution" course and she has thoroughly enjoyed exploring this fascinating field. Jasmine's mock article, "Darwin Shaves," is a fun, creative piece of writing which explores how Darwin's beard symbolised his status as a gentleman and scientist. What implications might there have been if Darwin had opted for the clean shaven look?

Kim Tichmann

Kim is a sophomore and a psychology major. She enjoyed learning about Darwin, and through studying his correspondence, coming to understand the context in which he carried out research. Kim's essay explores the relationship between Darwin's personal experience of courtship and his theory of sexual selection. To what extent were Darwin's scientific ideas influenced by the world around him?

Amanda Villani

Amanda is a freshman. She chose to take this course to learn about History of Science and to gain some insight into the complicated life and studies of Charles Darwin. Amanda's light hearted TV-quiz-themed filmraises some interesting research questions and highlights the contribution that the Darwin and Gender research initiative might make to the history of science.

Previous Projects:

The students’ brief was 1) to design a set of projects which highlight the value of the Darwin and Gender research initiative and 2) to explore the contribution that our work might make to Gender History and Gender Studies.

Project #1: The Amazing Dar-Man & The Mighty Atomic Girl in “Darwin and Gender”, by Taylor Freret

Our first entry was created by Taylor Freret, a senior Chemistry student from Los Altos, California. As a woman scientist, Taylor feels passionate about exploring the history of science through the lens of sex and gender in part to expose the origin of ideas which continue to pervade discussions about women in the world of science today.

The Amazing Dar-Man provides an entertaining and concise introduction to the aims and motivations of the Darwin and Gender research project. According to Taylor; “I have always viewed Darwin as a major force in modern science. Both his systematic observation of the natural world and his willingness to challenge established cultural and religious norms have made him somewhat of a hero to me, which is why I was rather taken aback by many of the things that Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man.

Although he was certainly ahead of his time in many ways, in gender ideas he was very much a Victorian scientist who believed women to be inherently intellectually inferior. In this comic strip, I wanted to chronicle my own investigation into Darwin’s ideas about women and see if I could reconcile them with the man who is in large part responsible for my passion for science.”

Read more about Taylor’s project or view the entire comic strip. To read full versions of the correspodence used in this project, follow the links below:

Charles Darwin to Caroline Wedgwood: http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-542

Charles Darwin to Henrietta Darwin: http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-7124

Charles Darwin to Mary Treat: http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-8146

Florence Dixie to Charles Darwin: http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-12795

Charles Darwin to Caroline Kennard: http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-13607

Caroline Kennard to Charles Darwin: http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-13650

Project #2: “Man has Ultimately Become Superior to Woman” – Darwin’s public and private views on women’s intellect, by Camille Zumwalt Coppola.

Our second entry was created by Camille Zumwalt Coppola. Camille is a sophomore student in the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard, focussing on the field of Modern and Contemporary Art. Theories of sex and gender as well as epistemology are central to the discourse surrounding modern and contemporary art, and Camille’s drive to learn about the history of her field compelled her to take Professor Richardson’s course on Darwin, sex and gender.

Camille’s engaging essay investigates what we can learn about Darwin’s views on women from his private correspondence. To what extent, she asks, were the typically-Victorian statements that Darwin made about women in Descent shaped by the need to please his audience? As Camille demonstrates, his real-life reliance of the help of women – in particular his daughter Henrietta – suggests that his private views on women differed from his public statements. Was this a deliberate crowd-pleasing strategy? Or did the intelligent women with whom Darwin mixed force him to revise his scientific theories? Perhaps Darwin interpreted the help he recieved from women as more moral than rational in character?

That Darwin’s views on women’s intellect changed over time is supported by his complex attitude to women’s education. See, for example, a letter that he wrote to Elinor Mary Dicey in 1877 in which he expresses new-found support for educating women in physiology. Whether the apparent shift that we witness in Darwin’s attitude to women was the product of his lived experiences of women, of post-Descent debate and the passage of time or simply a reflection of the more private and less constrained context in which he wrote is something which is open to interpretation.

Project #3: The value of the Darwin & Gender project, addressed to the National Science Foundation, by Cassidy Bommer.

Our third entry was written by Cassidy Bommer, a visiting undergraduate student at Harvard. Cassidy will graduate from Mount Holyoke College in 2013 with a degree in Biological Sciences and a certificate in Culture, Health, and Science. Her interest in the intersections between evolution, anthropology, and gender studies led her to take Professor Richardson’s course, and she hopes to apply some of what she has learned this semester to her senior honors thesis next year.

Addressed to the National Science Foundation, a U.S. government agency responsible for promoting research in science and engineering, Cassidy argues that the ‘Darwin & Gender’ project has the potential to increase our insight into the workings of gender in the present as much as in the past. Her engaging plea draws attention to the impact that social and cultural patterns – as well as ‘lived experiences’ – can have on the production and communication of science. Cassidy also highlights the specific value of private correspondence, showing its potential to complicate our understanding of Darwin’s core ideas, including his theory of sexual selection.

Project #4: Physical Science, by Andrew Lea

Our final entry was written by Andrew Lea. Andrew is a sophomore concentrating in History and Science with a focus in mind, brain, and behavioral sciences. He has particularly enjoyed taking Professor Richardson’s “Sex, Gender, and Evolution” as it has encouraged him to think about and approach common scientific, historical, and cultural episodes in new ways.

Andrew’s fascinating essay considers the way in which Darwin and some of his contemporaries imagined and described the work they did. Andrew places Darwin and his correspondents’ perception of scientific work in its broader cultural context and considers how ideas about the physically-laborious nature of the scientific process impacted on women’s participation in the world of science.

Prof. Richardson's Gender, Sex & Evolution syllabus

Darwin and Gender resources


The original resources were developed by Dr Philippa Hardman and the Darwin Correspondence Project with funding from the Parasol Foundation.