skip to content

Darwin Correspondence Project

Darwin on race and gender

Darwin’s views on race and gender are intertwined, and mingled also with those of class. In Descent of man, he tried to explain the origin of human races, and many of the differences between the sexes, with a single theory: sexual selection. Sexual selection was manifest through physical attraction, mate choice, and contests between potential suitors. In animals, he argued, sexual selection tended to amplify differences between males and females of the same species. Some of the most familiar examples are the brightly coloured wings of male butterflies, the male peacock’s elaborate tail, the large horns or antlers on male sheep, goats, deer, etc., and similar fighting appendages in beetles.

The unity of human species

Darwin believed that the same process of sexual selection operated in early humans, and had gradually led to the development of different races. Preferences for particular features (hair colour and texture, eye colour and shape, etc.) amongst different human groups would gradually increase those features over long periods of time. Darwin’s theory was based partly on the diverse standards of beauty or attractiveness that seemed to prevail across the globe.

In Descent, Darwin also addressed widely held beliefs about the primordial separation of the human races (that human races were in effect separate species), and the fixity of racial types. A leading factor in disputes about human origins was the lack of consensus on definitions of ‘species’, ‘varieties’, and ‘races’. Darwin argued forcefully for the unity of the human species, commenting that the dispute between monogenists and polygenists would ‘die a silent and unobserved death’ when evolution was generally accepted (Descent 1: 235). Racial characteristics, moreover, were not fixed. Like the traits of any animal or plant, they were always varying, always subject to change depending on the conditions of life. His belief in the unity of human races, and his criticisms of racial ‘fixity’, were strongly motivated by his passionate abolitionism, and his experiences of the atrocities of slavery during the Beagle voyage, as well as ongoing conflicts such as the American Civil War.

Gender and civilisation

In his early notebooks, Darwin remarked that survival value or ‘fitness’ was always relative to the conditions of existence. These might favour complexity, but simpler forms or more instinctive behaviours might also be more advantageous. It is "absurd to talk of one animal being higher than another", he wrote (Notebooks, B74). In his later writings on plants and animals, Darwin remained consistent on this point, and continually distanced his developmental theory from those of contemporaries who emphasised inherent progressivism, improvement, or design. However, when it came to humans, Darwin reintroduced the structure of hierarchy. This is most clear in his discussion of the differences between men and women, and in the ranking of peoples, past and present, on the basis of their ‘civilization’. Here Darwin drew on contemporary anthropology, ethnology, and medicine, but he also followed the conventional beliefs of his class, and the Eurocentric and patriarchal ideology that justified inequalities between the sexes, and colonial conquests and expansion abroad.

Thus, while Darwin’s views on race differed widely from those of his white supremacist contemporaries, he nonetheless clung to a single scale of civilisation on which different peoples could be ranked. The ‘grade of civilization’, he wrote, ‘seems a most important element in the success of nations’ (Descent 1: 239). For Darwin, the civilising process was essentially one of education, and this could lead to intellectual, moral, and technological advance. It is for this reason that he allowed for the possibility of women becoming the equals of men, and of non-European peoples becoming ‘civilized’ (i.e. European). Of the three Yahgans who had been taken from their homeland in Tierra del Fuego to England, Darwin wrote: ‘in contradiction of what has often been stated, three years has been sufficient to change savages, into, as far as habits go, complete & voluntary Europeans’ (Beagle diary, p. 143). He was delighted to receive a letter from an African correspondent (Christian Gaika) who answered his questionnaire on emotions in English handwriting, and he quoted Gaika as an authoritative observer in Expression. He had a number of women correspondents who provided him with scientific information, and he was always encouraging, treating them with equal respect. He actively supported women’s higher education in science and medicine, which was still widely discouraged in academic institutions in the 1870s and 1880s. When he was challenged on the intellectual powers of women and men, he retreated to conventional divisions of work and home, child-rearing and bread-winning, even though these boundaries were often crossed in practice (see correspondence with C. Kennard, below). The implications of Darwinian theory for progressive, as well as racist and sexist theories of human nature would remain one of the most controversial subjects of debate through the end of the nineteenth century and beyond.


Resources on race:

Race, Civilization, and Progress

Key letters:

Letter to J. S. Henslow, 11 April 1833

Letter to C. R. Lyell, 11 October [1859]

Letter to Charles Kingsley, 6 February [1862]

Letter from F. W. Farrar, 6 November 1865

Letter to J. P. M. Weale, 27 August [1867]

Letter from J P. M. Weale, [10 December 1867]

Further reading:

Crais, Clifton C. 1992. White supremacy and black resistance in pre-industrial South Africa: the making of the colonial order in the Eastern Cape, 1770–1865. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cowling, Mary. 1989. The artist as anthropologist. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Desmond, Adrian and James Moore. 2009. Darwin's sacred cause. London: Allen Lane.

Dubow, Saul. 1995. Scientific racism in modern South Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Perez Sheldon, Myrna. 2021. Sexual selection as race making. British Journal of the History of Science 6: 9–23 [in a special issue on ‘Descent of Darwin: race, sex, and human nature’].

Shanafelt, Robert. 2003. How Charles Darwin got emotional expression out of South Africa (and the people who helped him). Comparative Studies in Society and History 45: 815–42.

Stocking, George. 1868. Race, culture, and evolution: essays in the history of anthropology. New York: The Free Press.

Voss, Julia. 2007, Darwin’s pictures: views of evolutionary theory, 1837–1874. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Young, Robert J. C. 1995. Colonial desire: hybridity in theory, culture and race. London: Routledge.


Resources on gender:

Correspondence with women

Key letters:

Letter to H. E. Darwin, [8 February 1870]

Letter from Mary Treat, 20 December 1871

Letter to Mary Treat, 5 January 1872

Letter to [E. M. Dicey?], [1877]

Letter to C. A. Kennard, 9 January 1882

Letter from C. A. Kennard, 28 January 1882

Further Reading:

Darwin, Descent of man (1871), 2: 326–9.

Evans, S. ed. 2017. Darwin and women: a selection of letters.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gianquitto, M. 2007. 'Good observers of nature’: American women and the scientific study of the natural world, 1820–1885. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Hamlin, Kimberly. 2014. From Eve to evolution: Darwin, science, and women’s rights in gilded age America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Opitz, D., Bergwik, S. and Van Tiggelen B., eds. 2016. Domesticity in the making of modern science. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Richards, Evelleen. 2017. Darwin and the making of sexual selection. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


In this section: