What Darwin Didn’t Know About Sex
“We are not here concerned with hopes or fears, only with truth as far as our reason permits us to discover it.”
Charles Darwin (The Descent of Man)
A fig leaf can hide many things, but a human erection isn’t one of them. The standard narrative of the origins and nature of human sexuality claims to explain the development of a deceitful, reluctant sort of sexual monogamy. According to this oft-told tale, heterosexual men and women are pawns in a proxy war directed by their opposed genetic agendas. The whole catastrophe, we’re told, results from the basic biological designs of males and females. Men strain to spread their cheap and plentiful seed far and wide (while still trying to control one or a few females in order to increase their paternity certainty). Meanwhile, women are guarding their limited supply of metabolically expensive eggs from unworthy suitors. But once they’ve roped in a provider-husband, they’re quick to hike up their skirts (when ovulating) for quick-and-dirty clandestine mating opportunities with square-jawed men of obvious genetic superiority. It’s not a pretty picture.
Biologist Joan Roughgarden points out that it’s an image little changed from that described by Darwin 150 years ago. “The Darwinian narrative of sex roles is not some quaint anachronism,” she writes. “Restated in today’s biological jargon, the narrative is considered proven scientific fact…. Sexual selection’s view of nature emphasizes conflict, deceit, and dirty gene pools.”
No less an authority than The Advice Goddess herself (syndicated columnist Amy Alkon) voices the popularized expression of this oft-told tale:
“There are a lot of really bad places to be a single mother, but probably one of the worst ever was 1.8 million years ago on the savanna. The ancestral women who successfully passed their genes on to us were those who were choosy about who they went under a bush with, weeding out the dads from the cads. Men had a different genetic imperative—to avoid bringing home the bison for kids who weren’t theirs—and evolved to regard girls who give it up too easily as too high risk for anything beyond a roll on the rock pile.”
Note how so much fits into this tidy package: the vulnerabilities of motherhood, separating dads from cads, paternal investment and jealousy, the sexual double standard. But as they say at the airport, beware of tidy packages you didn’t pack yourself.
“As for an English lady, I have almost forgotten what she is — something very angelic and good.”
– Charles Darwin, in a letter from the HMS Beagle
“Gentry had to be pitied. They had so few advantages in respect of love. They could say they longed for a kiss from a bouncy wife in a vicarage garden. They couldn’t say she roared under me and clutched my back, and I shot my specimen to blazes.”
– Roger McDonald, Mr. Darwin’s Shooter
The best place to begin a reassessment of our conflicted relationship with sexuality may be with Charles Darwin himself. Darwin’s brilliant work inadvertently lent an enduring scientific patina to what is essentially anti-erotic bias. Despite his genius, what Darwin didn’t know about sex could fill volumes. This is just one of them.
On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, a time when little was known about human life before the classical era. Prehistory, the period we define as the 200,000 or so years when anatomically modern people lived without agriculture and writing, was a blank slate theorists could fill only with conjecture. Until Darwin and others began to loosen the link between religious doctrine and scientific truth, guesses about the distant past were restricted by church teachings. The study of primates was in its infancy. Given the scientific data Darwin never saw, it’s not surprising that this great thinker’s blind spots can be as illuminating as his insights.
For example, Darwin’s ready acceptance of Thomas Hobbes’s still-famous characterization of prehistoric human life as having been “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” left these mistaken assumptions embedded in present-day theories of human sexuality. Asked to imagine prehistoric human sex, most of us conjure the hackneyed image of the caveman dragging a dazed woman by her hair with one hand, a club in the other. As we’ll see, this image of prehistoric human life is mistaken in every one of its Hobbesian details. Similarly, Darwin eagerly incorporated Thomas Malthus’s unsubstantiated theories about the distant past into his own theorizing, leading to dramatic overestimations of early human suffering (and thus, of the comparative superiority of Victorian life). These pivotal misunderstandings persist in many contemporary evolutionary scenarios.
Though he certainly didn’t originate this narrative of the interminable tango between randy male and choosy female, Darwin beat the drum for its supposed “naturalness” and inevitability. He wrote passages like, “The female…with the rarest exception, is less eager than the male… [She] requires to be courted; she is coy, and may often be seen endeavoring for a long time to escape the male.” While this female reticence is a key feature in the mating systems of many mammals, it isn’t particularly applicable to human beings or, for that matter, the primates most closely related to us.
In light of the philandering he saw going on around him, Darwin wondered whether early humans might have been polygynists (one male mating with several females), writing, “Judging from the social habits of man as he now exists, and from most savages being polygamists, the most probable view is that primeval man aboriginally lived in small communities, each with as many wives as he could support and obtain, whom he would have jealously guarded against all other men.”
Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker appears to be “judging from the social habits of man as he now exists” as well (though without Darwin’s self-awareness) when he bluntly asserts, “In all societies, sex is at least somewhat ‘dirty.’ It is conducted in private, pondered obsessively, regulated by custom and taboo, the subject of gossip and teasing, and a trigger for jealous rage.” We’ll show that while sex is indeed “regulated by custom and taboo,” there are multiple exceptions to every other element of Pinker’s overconfident declaration.
Like all of us, Darwin incorporated his own personal experience—or its absence—into his assumptions about the nature of all life. In The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles gives a sense of the sexual hypocrisy that characterized Darwin’s world. Nineteenth-century England, writes Fowles, was “an age where woman was sacred; and where you could buy a thirteen-year-old girl for a few pounds—a few shillings, if you wanted her for only an hour or two. … Where the female body had never been so hidden from view; and where every sculptor was judged by his ability to carve naked women. …Where it was universally maintained that women do not have orgasms; and yet every prostitute was taught to simulate them.”
In some respects, the sexual mores of Victorian Britain replicated the mechanics of the age-defining steam engine. Blocking the flow of erotic energy creates ever-increasing pressure which is put to work through short, controlled bursts of productivity. Though he was wrong about a lot, it appears Sigmund Freud got it right when he observed that, “civilization” is built largely on erotic energy that has been blocked, concentrated, accumulated, and redirected.
“To keep body and mind untainted,” explains Walter Houghton in The Victorian Frame of Mind, “the boy was taught to view women as objects of the greatest respect and even awe. He was to consider nice women (like his sister and mother, like his future bride) as creatures more like angels than human beings—an image wonderfully calculated not only to dissociate love from sex, but to turn love into worship, and worship of purity.”
When not in the mood to worship the purity of their sisters, mother, daughters, and wife, men were expected to purge their lust with prostitutes, rather than threatening familial and social stability by “cheating” with “decent women.” Nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed that “there are 80,000 prostitutes in London alone; and what are they if not sacrifices on the altar of monogamy?”
Charles Darwin was certainly not unaffected by the erotophobia of his era. In fact, one could argue that he was especially sensitive to its influence, inasmuch as he came of age in the intellectual shadow of his famous—and shameless—grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who had flouted the sexual mores of his day by openly having children with various women and even going so far as to celebrate group sex in his poetry. The death of Charles’s mother when he was just eight years old may well have enhanced his sense of women as angelic creatures floating above earthly urges and appetites.
Psychiatrist John Bowlby, one of Darwin’s most highly regarded biographers, attributes Darwin’s lifelong anxiety attacks, depression, chronic headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and hysterical crying fits to the separation anxiety created by the early loss of his mother. This interpretation is supported by a strange letter the adult Charles wrote to a cousin whose wife had just died: “Never in my life having lost one near relation,” he wrote, apparently repressing his memories of his own mother’s death, “I daresay I cannot imagine how severe grief such as yours must be.” Another indication of this psychological scarring was recalled by his granddaughter, who remembered how confused Charles had been when someone added the letter “M” to the word OTHER in a game similar to Scrabble. Charles looked at the board for a long time before declaring, to everyone’s confusion, that no such word existed.
A hyper-Victorian aversion to (and obsession with) the erotic seems to have continued in Charles’s eldest surviving daughter, Henrietta. “Etty,” as she was known, edited her father’s books, taking her blue crayon to passages she considered inappropriate. In Charles’s biography of his free-thinking grandfather, for example, she deleted a reference to Erasmus’s “ardent love of women.” She also removed “offensive” passages from The Descent of Man and Darwin’s autobiography.
Etty’s prim enthusiasm for stamping out anything sexual wasn’t limited to the written word. She waged a bizarre little war against the so-called stinkhorn mushroom (Phallus ravenelii) that still pops up in the woods around the Darwin estate. Apparently, the similarity of the mushroom to the human penis was a bit much for her. As Etty’s niece (Charles’s granddaughter) recalled years later, “Aunt Etty … armed with a basket and a pointed stick, and wearing a special hunting cloak and gloves,” would set out in search of the mushrooms. At the end of the day, Aunt Etty “burn[ed them] in the deepest secrecy on the drawing room fire with the door locked—because of the morals of the maids.”
“He will hold thee, when his passion shall have spent its novel force, something better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse.”
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Don’t get us wrong. Darwin knew plenty, and he deserves his place in the pantheon of great thinkers. If you’re a Darwin-basher looking for support, you’ll find little here. Charles Darwin was a genius and a gentleman for whom we have endless respect. But as is often the case with male gentleman geniuses, he was a bit clueless when it came to women.
In questions of human sexual behavior, Darwin had little to go on other than conjecture. His own sexual experience appears to have been limited to his vehemently proper wife, Emma Wedgwood, who was also his first cousin and sister-in-law. During his circumnavigation of the globe on the Beagle, the young naturalist appears never to have gone ashore in search of the sexual and sensual pleasures pursued by many seafaring men of that era. Darwin was apparently far too inhibited for the decidedly hands-on data collection Herman Melville hinted at in his best-selling novels Typee and Omoo, or to sample the dusky South Pacific pleasures that had inspired the sexually frustrated crew of The Bounty to mutiny.
Darwin was far too buttoned-up for such carnal pursuits. His by-the-book approach to such matters is evident in his careful consideration of marriage in the abstract, before he even had any particular woman in mind. He sketched out the pros and cons in his notebook: Marry and Not Marry. On the Marry side he listed, “Children—(if it Please God)—Constant companion, (&friend in old age) who will feel interested in one, —object to be loved and played with. —Better than a dog anyhow … female chit-chat … but terrible loss of time.”
On the other side of the page, Darwin listed concerns such as “Freedom to go where one liked—choice of Society & little of it. … Not forced to visit relatives & to bend in every trifle … fatness & idleness—Anxiety & responsibility. … Perhaps my wife wont [sic] like London; then the sentence is banishment & degradation into indolent, idle fool.”
Though Darwin proved to be a very loving husband and father, these pros and cons of marriage suggest he very seriously considered opting for the companionship of a dog instead.