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The Descent of Man (Great Minds Series) Paperback – December 1, 1997

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Product Details

  • Series: Great Minds Series
  • Paperback: 698 pages
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books (December 1, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1573921769
  • ISBN-13: 978-1573921763
  • Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 1.6 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,022,323 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"[This work] is second only in importance to the Origin of Species . . . among Darwin's works and the book in which he uses the word evolution for the first time."--Natural History --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

About the Author:

"Charles Robert Darwin (12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882) was an English naturalist. After becoming eminent among scientists for his field work and inquiries into geology, he proposed and provided scientific evidence that all species of life have evolved over time from one or a few common ancestors through the process of natural selection. The fact that evolution occurs became accepted by the scientific community and the general public in his lifetime, while his theory of natural selection came to be widely seen as the primary explanation of the process of evolution in the 1930s, and now forms the basis of modern evolutionary theory. In modified form, Darwin's scientific discovery remains the foundation of biology, as it provides a unifying logical explanation for the diversity of life.

Darwin developed his interest in natural history while studying first medicine at Edinburgh University, then theology at Cambridge. His five-year voyage on the Beagle established him as a geologist whose observations and theories supported Charles Lyell's uniformitarian ideas, and publication of his journal of the voyage made him famous as a popular author. Puzzled by the geographical distribution of wildlife and fossils he collected on the voyage, Darwin investigated the transmutation of species and conceived his theory of natural selection in 1838. Having seen others attacked as heretics for such ideas, he confided only in his closest friends and continued extensive research to meet anticipated objections. His research was still in progress in 1858 when Alfred Russel Wallace sent him an essay which described a similar theory, prompting immediate joint publication of both of their theories.

His 1859 book On the Origin of Species established evolution by common descent as the dominant scientific explanation of diversification in nature. He examined human evolution and sexual selection in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, followed by The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. His research on plants was published in a series of books, and in his final book, he examined earthworms and their effect on soil.

In recognition of Darwin's pre-eminence, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, close to John Herschel and Isaac Newton." (Quote from --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

47 of 55 people found the following review helpful By David Horn on September 30, 2001
Format: Paperback
While I would never presume - as some reviewers might - to misstate what is said in this classic volume and then presume to suggest that "now you don't need to read the book," I will say that this is an excellent edition of a classic work. All who have any interest in the history of Darwinian evolution and particularly the historical views of the evolution of man will find this fascinating reading, particularly if the context can be juxtaposed with what has been discovered since Darwin's time. Of course, times have changed, our hopefully less euro-centric views have been altered and there has been considerable progress through the generations since the original publication by Darwin, and that makes the progress of human knowledge all the more fascinating, as well as the insight Darwin obviously possessed in his day. This one's a "must-read" for anyone interested in the history of science.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By InquiringMind on November 23, 2010
Format: Paperback
A truly outstanding read!

I've kept The Descent of Man on my book shelf for over 30 years, unread. I was always too busy to justify the time required to do it justice. Now that I'm writing a dissertation in the History and Philosophy of Science I had the excuse I always lacked for tackling this monumental work. I'm glad I waited.

Years as a practicing biologist and teacher have taught me the value of perspective. This is not a book that will teach you the details of human evolution. Read something recent in biological anthropology if that is what you are after. If you struggle with the convoluted sentence structure and wordiness of Victorian prose, this is certainly not the book for you. Try Harry Potter or Curious George instead.

I always enjoy reading the negative reviews of books written on controversial topics just to see how many people actually review the subject matter rather than the book. I find it hysterical that 6 of the 7 negative reviews listed here were written by two fundamentalists and the seventh one was so tongue-in-cheek I'd give his review 5-starts just for fun. I found all but one of these negative reviews very predictable, and irrelevant.

The Descent needs to be read by anyone interested in what Darwin thought and dared to publically declare. It should not, however, be read outside the context of his letters, and the social milieu in which he lived. It is most certainly anchored in a different age yet bridges that age to our own. Evolution is the cornerstone of all modern biology. Darwin's astonishing synthesis and daring predictions continue to be tested, refined, and corroborated. Seeing "only in a glass darkly," he nonetheless illuminated so much that is correct in human evolutionary history.
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32 of 40 people found the following review helpful By S. Schwartz on October 30, 2006
Format: Paperback
This book takes off where "Origin of the Species" leaves off. In Origin, Darwin does not present his hypotheses on the origin of man, but in this book he states categorically that the human race is descended from earlier species of apes, which were descended from much more primitive life forms. The book is the work of a naturalist, and it is surprising how perceptive Darwin was, considering that this book was written in 1871. It faced a storm of rejection and tremendous furor. The book caused a storm of controversy throughout the entire world. Darwin sets out his facts as dispassionately as possible, but that did not stop many nations from banning the work. Darwin also clearly states in this important work that man is continuing to evolve. In this book Darwin states that the two main forms of selection that helped to shape the animals and humans the most through time are the theories of natural selection and sexual selection, and he explains the difference between these two often throughout the book. Even though the book is actually quite readable, I found it not an easy book to read. Even now these theories seem too much to be believed in some spots, but I do not argue at all with Darwin's theory. It is in fact the only way that the human race could have evolved. Definitely a must-read for anyone interested in "ground-breaking" literature.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By OverTheMoon on December 1, 2008
Format: Paperback
It wasn't until a few years after the publication of The Origin of Species (1859) that natural selection completely overhauled biology as the unification principle widely sought after to explain uniformity and diversity in living things, Darwin had himself uncovered a type of natural selection, sexual selection, mentioned it briefly in Origin but held back on explaining it fully because it would require more work to do so. The result was the 2 volume The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex published in 1871 that spanned nearly 700 pages. Here both volumes are presented in one.

Darwin and Wallace had co-discovered natural selection as the main mechanism of evolution. Wallace however had succumbed to supernatural explanations and had largely refused to accept that sexual selection could produce some adaptations. Maybe this was because he thought that some adaptations could be explained another way but Darwin had compiled enough evidence to suggest that sexual selection was responsible for many adaptations and was also thusly more evidence for his theory of natural selection. There was only one way to do this and that was to set about documenting as much as Darwin could on sexually selective traits. It is a mammoth undertaking and is primarily the book that got the ball rolling on explaining these adaptations.

As someone who has read this book I am surprised by how it is often wrongly misrepresented by creationists as a work of unabashed racism. Out of the 700 pages I found maybe a few lines that would today require some more elaboration to make the intention clear. That is for today, nearly 140 years since it was written and only 50 years after western civilization had abandoned segregation.
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