Winner of the 2018 Suzanne J. Levinson Prize highlighting a book in the history of life sciences and natural history
Evelleen Richards (University of Sydney)
In Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection (University of Chicago Press, 2017) Evelleen Richards offers fresh and thought-provoking perspective on a topic of long-standing interest to historians of biology. This dazzling book transforms our understanding of the genesis of Charles Darwin’s theory, and far more generally of the debate over sex and race, evolution and reproduction.
According to the theory of sexual selection, either male combat or female choice drives the evolution of striking sexual dimorphisms, including in those ornamental structures and behaviors that otherwise seem nonadaptive at best. This was Darwin’s “secondary” principle, but Richards makes a strong case that sexual selection came first and then gained prominence as he backtracked on the scope of natural selection. Yet, as she shows, sexual selection was always controversial and often unsuccessful; it continually threatened to collapse under the weight of its contradictions. Richards brilliantly explores the mental acrobatics through which Darwin tried to justify female choice in other animals, but preserve male agency in humans. She insists, moreover, that the theory, marked by Darwin’s encounter with “savages” in Tierra del Fuego, was also and in some ways primarily about race. Reconstructing his attempt to produce a naturalistic account of beauty, she places aesthetic theory and visual discrimination center-stage, not least in a gripping analysis of his triple analogy among female birds, male pigeon-breeders, and women fashionably decked out in feathers.
The book is thus rich and sophisticated, synthetic and revisionist. Richards benefits from previous scholarship on Darwin, but has herself delved deep into the notebooks, the printed record, and a wide range of secondary literatures to offer a wealth of discoveries and reinterpretations. Time and again, she guides readers through a passage we may think we know—and demonstrates the transformative power of new evidence and a different approach. Many of the canonical episodes in Darwin studies will never look quite the same again.
Richards’s magnum opus demonstrates the fresh insights that sustained and meticulous historical analysis can bring even to familiar subjects. The intellectual equal of the best historical writing on Darwin, it is also so readable it can serve as an advanced introduction to a host of important issues in the history of the life sciences and natural history. Sure to be enjoyed and discussed by historians of science and laypeople alike, Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection is a milestone in the study of nineteenth-century science.
Nick Hopwood, Robin Scheffler, Elena Aronova (Chair)
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