Roundtable with 2018 Levinson Prize Awardee Evelleen Richards

[Editor’s note: The biennial Suzanne J. Levinson Prize was established in 2006 by Mark Levinson to honor the memory of his wife who was especially interested in the history of evolutionary theory, microbiology, and botany. “Rich and sophisticated, synthetic and revisionist,” was how the members of the prize committee described the 2018 winner, Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection (University of Chicago Press, 2017) by Evelleen Richards. The Newsletter is excited to present a roundtable conversation between the author and some of the leading Darwinian scholars of the day, who also happen to be HSS members: Bernie Lightman, historian of Victorian science and outgoing HSS President; Janet Browne, Darwin biographer and past president of our society; and Greg Radick, the 2010 winner of this same award.]

HSS Newsletter: As a preface to the roundtable, could you offer our readers a quick snapshot of the book, something that the publishers, Amazon, or the Levinson Prize committee has not already commented on?

Darwin’s theory of sexual selection has a long and conflicted history. From its beginnings, it was intertwined with cultural and social beliefs and shaped by professional and institutional power plays and the larger issues of the day. It was drawn from a great complexity of sources, themselves culturally inflected. And Darwin justified it with a mix of culturally laden constructions of sexuality, gender and race.

This book offers a detailed contextual reconstruction of the formation and transformation of Darwin’s sexual selection, from the visual shock of “savage” encounter on the voyage of the Beagle, through the assembly of the matrix of theory, observation, practice and analogy that constituted the core of Darwin’s theorizing and the networks of relations that made this possible, on to its fully realized elaboration in the Descent of Man. It brings an unprecedented array of issues and practices to bear on Darwin’s conceptualization and promotion of sexual selection: Enlightenment physiogonomy, the views of his grandfather Erasmus, pigeon breeding, Victorian high fashion, domestic ideology and marriage guidance manuals, Dickensian novels, aesthetics and visual culture, ornithology, anthropology, contemporary theories of development and inheritance, conflict with Alfred Russel Wallace, co-founder of natural selection, eugenics, New Women, birth control and radical politics. The trajectory of sexual selection thus was shaped by many issues and thinkers, many little known in the history of evolutionary science.

Evelleen Richards (University of Sydney), “answering curly questions in my natural habitat.”

Evelleen Richards (University of Sydney),
“answering curly questions in my natural habitat.”

But its central actor was always Darwin. Far more than natural selection, sexual selection was peculiarly Darwin’s “own,” and Darwin worked to keep it so, struggling to hold his creation together as it threatened to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Above all, it was Darwin who held fast to its “truth,” who brought his great fame and his name to its making. But sexual selection, as Darwin conceived and defended it, never quite made it. This book explains why.

Greg: At the start of the book, you write about its beginnings in your work for your well-known 1983 paper “Darwin and the Descent of Woman.” You note changes of ambition for the project since that time. Did you also find yourself changing your mind along the way, either about Darwin himself or the making of his theory?

I gained a new respect for the man and a greater tolerance for those of his views I did not share and had found offensive on my earlier readings. While fully acknowledging his self-absorbed, privileged, patriarchal, cosseted domestic life, so well evoked by Janet in her biography, and looking at how this lifestyle provided both personal comfort and models of normative behavior and gender roles for his theorizing, I came to admire the prodigious amount of work that he put into the making of sexual selection.

Above all, I was impressed by his dogged perseverance in the face of his own intellectual difficulties, social attitudes and cultural values, in coming to terms with the notion of female choice as an active agent of evolutionary change. The troubling issues of sexism, racism, class privilege, etc., fell more into place as I became caught up in the challenges of following Darwin—through the complexities of his metaphor construction and theory building and gathering of evidence and ideas—identifying the cultural baggage that came with these, and then putting all of this into domestic, institutional, cultural and political contexts.

In other words, it was not so much that Darwin became in my eyes a better man, but that through studying his making of sexual selection, I became a better historian!

Bernie: What was the most surprising thing you discovered while writing this book?

There were quite a few surprises, but the most surprising—as well as the most satisfying—was the significance of embryology to Darwin’s making of sexual selection. It was all the more surprising because I had worked on the history of nineteenth-century embryology and evolution for my PhD dissertation (1976). And, although I (along with every other historian I’d consulted), had then failed to see any connection with sexual selection, I did pick up the importance of his embryological argument for his views on women’s intellectual inferiority in my 1983 paper. But its full significance for Darwin’s theorizing on sexual selection only slowly dawned on me over the course of researching and writing the book. For example, there are the ways in which it underpinned his defining conflict with Wallace, which is usually structured in terms of their differing views on inheritance.

Another issue that was thrown into relief was the way in which his conception of a gendered and generic embryo was fundamental to his threefold analogue of the selective practices of pigeon fanciers, the frivolous dress choices of fashion-conscious women, and the aesthetic choices of female birds, all of whom capriciously pushed their selections to nonfunctional extremes. Critical to this understanding of the significance of embryology to Darwin’s formulation of sexual selection were a couple of serendipitous discoveries: notably his historically neglected notes on William Yarrell’s British Birds, where, right at the end, I found clinching evidence for Darwin’s definitive decision, primarily on the basis of his embryological argument, that skin color in humans was, like the color of bird plumage, predominantly if not solely due to sexual selection, rather than through natural selection via resistance to disease. Hence his Origin declaration on the determining role of sexual selection in human racial divergence.

And again, when I was, most enjoyably, researching Victorian fashion, I happened upon a pattern for a young boy’s dress, which gave me the fashion referent for Darwin’s fundamental embryological rule for sexually dimorphic species, of the likeness of immature young to adult females; which I could then relate to the well-known daguerreotype of Darwin with first-born son William, who is wearing a dress; Darwinian embryology made easy, as I tell students. Furthermore, I could link this finding to a quotation from a review of Alexander Walker’s Intermarriage, a review that I knew Darwin had read, and which had led him to buy and read the work for himself. The smoking gun! On reflection, though, perhaps they were not so much surprises, as recognitions by a historian steeped in her material and finding what she was looking for.

Both Janet and Bernie had questions about the reception of Darwin’s ideas about sexual selection by his contemporaries. Janet asks: You make clear that there was not much support for sexual selection as an idea among the new Darwinians. Yet female choice became popular among social radicals especially feminists. What did Wallace make of this turn of events?

Wallace is, of course, well known for his longterm opposition to Darwinian sexual selection, and for his 1890 volte face when he publicly championed the notion of informed female choice as an agency of human progress in a post-socialist society. The significant feminist appropriations of female choice—notably by the Americans, Eliza Burt Gamble and Charlotte Perkins Gilman—came after Wallace’s adoption of the notion, although the American socialist Edward Bellamy had earlier promoted the idea in his highly influential futurist novel, Looking Backward (1888). Bellamy is the accepted source of Wallace’s dramatic turnaround, but Wallace was well exposed to an earlier British tradition of sexual radical and feminist utopian versions of socially improving female choice—a tradition that extends from the time of the Owenite socialists to its reemergence among the more radically minded towards the end of the nineteenth century.

I’ve argued that, among other concerns, Wallace was reacting against its adoption by those associated variously with Grant Allen’s version of  reformist eugenics and/or free love—which Wallace pronounced “detestable”—and Neo-Malthusian birth control, also notoriously associated with female promiscuity. Wallace was a moralist intent on dissociating female choice and social progress from the taint of free love and degrading “sensuality.” His version of socially and morally improving female choice was subsumed within more conventional renderings of femininity, passive female sexuality and monogamy. This viewpoint was more acceptable to most feminist evolutionists, who in turn were happy to draw on this, by then famous, Darwinian endorsement of morally and eugenically improving female choice.

And Bernie wants to know: What about Huxley, who never completely accepted the theory of natural selection; how did he view the validity of the theory of sexual selection?

Now this is an interesting question, and yet another one of the surprises of my research. Given Huxley’s famous caution about natural selection, I did not expect any endorsement of the more controversial principle of sexual selection. Furthermore, I had earlier formed the view that Huxley’s celebrated “Evolution and Ethics” was not only directed against Wallace’s socialist politics, as Michael Helfand long ago argued, but also was indirectly targeting Wallace’s adoption of female choice as the agent of social progress. I made this argument in my book.

Still, I was indeed surprised when I could locate only one, solitary, explicit reference by Huxley to sexual selection in the entirety of his published work and correspondence (and that a facetious one, see Richards 2017, 472). At my request, Adrian Desmond obligingly searched his extensive database of published and unpublished Huxley material and—also to his expressed surprise—confirmed my finding. So, it seems that Huxley not only opposed the adoption of sexual selection by social radicals like Wallace, but deemed it unworthy of serious discussion, or even mention, as a biological process.

Greg: It’s sometimes said that, in giving a “sexual-selectional” rather than a “natural-selectional” account of the origins of racial divergence in humans, Darwin in some way was trying to minimize the importance of racial differences. Does your book support that view?

It is an attractive thesis, but I found no evidence for it. Although Darwin’s views on race were more benign than those of many of his contemporaries, including Huxley, he also held to a Eurocentric, hierarchical interpretation of race, and evinced little empathy with “inferior” or “savage” races. He may have held an “inviolate” anti-slavery ethic, but he consistently demonized savage appearance and behavior, from the time of his Beagle diary to the Descent of Man. He was insistent on the biological basis of distinctive racial moral and mental traits, and on the intractability of interracial competition and conflict.

Before all, let us not forget that Darwin’s sexual selection depended on the ability to perceive and discriminate among differences in external appearance; that appearance was all. And, while he did not view racial differences to be as pronounced as the more extreme racial determinists did, he was as committed to acknowledging and explaining racial difference, which had become one of the central anthropological/political issues of his time, as Desmond and Moore have persuasively argued. Also, although Darwin, of course, consistently opposed the polygenist thesis of separate racial origins, he also conceded that racial differences were sufficiently pronounced to warrant the classification of the human races as separate species.

My argument is that for Darwin the impact of savage encounter, as well as theoretical and observational issues, over-rode abolitionist sympathy. His early encounters and racial rankings have a strong aesthetic component, an emphasis on the visual, on appearance, on difference; he was already aware of earlier efforts to explain racial divergence through aesthetic selection (especially Lawrence’s); and, like the polygenists, he rejected the old correlation of climate or habit with race. This rejection was consistent with his principle of divergence, with his metaphor of selection to extremes, and underpinned by his embryology, and he had all this more or less together by the late 1850s and consolidated it in the 1860s, as I’ve explained at some length. In other words, Darwin had cogent intellectual and theoretical reasons, as well as ideological ones founded in the visual impact of racial encounter, for choosing sexual selection to explain racial differences.

It was Darwin’s answer to the problems posed by all interested parties. Divergence from an original common ancestry through male combat and sexual choice, determined by specific racial notions of beauty and sustained by antipathy toward those who did not meet such racially determined aesthetic requirements, overcame the disjuncture between climate and race, so stressed by polygenists. At the same time, it also solved the issue of the long-term persistence of those nonfunctional external differences like skin color, hairiness, and face shape, given such significance by polygenists, which Wallace and Huxley were concurrently seeking to explain through the action of natural selection.

In short, I cannot see how Darwin’s opting for sexual selection, rather than natural selection, to explain racial divergence, was determined by a concern to minimize the importance of racial differences. Rather, I’d argue, it played on them.

Bernie: What impact are you hoping to have on Darwin scholarship, and, more broadly, the history of Victorian science and culture? How about the history of science and gender?

I hope that my work will be of interest and use to a younger generation of Darwin scholars and those working in related fields of cultural and gender studies, in the sense that it offers them new opportunities for and provokes them into reading, critiquing, challenging, extending and refining the arguments and evidence it presents. Overall, I’m looking forward to a freshening of interest and new interdisciplinary insights that a shift of focus from natural to sexual selection hopefully will bring. I would also like practicing biologists to join the party, in line with the renewed interest in the notion of female choice and aesthetic selection. The history of science is unfinished business, as we know well, and we’re all in it together. As Bob Young (vale Bob) wrote so long ago, the history of science, like science itself, is a “social activity, born of society, and mediating its structures and values.”

Greg: If a class or reading group could manage only one chapter, which one would you suggest?

This question is a hard one. I’m inclined to give them a good Victorian rap over the knuckles and tell them to begin at the beginning and read to the end! But admittedly it is a very big book, while life is short, and full of diversions. So I’d try to engage their interest by suggesting Chapter 1, “The Ugly Brother,” which introduces the central theme of the book, the significance of early “savage” encounter to the inception of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, and hints at the ways in which this took him through to the presentation and defence of his “secondary principle” in the Descent of Man.

Janet: You know so much about the idea of sexual selection in scientific, political, and cultural context. Are there some areas that you’d recommend young scholars to explore further?

I think much more might be made of the links of sexual selection with Victorian visual culture, art history and the history of aesthetics. These are comparatively new fields of Darwin scholarship, and are attracting interest from those not usually involved in evolutionary history.

I’d also like to see more exploration of embryology and sexual selection (see above). Most work on Darwin’s relation to embryology ignores sexual selection to focus on natural selection and the inheritance of acquired characters. I’m looking to see how bringing sexual selection into the picture helps to clarify some long running disputes in this area.

Another likely field of research covers the post- Descent period of the late nineteenth century. I’ve only scratched the surface here, and much more work remains to be done on this critical period in the history of sexual selection.