This year, LGBT+ History Month coincides with the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s momentous sexological work The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, originally published on 24 February 1871. The occasion prompts reflection on Darwin’s highly equivocal handling of sex variations in the natural world, including intersexualities (“hermaphroditism”), transformations of sex, and non-reproductive sexual behaviours.
Descent has long been considered a landmark text in the history of science for two main reasons. It is the book in which Darwin fully extended his theory of natural selection to humans. It also contains the lengthiest exposition of his second major theory of evolutionary change, sexual selection, the subject occupying around two thirds of Descent. Darwin devised sexual selection to account for the development of exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics (such as the peacock’s tail), otherwise a hinderance to an individual’s chances of survival. He posited two mechanisms by which such characteristics evolved outside the struggle for survival: the competition of males as they vie for reproductive access to females either through physical combat or through courtship displays, and the ability of females to choose those males whose competitive efforts impress them most. In Darwin’s highly selective, and highly stereotyped, construal of “nature’s courtship plot” (to quote literary scholar Ruth Bernard Yeazell), only the most combative males and the fussiest females get to partake in the continuance of their species.
Ostensibly, there appears to be little room for queer bodies, minds, and behaviours in this schema. But a close reading of Descent, as well as Darwin’s other published and unpublished writings, shows that this is not the case. It is indubitably the case that the repressive gender and sexual mores of the Victorian age meant that he routinely couched descriptions of sex variations in pejorative terms. But he was also an astute naturalist and recognized that sex differences and sexual behaviours were subject to innumerable variations, just as other organic structures, instincts, and behaviours were.
Indeed, Darwin believed that all vertebrates, including humans, were essentially dual-sexed, having originated from a common hermaphrodite ancestor. Jottings by the young, Beagle-fresh Darwin entered in his (unpublished) notebooks around 1838 evidence his early commitment to the ubiquity of hermaphroditism in the natural world as he grappled to situate a variety of sex variations within his developing evolutionism, including the rearing of a queen bee from the pupae of a worker, the assumption of male-typical plumage by certain female birds, and the occurrence of homologous sexual anatomical structures. “Every animal surely is hermaphrodite,” he wrote, repeating the assertion on multiple occasions.
Ever restrained in his choice of words on sex-related topics in his published works, the indefatigably prudish Darwin held back from making an explicit statement, as he had earlier made in the privacy of his notebooks, that all individuals, including humans, were essentially hermaphrodites. Nonetheless, the perennial co-existence of female and male characteristics in every individual remained an important facet of his evolutionism, the potential queerness of the proposition offset by Darwin’s insistence that characteristics of the opposite sex usually remained only in a latent state. Only in exceptional circumstances, he argued, were they expressed.
In Descent, Darwin extended his analysis to fully embrace a grand narrative of the evolution of sex, suggesting that hermaphroditism was the primordial condition of humanity’s remotest ancestor. Such a deep, and largely unspecified, evolutionary narrative, suggesting as it did an infinitely longer timespan than Darwin’s assertion that humans were evolved from apes, was open to numerous interpretations and projections, many of them potentially raising questions of morality and respectability in Victorian science writing that Darwin was undoubtedly keen to avoid. He deployed various conceptual and rhetorical strategies that muted the potential for such interpretations of his evolutionism. Sometimes he was dismissive. For example, he recognized that birds of the same sex sometimes lived in pairs or small groups, but added that they were “of course not truly paired.” Other times he was evasive. Discussing how “vitiated” instincts affected the reproductive habits of birds, he remarked that he could give “sufficient proofs” with regard to pigeons and fowls, but added “they cannot be here related.” When it came to humans, he was disparaging. He even used draconian rhetoric largely derived from long-standing theological traditions, writing of the “unnatural crimes” and “immorality” of indigenous peoples (“savages”) as well as the “extreme sensuality” of the ancient Greeks.
Darwin’s reticence to fully theorize occurrences of intersexualities, sex changes, and non-reproductive sexual behaviours in humans and non-human animals, combined with the laboured descriptions of sex differences that constitute his lengthy discussion of sexual selection, entailed that Descent was generally received positively and without censure. Nonetheless, despite the ambiguities of his approach to sex variations, a new generation of Darwinian sexologists extended evolutionary notions of sex differences and sexualities ever deeper into the realms of human psychology and behaviour. The Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, counted Descent among the ten most important books he knew of. For his part, the homophile German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, writing in 1914, lauded Darwin above others for establishing a new biological sexology that had borne fruit, “even in the stony earth of England.”