Book Review: A Most Interesting Problem by Jeremy DeSilva

As I said in my last post, this week I am reviewing A Most Interesting Problem: What Darwin’s Descent of Man Got Right and Wrong About Human Evolution, a collection of essays by twelve anthropologists critiquing Darwin’s book on human origins, Descent of Man, chapter by chapter and telling us whether Darwin’s ideas have withstood the test of time over 150 years. I was particularly excited about this one, both because I got to see the Leakey Foundation’s promo livestream with panels from many of the authors and because the book serves as a shining example of scientists denying dogma in science.

The chapters, or essays, are as follows:

Preface by editor Jeremy DeSilva
Introduction by Darwin biographer Janet Browne

  1. The Fetus, the Fish Heart, and the Fruit Fly by Alice Roberts (Chapter 1: The Evidence of the Descent of Man from Some Lower Form)
  2. Remarkable but Not Extraordinary: The Evolution of the Human Brain by Suzana Herculano-Houzel (Chapter 2: Comparison of the Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals)
  3. The Darwinian Road to Morality by Brian Hare (Chapter 3: Comparison of the Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals—continued)
  4. Charles Darwin and the Fossil Evidence for Human Evolution by Yohannes Haile-Selassie (Chapter 4: On the Manner of Development of Man from Some Lower Form)
  5. A Century of Civilization, Intelligence, and (White) Nationalism by Kristina Killgrove (Chapter 5: On the Development of the Intellectual and Moral Faculties during Primeval and Civilised Times)
  6. Ranking Humanity Among the Primates by John Hawks (Chapter 6: On the Affinities and Genealogy of Man)
  7. ‘On the Races of Man’: Race, Racism, Science, and Hope by Augustín Fuentes (Chapter 7: On the Races of Man)
  8. Resolving the Problem of Sexual Beauty by Michael J. Ryan (Part 2 (Chapters 8-18): Sexual Selection)
  9. This View of Wife by Holly Dunsworth (Chapters 19 and 20: Secondary Sexual Characters of Man)
  10. Dinner with Darwin: Sharing the Evidence Bearing on the Origin of Humans by Ann Gibbons (Chapter 21: General Summary and Conclusion)

I feel it is important that I preface this post by saying that I myself haven’t read Descent of Man. I’m even less likely to after having read A Most Interesting Problem, as I now know the main ideas in each chapter of Descent and how they are wrong or need updated.

Book Review

My unfamiliarity with Descent of Man probably led to my surprise at how often and how quickly this book changed topics. Obviously, the book was just following the order of the chapters of Descent of Man. It seems that Darwin hadn’t known a great amount about human evolution, or at least he knew a little bit about a wide variety of subjects, so the chasms between the topics may seem more vast when experts in their respective fields fill in the holes left in Darwin’s knowledge 150 years in the future.

Although it kept me interested, it was somewhat difficult to switch daily between ape taxonomy, neuroanatomy, morality, paleoanthropology, racism, colonialism, and more. This was actually the first book I have read that is a collection of essays, so it was a unique experience. Behind the great variation of topics by the different authors, the introductions in each essay certainly got repetitive. Several of the authors started off by explaining that Darwin did not talk about human evolution in Origin of Species, but he did come out with a book dedicated to it twelve years later. While this isn’t a bad thing, the chapters also all followed similar structures: discussing what Darwin said, explaining how it was right or wrong, and then catching readers up on more recent studies or discoveries.

I know that with nonfiction in general, and especially with collections of essays, many people read only the chapters that most interest them. If you are one of these people, I would recommend Chapters 4 and 10 on fossils, Chapter 5 on nationalism, Chapter 7 on racism, and Chapter 8 on sexual selection. This list of my favorites should show you pretty well just how varied all these chapters are; it’s not every day that a single book will hit on so many different topics that I care about.

Yes, Darwin was Racist

The main predictions that I had for this book turned out to be pretty accurate: the scientist authors would praise Darwin’s attention to detail and his ability to predict things like humanity’s African origins (this tidbit was repeated a lot) but condemn his racist, nationalist, and sexist beliefs. I think we know by now that it is not enough to brush these things off by saying “Darwin was a product of his time.” Augustín Fuentes, the author of the chapter on racism, said that Darwin was progressive for his time, and Fuentes supposed that if Darwin was alive today, he would accept the latest science which condemns racist beliefs to falsehood. Of course he “could be worse,” but all I’m concerned about is that even in the Victorian Era, Darwin really could have been better.

The final thing I want to reflect on after reading this book, and especially Fuentes’s chapter on Darwin’s racist beliefs, is how many similarities it seems that Darwin shares with Richard Dawkins. After I wrote my post The Dawkins Problem, The Friendly Atheist Podcast released an episode entirely dedicated to the situation surrounding Dawkins’ transphobic tweets. The hosts made the great point that the problem with what Dawkins said, and especially with his repulsive request for Twitter users to “discuss” whether or not to affirm transgender individuals’ identities, was that as an (old, white, male) scientist, he views “discussions” like this just like any other objective scientific pontification, when in fact human beings fighting for their rights are not simple hypotheticals to objectively ponder. Dawkins often makes it very obvious that he is a huge fan of Darwin (ironically he might be that dogmatic Darwin-worshipper the creationists think we all are), and I can’t find any example of him condemning Darwin’s racism. His lack of denouncing his idol may be due to them sharing the same “hypothetical humans” issue that Fuentes describes of Darwin in Chapter 7:

Darwin opens the chapter by arguing that we can look at the ‘races of man, viewing him in the same spirit as a naturalist would any other animal.’ This is a classic scenario presented by many scientists who study other organisms and transition to talking about humans; it seeks to imply that one must be as ‘objective’ when studying humans as one would be if considering a ground squirrel or an ant. Over the past century and a half, many scholars have invoked the perspective of a scientist from another planet as narrator, assuming that such a ‘view from outside’ keeps the science neutral and unbiased. However, in reality, this is a poor move. We know that humans are enmeshed, encultured, and always shaped by their life experiences, language, and history. We are never fully objective when talking about humanity, even when we try to be, and a good scientist recognizes that. This was Darwin’s first mistake.

Augustín Fuentes, A Most Interesting Problem, pages 146-147

All in all, I think that A Most Interesting Problem gave Darwin his credit where it was due but did not let him get away with racism and sexism. I truly believe that the world of science literature can use more of this. Science will progress much further if we employ honesty and scrutiny, applying the same rigorous standards of science and ethics to our favorite figures that we do to everyone else.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: A Most Interesting Problem by Jeremy DeSilva

  • Another fact has emerged too. Homo Sapiens has been wandering the planet for almost 200,000 years. Plus you have to remember Darwin had no idea about DNA. In fact that didn’t actually beome a thing until the mid 20th century.

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  • Apologies, scientists don’t deny dogma, but are instead very much involved in it.

    Scientists deny dogma in regards to data generated by science. I assume this is what you meant, and I agree.

    However scientists are typically as dogmatic as any religion when it comes to our relationship with knowledge, the philosophical foundation of science. It is assumed, typically without any questioning at all, that when it comes to knowledge more is always better.

    Such a “more is better” philosophy is built upon a typically unexamined assumption that human beings can successfully manage any amount of power delivered at any rate. Credible?

    Scientists are objective about data. They aren’t objective about science itself. This is a crucial difference which is best kept in mind, lest we fall victim to the very kinds of authority worship that led many of us to walk away from religions.

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  • Re ” I’m even less likely to after having read A Most Interesting Problem, as I now know the main ideas in each chapter of Descent and how they are wrong or need updated.”

    Hello, Darwin’s book is over 150 years old and . . . it has been updated. Darwin’s ideas got the ball rolling and like any pioneer working with very limited data got much wrong. The book is of historical interest only and I have to wonder why this critique was published. All of their points noted have been addressed, so whether Darwin was right or wrong is now irrelevant, except in the context of the history of science. The book does, I am sure, provide a great deal of fodder for creationists.

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