Darwin Comes Of Age - Sex, Romance, And Love

The Moral Animal - Whe We Are The Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology - Robert Wright 1995

Darwin Comes Of Age
Sex, Romance, And Love

As for an English lady, I have almost forgotten what she is. — something very angelic and good.

— Letter from the HMS Beagle (1835)1

Boys growing up in nineteenth-century England weren't generally advised to seek sexual excitement. And they weren't advised to do things that might lead them to think about seeking it. The Victorian physician William Acton, in his book The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, warned about exposing a boy to the "classical works" of literature. "He reads in them of the pleasures, nothing of the penalties, of sexual indulgences. He is not intuitively aware that, if the sexual desires are excited, it will require greater power of will to master them than falls to the lot of most lads; that if indulged in, the man will and must pay the penalty for the errors of the boy; that for one that escapes, ten will suffer; that an awful risk attends abnormal substitutes for sexual intercourse; and that self-indulgence, long pursued, tends ultimately, if carried far enough, to early death or self-destruction."2

Acton's book was published in 1857, during the mid-Victorian {19} period whose moral tenor it exudes. But sexual repression had long been in the air — before Victoria's ascent to the throne in 1837, even before the date more loosely used to bracket the Victorian era, 1830. Indeed, at the turn of the century, the Evangelical movement that so nourished the new moral austerity was well under way.3 As G. M. Young noted in Portrait of an Age, a boy born in England in 1810 — the year after Darwin's birth — "found himself at every turn controlled, and animated, by the imponderable pressure of the Evangelical discipline... ." This was not a matter only of sexual restraint, but of restraint generally — an all-out vigilance against indulgence. The boy would learn, as Young put it, that "the world is very evil. An unguarded look, a word, a gesture, a picture, or a novel, might plant a seed of corruption in the most innocent heart... ."4 Another student of Victorianism has described "a life of constant struggle — both to resist temptation and to master the desires of the ego"; by "an elaborate practice of self-discipline, one had to lay the foundation of good habits and acquire the power of self-control."5

It was this view that Samuel Smiles, born three years after Darwin, would package in Self-Help. As the book's wide success attests, the Evangelical outlook spread well beyond the walls of the Methodist churches that were its wellspring, into the homes of Anglicans, Unitarians, and even agnostics.6 The Darwin household is a good example. It was Unitarian (and Darwin's father was a freethinker, if a quiet one), yet Darwin absorbed the puritanical strain of his time. It is visible in his burdensome conscience and in the astringent code of conduct he championed. Long after he had given up his faith, he wrote that "the highest stage in moral culture at which we can arrive, is when we recognise that we ought to control our thoughts, and [as Tennyson said] 'not even in inmost thought to think again the sins that made the past so pleasant to us.' Whatever makes any bad action familiar to the mind, renders its performance by so much the easier. As Marcus Aurelius long ago said, 'Such as are thy habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of thy mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.' "7

Though Darwin's youth and life were in some ways eccentric, in this one sense they were typical of his era: he lived amid tremendous moral gravity. His world was a place where questions of right and {20} wrong were seen at every turn. What's more, it was a place where these questions seemed answerable — absolutely answerable — though the answers were sometimes painful to bear. It was a world very different from ours, and Darwin's work would do much to make the difference.


The original career plan for Charles Darwin was to be a doctor. His father, he recalled, felt sure "that I should make a successful physician — meaning by this, one who got many patients." The senior Darwin, himself a successful physician, "maintained that the chief element of success was exciting confidence; but what he saw in me which convinced him that I should create confidence I know not." Nonetheless, Charles at age sixteen dutifully left the cozy family estate in Shrewsbury and, accompanied by his older brother, Erasmus, headed for the University of Edinburgh to study medicine.

Enthusiasm for this calling failed to materialize. At Edinburgh Darwin paid grudging attention to course work, avoided the operating theater (watching surgery, in the days before chloroform, wasn't his cup of tea), and spent much time on extracurricular pursuits: trawling with fishermen to gather oysters, which he then dissected; taking taxidermy lessons to complement his newfound love of hunting; walking and talking with a sponge expert named Robert Grant, who ardently believed in evolution — but didn't, of course, know how it works.

Darwin's father sensed a certain vocational drift and, Charles recalled, "was very properly vehement against my turning an idle sporting man, which then seemed my probable destination."8 Hence Plan B. Dr. Darwin proposed a career in the clergy.

This may seem strange guidance, coming from a man who didn't believe in God, given to a son who wasn't glaringly devout and who had a more obvious calling in zoology. But Darwin's father was a practical man. And in those days zoology and theology were two sides of one coin. If all living things were God's handiwork, then the study of their ingenious design was the study of God's genius. The most noted proponent of this view was William Paley, author of {21} the 1802 book Natural Theology; or, evidences of the existence and attributes of the Deity, collected from the appearances of nature. In it Paley argued that, just as a watch implies a watchmaker, a world full of intricately designed organisms, precisely suited to their tasks, implies a designer.9 (He was right. The question is whether the designer is a farseeing God or an unconscious process.)

The workaday upshot of natural theology was that a country parson could, without guilt, spend much of his time studying and writing about nature. Hence, perhaps, Darwin's fairly favorable, if not especially spiritual, reaction to the prospect of donning the cloth. "I asked for some time to consider, as from what little I had heard and thought on the subject I had scruples about declaring my belief in all the dogmas of the Church of England; though otherwise I liked the thought of being a country clergyman." He did some reading on divinity and "as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our Creed must be fully accepted." To prepare for the clergy, Darwin went to Cambridge University, where he read his Paley and was "charmed and convinced by the long line of argumentation."10

Not for long. Just after finishing at Cambridge, Darwin encountered a strange opportunity: to serve as naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle. The rest, of course, is history. Though Darwin didn't conceive of natural selection aboard the Beagle, his study of wildlife around the world convinced him that evolution had taken place, and alerted him to some of its most suggestive properties. Two years after the end of the ship's five-year voyage, he saw how evolution works. Darwin's plans to enter the clergy would not survive this insight. As if to provide future biographers with ample symbolism, he had brought along on the voyage his favorite volume of verse, Paradise Lost.11

As Darwin left England's shores, there was no glaring reason to think people would be writing books about him a century and a half later. His youth, ventured one biographer, in a fairly common judgment, had been "unmarked by the slightest trace of genius."12 Of course, such claims are always suspect, as the early inauspiciousness of great minds makes for good reading. And this particular claim deserves special doubt, as it rests largely on Darwin's self-appraisals, {22} which didn't tend toward inflation. Darwin reports that he couldn't master foreign languages, and struggled with mathematics, and "was considered by all my masters and by my Father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect." Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps more stock should be placed in another of his appraisals, about his knack for winning the friendship of men "so much older than me and higher in academical position": "I infer that there must have been something in me a little superior to the common run of youths."13

Anyway, the absence of blinding intellectual flash isn't the only thing that has led some biographers to deem Darwin "an unlikely survivor in the immortality stakes."14 There is also the sense that he just wasn't a formidable man. He was so decent, so sweet, so lacking in untrammeled ambition. And he was something of a country boy, a bit insular and simple. One writer has asked, "Why was it given to Darwin, less ambitious, less imaginative, and less learned than many of his colleagues, to discover the theory sought after by others so assiduously? How did it come about that one so limited intellectually and insensitive culturally should have devised a theory so massive in structure and sweeping in significance?"15

One way to answer that question is by contesting its assessment of Darwin (an exercise we'll get to), but an easier way is to contest its assessment of his theory. The idea of natural selection, while indeed "sweeping in significance," is not really "massive in structure." It is a small and simple theory, and it didn't take a huge intellect to conceive it. Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin's good friend, staunch defender, and fluent popularizer, supposedly chastised himself upon comprehending the theory, exclaiming, "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!"16

All the theory of natural selection says is the following. If within a species there is variation among individuals in their hereditary traits, and some traits are more conducive to survival and reproduction than others, then those traits will (obviously) become more widespread within the population. The result (obviously) is that the species' aggregate pool of hereditary traits changes. And there you have it.

Of course, the change may seem negligible within any given generation. If long necks help animals reach precious leaves, and {23} shorter-necked animals therefore die before reproducing, the species' average neck size barely grows. Still, if variation in neck size arises freshly with new generations (through sexual recombination or genetic mutation, we now know), so that natural selection continues to have a range of neck sizes to "choose" from, then average neck size will keep creeping upward. Eventually, a species that started out with horselike necks will have giraffe-like necks. It will, in other words, be a new species.

Darwin once summed up natural selection in ten words: "[M]ultiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die."17 Here "strongest," as he well knew, means not just brawniest, but best adapted to the environment, whether through camouflage, cleverness, or anything else that aids survival and reproduction*. The word "fittest" (a coinage Darwin didn't make but did accept) is typically used in place of strongest, signifying this broader conception — an organism's "fitness" to the task of transmitting its genes to the next generation, within its particular environment. "Fitness" is the thing that natural selection, in continually redesigning species, perpetually "seeks" to maximize. Fitness is what made us what we are today.

If this seems easy to believe, you probably aren't getting the picture. Your entire body — much more complexly harmonious than any product of human design — was created by hundreds of thousands of incremental advances, and each increment was an accident; each tiny step between your ancestral bacterium and you just happened to help some intermediate ancestor more profusely get its genes into the next generation. Creationists sometimes say that the odds of a person being produced through random genetic change are about equal to those of a monkey typing the works of Shakespeare. Well, yes. Not the complete works, maybe, but certainly some long, recognizable stretches.

Still, things this unlikely can, through the logic of natural selection, {24} be rendered plausible. Suppose a single ape gets some lucky break — gene XL, say, which imbues parents with an ounce of extra love for their offspring, love that translates into slightly more assiduous nurturing. In the life of any one ape, that gene probably won't be crucial. But suppose that, on average, the offspring of apes with the XL gene are 1 percent more likely to survive to maturity than the offspring of apes without it. So long as this thin advantage holds, the fraction of apes with gene XL will tend to grow, and the fraction without it will tend to shrink, generation by generation by generation. The eventual culmination of this trend is a population in which all animals have the XL gene. The gene, at that point, will have reached "fixation"; a slightly higher degree of parental love will be "species typical" now than before.

Okay, so one lucky break thus flourishes. But how likely is it that the luck will persist — that the next random genetic change will further increase the amount of parental love? How likely is the "XL" mutation to be followed by an "XXL" mutation? Not at all likely in the case of any one ape. But within the population there are now scads of apes with the XL gene. If any one of them, or any one of their offspring, or grand-offspring, happens to luck out and get the XXL gene, the gene will have a good chance of spreading, if slowly, through the population. Of course, in the meantime, lots more apes will probably get various less auspicious genes, and some of those genes may extinguish the lineage in which they appear. Well, that's life.

Thus does natural selection beat the odds — by not really beating them. The thing that is massively more probable than the charmed lineages that populate the world today — an uncharmed lineage, which reaches a dead end through an unlucky break — happened a massively larger number of times. The dustbin of genetic history overflows with failed experiments, long strings of code that were as vibrant as Shakespearean verse until that fateful burst of gibberish. Their disposal is the price paid for design by trial and error. But so long as that price can be paid — so long as natural selection has enough generations to work on, and can cast aside scores of failed experiments for every one it preserves — its creations can be awesome. Natural selection is {25} an inanimate process, devoid of consciousness, yet is a tireless refiner, an ingenious craftsman*.

Every organ inside you is testament to its art — your heart, your lungs, your stomach. All these are "adaptations" — fine products of inadvertent design, mechanisms that are here because they have in the past contributed to your ancestors' fitness. And all are species-typical. Though one person's lungs may differ from another's, sometimes for genetic reasons, almost all the genes involved in lung construction are the same in you as in your next-door neighbor, as in an Eskimo, as in a pygmy. The evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides have noted that every page of Gray's Anatomy applies to all peoples in the world. Why, they have gone on to ask, should the anatomy of the mind be any different? The working thesis of evolutionary psychology is that the various "mental organs" constituting the human mind — such as an organ inclining people to love their offspring — are species-typical.18 Evolutionary psychologists are pursuing what is known in the trade as "the psychic unity of humankind."


Between us and the australopithecine, which walked upright but had an ape-sized brain, stand a few million years: 100,000, maybe 200,000 generations. That may not sound like much. But it has taken only around 5,000 generations to turn a wolf into a chihuahua — and, at the same time, along a separate line, into a Saint Bernard. Of course, dogs evolved by artificial, not natural, selection. But as Darwin stressed, the two are essentially the same; in both cases traits are weeded out of a population by criteria that persist for many generations. And in both cases, if the "selective pressure" is strong enough — if genes are weeded out fast enough — evolution can proceed briskly.

One might wonder how the selective pressure could have been {26} very strong during recent human evolution. After all, what usually generates the pressure is a hostile environment — droughts, ice ages, tough predators, scarce prey — and as human evolution has proceeded, the relevance of these things has abated. The invention of tools, of fire, the advent of planning and cooperative hunting — these brought growing control over the environment, growing insulation from the whims of nature. How, then, did ape brains turn into human brains in a few million years?

Much of the answer seems to be that the environment of human evolution has been human (or prehuman) beings.19 The various members of a Stone Age society were each other's rivals in the contest to fill the next generation with genes. What's more, they were each other's tools in that contest. Spreading their genes depended on dealing with their neighbors: sometimes helping them, sometimes ignoring them, sometimes exploiting them, sometimes liking them, sometimes hating them — and having a sense for which people warrant which sort of treatment, and when they warrant it. The evolution of human beings has consisted largely of adaptation to one another.

Since each adaptation, having fixed itself in the population, thus changes the social environment, adaptation only invites more adaptation. Once all parents have the XXL gene, it gives no parent an edge in the ongoing contest to create the most viable and prolific offspring. The arms race continues. In this case, it's an arms race of love. Often, it's not.

It is fashionable in some circles to downplay the whole idea of adaptation, of coherent evolutionary design. Popularizers of biological thought often emphasize not the role of fitness in evolutionary change but the role of randomness and happenstance. Some climate shift may come out of the blue and extinguish unlucky species of flora and fauna, changing the whole context of evolution for any species lucky enough to survive the calamity. A roll of the cosmic dice and suddenly all bets are off. Certainly that happens, and this is indeed one sense in which "randomness" greatly affects evolution. There are other senses as well. For example, new traits on which natural selection passes judgment seem to be randomly generated.20 But none of the "randomness" in natural selection should be allowed to obscure its central feature: that the overriding criterion of {27} organic design is fitness. Yes, the dice do get rerolled, and the context of evolution changes. A feature that is adaptive today may not be adaptive tomorrow. So natural selection often finds itself amending outmoded features. This ongoing adjustment to circumstance can give organic life a certain jerry-built quality. (It's the reason people have back trouble; if you were designing a walking organism from scratch rather than incrementally adapting a former tree-dweller, you would never have built such bad backs.) Nonetheless, changes in circumstance are typically gradual enough for evolution to keep pace (even if it has to break into a trot now and then, when selective pressure becomes severe), and it often does so ingeniously.

And all along the way, its definition of good design remains the same. The thousands and thousands of genes that influence human behavior — genes that build the brain and govern neurotransmitters and other hormones, thus defining our "mental organs" — are here for a reason. And the reason is that they goaded our ancestors into getting their genes into the next generation. If the theory of natural selection is correct, then essentially everything about the human mind should be intelligible in these terms. The basic ways we feel about each other, the basic kinds of things we think about each other and say to each other, are with us today by virtue of their past contribution to genetic fitness.


No human behavior affects the transmission of genes more obviously than sex. So no parts of human psychology are clearer candidates for evolutionary explanation than the states of mind that lead to sex: raw lust, dreamy infatuation, sturdy (or at least sturdy-feeling) love, and so on — the basic forces amid which people all over the world, including Charles Darwin, have come of age.

When Darwin left England he was twenty-two and, presumably, flooded with the hormones that young men are, by design, flooded with. He had been sweet on a couple of local girls, especially the pretty, popular, and highly coquettish Fanny Owen. He once let her shoot a hunting gun, and she looked so charming, gamely pretending its kick hadn't hurt her shoulder, that he would recall the incident {28} decades later with evident fondness.21 From Cambridge he conducted a tenuous flirtation with her by mail, but it isn't clear that he ever so much as kissed her.

While Darwin was at Cambridge, prostitutes were available, not to mention the occasional lower-class girl who might settle for less explicit payment. But university proctors prowled the streets near campus, ready to arrest women who could plausibly be accused of "streetwalking." Darwin had been warned by his brother never to be seen with girls. His closest known connection with illicit sex is when he sent money to a friend who had dropped out of school after siring a bastard.22 Darwin may well have left the shores of England a virgin.23 And the next five years, spent mainly on a ninety-foot ship with six dozen males, wouldn't provide many opportunities to change that status, at least not through conventional channels.

For that matter, sex wouldn't be abundantly available on his return either. This was, after all, Victorian England. Prostitutes could be had in London (where Darwin would take up residence), but sex with a "respectable" woman, a woman of Darwin's class, was more elusive — close to impossible in the absence of extreme measures, such as marriage.

The great gulf between these two forms of sex is one of the most famous elements of Victorian sexual morality — the "Madonna-whore" dichotomy. There were two kinds of women: the kind a bachelor would later marry and the kind he might now enjoy, the kind worthy of love and the kind that warranted only lust. A second moral attitude commonly traced to the Victorian age is the sexual double standard. Though this attribution is misleading, since Victorian moralists so strongly discouraged sexual license in men and women, it's true that a Victorian man's sexual extravagance raised fewer eyebrows than a woman's. It's also true that this distinction was closely linked to the Madonna-whore dichotomy. The great punishment awaiting a sexually adventurous Victorian woman was permanent consignment to the latter half of the dichotomy, which would greatly restrict her range of available husbands.

There is a tendency these days to reject and scoff at these aspects of Victorian morality. Rejecting them is fine, but to scoff at them is {29} to overestimate our own moral advancement. The fact is that many men still speak openly about "sluts" and their proper use: great for recreation, but not for marriage. And even men (such as well-educated liberal ones) who wouldn't dream of talking like that may in fact act like that. Women sometimes complain about seemingly enlightened men who lavish respectful attention on them but then, after sex on the first or second date, never call again, as if early sex had turned the woman into a pariah. Similarly, while the double standard has waned in this century, it is still strong enough for women to complain about. Understanding the Victorian sexual climate can take us some distance toward understanding today's sexual climate.

The intellectual grounding of Victorian sexual morality was explicit: women and men are inherently different, most importantly in the libido department. Even Victorians who railed against male philandering stressed the difference. Dr. Acton wrote: "I should say that the majority of women (happily for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind. What men are habitually, women are only exceptionally. It is too true, I admit, as the divorce courts show, that there are some few women who have sexual desires so strong that they surpass those of men." This "nymphomania" is "a form of insanity." Still, "there can be no doubt that sexual feeling in the female is in the majority of cases in abeyance ... and even if roused (which in many instances it never can be) is very moderate compared with that of the male." One problem, said Dr. Acton, was that many young men are misled by the sight of "loose or, at least, low and vulgar women." They thus enter marriage with exaggerated notions of its sexual content. They don't understand that "the best mothers, wives, and managers of households, know little or nothing of sexual indulgences. Love of home, children, and domestic duties, are the only passions they feel."24

Some women who consider themselves excellent wives and mothers may hold a different opinion. And they may have strong supporting evidence. Still, the idea that there are some differences between the typical male and female sexual appetite, and that the male appetite is less finicky, draws much support from the new Darwinian paradigm. For that matter, it draws support from lots of other places. The recently popular premise that men and women are basically identical {30} in nature seems to have fewer and fewer defenders. It is no longer, for example, a cardinal doctrine of feminism. A whole school of feminists — the "difference feminists," or "essentialists" — now accept that men and women are deeply different. What exactly "deeply" means is something they're often vague about, and many would rather not utter the word genes in this context. Until they do, they will likely remain in a state of disorientation, aware that the early feminist doctrine of innate sexual symmetry was incorrect (and that it may have in some ways harmed women) yet afraid to honestly explore the alternative.

If the new Darwinian view of sexuality did nothing more than endorse the coalescing conventional wisdom that men are a pretty libidinous group, it would be of meager value. But in fact it sheds light not just on animal impulses, like lust, but on the subtler contours of consciousness. "Sexual psychology," to an evolutionary psychologist, includes everything from an adolescent's fluctuating self-esteem to the aesthetic judgments men and women make about each other to the moral judgments they make about each other, and, for that matter, the moral judgments they make about members of their own sex. Two good examples are the Madonna-whore dichotomy and the sexual double standard. Both now appear to have roots in human nature — in mental mechanisms that people use to evaluate each other. This calls for a couple of disclaimers. First, to say something is a product of natural selection is not to say that it is unchangeable; just about any manifestation of human nature can be changed, given an apt alteration of the environment — though the required alteration will in some cases be prohibitively drastic. Second, to say that something is "natural" is not to say that it is good. There is no reason to adopt natural selection's "values" as our own. But presumably if we want to pursue values that are at odds with natural selection's, we need to know what we're up against. If we want to change some disconcertingly stubborn parts of our moral code, it would help to know where they come from. And where they ultimately come from is human nature, however complexly that nature is refracted by the many layers of circumstance and cultural inheritance through which it passes. No, there is no "double-standard gene." But yes, to understand the double standard we must understand our genes and how {31} they affect our thoughts. We must understand the process that selected those genes and the strange criteria it used.

We'll spend the next few chapters exploring that process as it has shaped sexual psychology. Then, thus fortified, we'll return to Victorian morality, and to Darwin's own mind, and the mind of the woman he married. All of which will enable us to see our own situation — courtship and marriage at the end of the twentieth century — with new clarity. {32}