Decent Quote from the Descent of Man

This quote from Darwin’s The Descent of Man appears at the beginning of Carl Sagan’s bestselling book, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence.

“The main conclusion arrived at in this work, namely, that man is descended from some lowly-organized form, will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many persons. But there can hardly be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians. The astonishment which I felt on first seeing a party of Fuegians on a wild and broken shore will never be forgotten by me, for the reflection at once rushed into my mind—such were our ancestors. These men were absolutely marked and bedaubed with paint, their long hair was tangled, their mouths frothed in excitement, and their expression was wild, startled and distrustful. They possess hardly any arts, and, like wild animals, lived on what they could catch; they had no government, and were merciless to everyone out of their own small tribe. He who has seen a savage in his native land will not feel much shame, if forced to acknowledge that the blood of some more humble creature flows in his veins. For my own part, I would as soon be descended from that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper; or from that old baboon who, descended from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs as from a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.

“Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scales; and the fact of his having thus risen instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hopes for a still higher destiny in the distant future. But we are not here concerned with hopes or fears, only with the truth as far as our reason allows us to discover it. I have given the evidence to the best of my ability; and we must acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system—with all these exalted powers—man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”

Charles Darwin

The Descent of Man



7 thoughts on “Decent Quote from the Descent of Man

  1. Darwin chronicles our beginnings, how we came to be. There is another quote I like that speaks to our journey here and to our end: “When the dust settles on man’s reign of terror, he will be best remembered as an egomaniacal mutant carnivorous ape who squandered nature’s gifts and goose-stepped on towards mass extinction in spite of warnings from historians and scientists and pleas from the caring few.”

    Jim Robertson, Exposing the Big Game

  2. But plastics will stay behind forever!

    “Man” does not have noble qualities generally, some do, and we attribute them to the entire human race – regardless of criminality, stupidity, greed, etc. Did anybody read the story about the drunks that went on a rampage in Devil’s Hole Park, Nevada? Drinking, shooting rabbits, vandalizing property, pissing everywhere, and then jumping into a pond of endangered pupfish of which there are only 115 in the entire world and killing at least one? How come we never hear about this type of noble? I like a similar quote about humanity from Stanley Kubrick:

    “Man isn’t a noble savage, he’s an ignoble savage. He is irrational, brutal, weak, silly, unable to be objective about anything where his own interests are involved — that about sums it up. I’m interested in the brutal and violent nature of man because it’s a true picture of him. And any attempt to create social institutions on a false view of the nature of man is probably doomed to failure. – Stanley Kubrick on the nature of Man

  3. “The main conclusion arrived at in this work, namely, that man is descended from some lowly-organized form, will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many persons.”

    What should be even more distasteful and offensive is that fact that we have not evolved beyond violent impulses and to more compassionate and rational behaviors, including humane treatment of other species. In fact the big brain we brag about has given us the ability to amplify our base drives, disseminate them through language, and enact them in horrific ways.

    Has anyone noticed that when human supremacists compare people to the “inferior” animals that they always choose the most remarkable specimens we have produced? In the whole history of the evolution of Homo sapiens we have had one Shakespeare, one Michelangelo, one Bach, and one Newton. (They neglect to mention Hitler, Stalin, and Vlad the Impaler.)

    Well, Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado gives a list of some attributes that separate humanity from the other species on this earth. Here is part of that list, which will probably offend human exceptionalists:

    1. We are the only species to hold bake sales.
    2. We are the only species who tried to leave the planet.
    3. We are the only species to engage in mass murders and wage global wars.
    4. We are the only species to hold farting contests.

    Any self-respecting animal can be grateful for exclusion.

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