The Descent of Darwin:

Race, Sex, and Human Nature


Inspired by the upcoming 150th anniversary of the 1871 publication of Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, Erika Milam and Suman Seth co-organized an international workshop at Princeton University in February 2018 revisiting the development and legacy of Charles Darwin’s ideas about human evolution. Despite Darwin’s clear and fascinating borrowings from the social realm, Descent has received remarkably little scholarly attention compared to the amount written on Origin. In the conference, we planned to partly rectify this imbalance, bringing together Darwin scholars with historians interested more broadly in the ways scientists in the last century and a half have continuously re-naturalized race, sex, and sexuality within evolutionary theory. The deep connections between social and scientific explanations of human diversity so visible in Descent have contentiously echoed through the past century and a half—in debates over empire, women's suffrage, eugenic theory, ethics, public welfare, and homosexuality.

Growing scholarship in this area made early 2018 a perfect time to gather historians to collectively revisit the implications of evolutionary theory for understanding the diversity of humanity past and present, so that papers can be published in time for the 2021 anniversary. We seek to explore the background for Darwin’s ideas, as these played out in his own works and were incorporated into theories of later natural and social scientists. We ask, most broadly, how historians of science can come to a new understanding of Darwin’s legacy by following Descent from its roots to its fruits, wherever these traces lead us.


Conference participants, February 2018.

Conference participants, February 2018.

Co-organized by Erika Milam and Suman Seth

9-10 February 2018


Sponsored by Princeton’s Program in the History of Science, the Center for Collaborative History, the University Center for Human Values, and Gender and Sexuality Studies.


workshop webpage & more information

Preliminary Program

Friday, February 9

1:30 - 2:00 pm -- Welcome, Erika Lorraine Milam and Suman Seth

2:00 - 3:30 pm -- Session 1: ABSENCE, Helen Longino, commentator and chair

Marianne Sommer, "The Meaning of Absence: The Primate Tree That Did Not Make it into The Descent of Man

Erika Lorraine Milam, "The Evolution of Darwinian Sexualities"

3:30 - 4:00 pm -- coffee

4:00 - 5:30 pm -- Session 2: EMPIRE, Emily Kern, commentator and chair

Marina Mogilner, "Darwinism and the Russian Science of Empire"

Projit Bihari Mukharji, "Energetic Darwinism, or How Liminal Men Read for Facts in Colonial India"


Saturday, February 10

9:00 - 10:30 am -- Session 3: RACE, Suman Seth, commentator and chair

Myrna Perez Sheldon, "Sexual Selection as a Fulcrum in the History of Race"

Marwa Elshakry, "Darwin's Descent in Arabic: Language, Race, and Civilization" 

10:30 - 11:00 am -- coffee 

11:00 - 12:30 pm -- Session 4: SEX, Jenna Tonn, commentator and chair

Kimberly Hamlin, "Darwin's Bawdy: The Popular, Gendered, and Radical Reception of the Descent of Man in the US, 1871-1910"

Lijing Jiang, "The Late Ascent of Darwin's Descent: Exploring Human Evolution between Sex, Biology, and the Chinese Nation"

12:30 - 2:00 pm -- lunch

2:00 - 3:30 pm -- Session 5: HUMAN, Katja Guenther, commentator and chair

Piers J. Hale, "Charles Darwin, Sexual Selection, and the Evolution of Other-Regarding Ethics"

Judith Kaplan, "The Devil's in the Phememes: Twentieth-century Work on the Evolution of Language" 

3:30 - 4:00 pm -- coffee

4:00 - 5:30 pm -- Session 6: PROGRESS, Erika Lorraine Milam commentator and chair

Nasser Zakariya, "The Antagonism of Hands" 


5:30 - 6:30 pm -- reception