So I found an 1874 edition copy of The Descent of Man by Darwin in my library and decided to give myself a chance at listening to the great man’s thoughts. It will be disappointing if I die before even remotely understanding what was going on in the mind of the most celebrated person in Biology (which is relatively easier to do than accessing thoughts of famous Physicists or Mathematicians). I had heard before, from the likes of Richard Dawkins, Carl Zimmer, Steven Pinker etc., that Darwin was a great writer but my initial experience with his first book (The Book) Origin of Species did not reflect that. To be fair, I did not go past the first two tedious chapters and apparently the fun begins after that.
Anyway, I started reading The Descent and was immediately sucked into his writing style. This style may not be specific to Darwin but since I haven’t read any 19th century author other than Arthur Conan Doyle, its turning out to be a fascinatingly unique experience. One of the things that has stood out till now, is his usage of largely extinct words. For example, he uses the word “shew” or “shewn” instead of “show” or “shown”. I looked up Google’s Ngram Viewer for the evolution of this word as I was curious about its extinction and wasn’t surprised at my complete ignorance of this usage:
On the y-axis, Ngram provides the frequency of the word in Google Books for a single year, normalized by the total number of books published in that year. For some reason, around 1820, show starts outnumbering shew but 50 years later Darwin still seems to be preferring the latter.
One also notices the “offensive” usage of words like savage and idiot rather nonchalantly. In the book, savage is used to refer to humans that don’t belong to the civilized world while idiot seems to be the formal word to refer to a mentally challenged person. For example:
Some savage races, such as the Australians, are not exposed to more diversified conditions than are many species which have a wide range.
We see the influence of diversified conditions in the more civilised nations; for the members belonging to different grades of rank, and following different occupations, present a greater range of character than do the members of barbarous nations. But the uniformity of savages has often been exaggerated, and in some cases can hardly be said to exist.
I have myself seen, through the kindness of Dr. L. Down, the ear of a microcephalous idiot, on which there is a projection on the outside of the helix, and not on the inward folded edge, so that this point can have no relation to a former apex of the ear.
Similarly, there is an extensive usage of the word “negro” and again, I naturally jumped to Ngram to check the evolution of the usage (presently offensive) of these words.
Not surprisingly, frequency of both savage and negro decreases over the decades while idiot stays consistent because of its context evolution. Interestingly though, negro’s usage has three recurrent spikes. Once around 1860s (US Civil war), once around 1910s (maybe Border War?) and finally a small one around 1960s (African American Civil Rights Movement. One wonders if its the fact that, more books include the topic of race during these time periods and that naturally leads to the higher usage of this word or whether some nasty authors intentionally start using racist language to increase the tension and win over their tribal audience.
Of course, this consistent occurrence of these words in The Descent of Man doesn’t reflect anything about Darwin’s character and I am pretty certain that his usage was innocent as he was much more interested in expressing ideas that conveyed humans’ descendence from and relatability to other animals.