The Descent of Man – Day 141 of 151

Chapter XX: Secondary Sexual Characters of Man–continued

  • On the effects of the continued selection of women according to a different standard of beauty in each race
  • On the causes which interfere with sexual selection in civilised and savage nations
  • Conditions favourable to sexual selection during primeval times
  • On the manner of action of sexual selection with mankind
  • On the women in savage tribes having some power to choose their husbands
  • Absence of hair on the body, and development of the beard
  • Colour of the skin
  • Summary

We have seen in the last chapter that with all barbarous races ornaments, dress, and external appearance are highly valued; and that the men judge of the beauty of their women by widely different standards. We must next inquire whether this preference and the consequent selection during many generations of those women, which appear to the men of each race the most attractive, has altered the character either of the females alone, or of both sexes. With mammals the general rule appears to be that characters of all kinds are inherited equally by the males and females; we might therefore expect that with mankind any characters gained by the females or by the males through sexual selection would commonly be transferred to the offspring of both sexes. If any change has thus been effected, it is almost certain that the different races would be differently modified, as each has its own standard of beauty.

With mankind, especially with savages, many causes interfere with the action of sexual selection as far as the bodily frame is concerned. Civilised men are largely attracted by the mental charms of women, by their wealth, and especially by their social position; for men rarely marry into a much lower rank. The men who succeed in obtaining the more beautiful women will not have a better chance of leaving a long line of descendants than other men with plainer wives, save the few who bequeath their fortunes according to primogeniture. With respect to the opposite form of selection, namely, of the more attractive men by the women, although in civilised nations women have free or almost free choice, which is not the case with barbarous races, yet their choice is largely influenced by the social position and wealth of the men; and the success of the latter in life depends much on their intellectual powers and energy, or on the fruits of these same powers in their forefathers. No excuse is needed for treating this subject in some detail; for, as the German philosopher Schopenhauer remarks, “the final aim of all love intrigues, be they comic or tragic, is really of more importance than all other ends in human life. What it all turns upon is nothing less than the composition of the next generation…It is not the weal or woe of any one individual, but that of the human race to come, which is here at stake.” (1. ‘Schopenhauer and Darwinism,’ in ‘Journal of Anthropology,’ Jan. 1871, p. 323.

There is, however, reason to believe that in certain civilised and semi-civilised nations sexual selection has effected something in modifying the bodily frame of some of the members. Many persons are convinced, as it appears to me with justice, that our aristocracy, including under this term all wealthy families in which primogeniture has long prevailed, from having chosen during many generations from all classes the more beautiful women as their wives, have become handsomer, according to the European standard, than the middle classes; yet the middle classes are placed under equally favourable conditions of life for the perfect development of the body. Cook remarks that the superiority in personal appearance “which is observable in the erees or nobles in all the other islands (of the Pacific) is found in the Sandwich Islands”; but this may be chiefly due to their better food and manner of life.

The old traveller Chardin, in describing the Persians, says their “blood is now highly refined by frequent intermixtures with the Georgians and Circassians, two nations which surpass all the world in personal beauty. There is hardly a man of rank in Persia who is not born of a Georgian or Circassian mother.” He adds that they inherit their beauty, “not from their ancestors, for without the above mixture, the men of rank in Persia, who are descendants of the Tartars, would be extremely ugly.” (2. These quotations are taken from Lawrence (‘Lectures on Physiology,’ etc., 1822, p. 393), who attributes the beauty of the upper classes in England to the men having long selected the more beautiful women.) Here is a more curious case; the priestesses who attended the temple of Venus Erycina at San-Giuliano in Sicily, were selected for their beauty out of the whole of Greece; they were not vestal virgins, and Quatrefages (3. ‘Anthropologie,’ ‘Revue des Cours Scientifiques,’ Oct. 1868, p. 721.), who states the foregoing fact, says that the women of San-Giuliano are now famous as the most beautiful in the island, and are sought by artists as models. But it is obvious that the evidence in all the above cases is doubtful.

The following case, though relating to savages, is well worth giving for its curiosity. Mr. Winwood Reade informs me that the Jollofs, a tribe of negroes on the west coast of Africa, “are remarkable for their uniformly fine appearance.” A friend of his asked one of these men, “How is it that every one whom I meet is so fine looking, not only your men but your women?” The Jollof answered, “It is very easily explained: it has always been our custom to pick out our worst-looking slaves and to sell them.” It need hardly be added that with all savages, female slaves serve as concubines. That this negro should have attributed, whether rightly or wrongly, the fine appearance of his tribe to the long-continued elimination of the ugly women is not so surprising as it may at first appear; for I have elsewhere shewn (4. ‘Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication,’ vol. i. p. 207.) that negroes fully appreciate the importance of selection in the breeding of their domestic animals, and I could give from Mr. Reade additional evidence on this head.

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