Don’t Be Such an Animal!: Placing Humankind Among the Mammals in ‘Descent of Man’

In The Descent of Man, Darwin starts off comparing the bodily structures of humans and animals and discovering that there are many similarities in structures like bones, muscles, and even the brain. To prove this point, he breaks down the human body step by step to show homologous structures in animals. Darwin also mentions that humans and animals have similar behavioral qualities. We react to diseases, medicines, and caffeine similarly. Darwin also compares anatomical structures and social norms to show that humans and other mammals are similar but there are differences within species, which include men/women and white/colored races. He uses these distinction to show that within species there are differences but these variations of sex and skin color are also found in other mammals. By comparing behavior and intellect between humans and mammals, Darwin is trying to diminish the idea that humans are better than mammals and suggests that on a broad scope all mammals similar. Although we have significant differences within the humans species, these differences occur in other mammals as well. Overall, Darwin ‘pushes’ humans off a pedestal and wants humans to realize that they are truly animals at their core.

Darwin utilizes certain behavioral qualities among certain species to show how similarly human act with other animals. Comparing behavioral qualities bolsters the idea that not only do humans resemble other animals physically but the ways in which humans’ bodies respond to things, the way humans react and feel in their society mimic those of other species of animals. One of the behavioral identities he emphasizes on is the impact of addictive substances such as tobacco, coffee and alcohol on humans compared to other animals. There are overlaps between how humans’ bodies function and how mammals’ bodies function. Because of how our body is structured, we’re susceptible to the same diseases of “lower animals” like syphilis, herpes, and cholera. We can even share the same medicines to help illnesses. In addition, the things we’re addicted to can affect mammals. Darwin says, “monkeys have a strong taste for tea, coffee, and spirituous liquors: they will also, as I have myself seen, smoke tobacco with pleasure” (Darwin, 23). Here, Darwin explains how monkeys have a strong liking to caffeinated drinks like tea and coffee. They’re also drawn to tobacco just like we are. Discussing things like tobacco and coffee, things that humans are naturally drawn to, creates a connection between the reader and the monkeys. Darwin tries to portray this bond because the reader subconsciously starts to see things from the monkey’s perspective because it is so similar to that of humans. This in itself helps diminish the line that humans within the society created between themselves and other animals.

Another case study that Darwin uses to show similarity between across species is the effect of consuming alcohol in apes. He says, “Brehm asserts that the natives of north-eastern Africa catch the wild baboons by exposing vessels with strong beer, by which they are made drunk. He has seen some of these animals, which he kept in confinement, in this state; and he gives a laughable account of their behavior and strange grimaces. On the following morning they were very cross and dismal; they held their aching heads with both hands, and wore a most pitiable expression: when beer or wine was offered them, they turned away in disgust, but relished the juice of lemons. An American monkey, an Ateles, after getting drunk on brandy, would never touch it again, and thus was wiser than many men. These trifling facts prove how similar the nerves of taste must be in monkeys and man, and how similarly their whole nervous system is affected (Darwin, 23-24). It’s interesting when he says that “after getting drunk on brandy, [they] would never touch it again” because here he is comparing them on an intellectual level. The way apes react to the beer and how they give “strange grimaces” resembles the reactions of humans. After these apes have been exposed to the harmful effects of what alcohol can do to them, they are able to grasp that idea and stay away from it but humans don’t necessarily stay away from pain, sometimes they actually end up doing the opposite where we go for something that we know will hurt us. So in that sense, Darwin is undermining humans as a species saying that they think they are so different from animals and so much more intelligent when in fact in this case we are the more irrational ones who can’t think properly for ourselves. By undermining humans as a species, it erases the distinctions that set us apart from other mammals. Furthermore, talking about drinking alcohol, something that is common amongst humans, regarding animals establishes this bond of shared characteristics between the two. This way, the readers can connect and understand the monkey’s pain when, “they h[old] their aching heads with both hands, and wore a most pitiable expression.” Because the readers may have experienced a similar feeling, they can connect more with the bamboos and may eventually come to the realization that humans are very similar to other animals.

Darwin focuses on the similarities and differences between males and females across species . In addition to discussing how humans react to addictive substances, he goes further and explains the comparison of males and females of humans and other mammals. Darwin does an interesting thing where he shows that there is this gender difference among humans, however this difference is found in other mammals as well. Thus, he is taking differences in the human species and other mammals and comparing the roles that they play in each specie. He says, ““Man differs from woman in size, bodily strength, hairiness, & c., as well as in mind, in the same manner as do the two sexes of many mammals” (Darwin, 25). Considering the time when Darwin is writing , around the mid eighteen hundreds, there was a sharp differentiation between men and women. These gender roles are both seen in the human species and in other mammals. For example, males tend to provide food by hunting and females take care of their young. This is just one example that bolster’s Darwin’s point of how humans really do not differ from other mammals and how our society was/is structured around how other mammals create their society. That the gender roles that were present originate from physical distinctions, specifically when it comes to reproduction.

Another way that Darwin tries to minimize the power gap between humans and animals is by showing that animals have a certain linkage to other animals, thus showing that humans are not the alpha species but derive from other animals. For instance, Darwin talks about a specific type of fish called the lancelet or amphioxus. This fish varies drastically from any other type of fish. It “is remarkable for its negative characters; it can hardly be said to possess a brain, vertebral column, or heart.” Darwin then finishes this description off by saying, “some naturalists amongst the Vermes or worms. Their larvae somewhat resemble tadpoles in shape,* and have the power of swimming freely about” (Darwin, 186). This one fish is so different from other fishes in his species. Some of its physical and mental characteristics are very different from other fish. However, Darwin emphasizes how the lancelet resembles other species like tadpoles, vermes and worms. Darwin uses this specific case study to show that although there may be differences within a species, at a large scope, it is connected to other animals in some shape or form. Similarly, humans are classified differently from each other through genders and race ; however, no matter how much humans wish to stray away from being animals, they are still considered mammals at their core. Humans have significant differences but as a whole there are parts of the species that derive from other species. It is interesting that Darwin discusses this lancelet case study in a chapter he named, “affinities and genealogy.” He uses the term genealogy to say that several animals, like humans, do not come from just one specific animal but derives from many different species and the process is very complex. For instance, the fish resembled qualities of three different species not just one.He uses this to hint that humans also share traits with many other animals which ‘pushes’ humans off the pedestal even more because humans have a link to a variety of different animals.

Darwin uses case studies of different kinds of animals to humble humans by showing how similar they are to other species. He specifically focuses on comparing behavioral traits of humans to other animals to establish this mental and psychological bond that humans and several other animals share. In addition to talking about similarities, he also points out differences such as gender within the human species. Darwin uses gender differences to show that the gender roles that humans had during the mid eighteen hundreds resemble the roles of the males and females of other species. Overall, Darwin tries his best to use science to humble humans and help them to face what they truly are. In a society where humans suppress their animalistic traits such as sex, body hair and aggression, Darwin uses anatomical characteristics to appreciate and accept the things that make up who we are rather than deny them.