Title: Descent of Morality: Charles Darwin and the Making of a Moral Sensation

Abstract: The publication of the Origin of Species (1859) has cast a long shadow over the historiography, serving to obscure the rest of Darwin’s corpus. It has generally been assumed by historians that Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871) did not cause the sort of sensation produced by the Origin when it was published twelve years later. The mild reception hypothesis is founded on the idea that evolution had been widely accepted by 1870 amongst educated classes and as a result had very little sensational value. However, popular approval of evolution was limited to the idea of morphological change over time. The domain of mind and morals were seen to be exclusively our defining feature, that which set us apart from the rest of nature. It was also intimately bound up with religious and philosophical convictions which were deemed outside the purvey of science. In this paper I will argue that Darwin’s evolutionary theory of morality as contained in Descent not only violated these conventions but was seen by many as inherently dangerous, sparking moral outrage across Britain, rivalling if not superseding the Origin in sensational value.

Presenter: Henry-James Meiring, PhD candidate.