The Darwinian Moment: The Woman that Never Evolved

  • Jeannette King


Darwin did not explicitly address the question of gender until The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Fiona Erskine, however, has presented persuasive arguments to suggest that from 1859, The Origin of Species1 ‘provided a mechanism for converting culturally entrenched ideas of female inferiority into permanent, biologically determined, sexual hierarchy’.2 Even in the 1850s, anthropologists used evolutionary theory to provide a scientific basis for the idea of separate spheres, and from the 1860s on, an abundance of essays, pamphlets and lectures was written to demonstrate how natural and sexual selection had operated to make women physically and mentally inferior to men. Because males had to compete for females, they became progressively stronger and ‘fitter’, in every sense, so inevitably evolved faster than females. In addition, women had evolved for the single specialised function of motherhood. Finally there was an implied parallel between the evolution of the sexes and the evolution of separate races, or even species, since the Origin states that the two sexes might be regarded in the light of two separate species, and links the arrested development of women with that of savages.


Sexual Selection Gender Ideology Human World Romantic Love Separate Sphere 
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  1. 29.
    See Michel Foucault, ‘Panopticism’, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1991), pp. 195–228.Google Scholar

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© Jeannette King 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jeannette King
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of EnglishUniversity of AberdeenUK

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