Descent and Dissent

We have quite a healthy selection of natural history items on the shelf, but without doubt the king of them all is Darwin. An 1805 treatise on the genus Fucus has beautiful engravings, and the 1828 Entretenimientos de un Prisionero en las provincias del Rio de la Plata by the Baron de Juras Reales is more gripping, but Darwin stands alone. We have a couple of editions of the Origin of Species, but today I have my eye on

The Descent of Man, and selection in relation to sex. Two volumes. London: John Murray, 1871. First edition, first issue.

The Descent is not nearly Darwin’s most important book. Most of what he writes in it had already been published in the Origin and elsewhere, but it inserted itself rather more into the social implications of his observations on sex, race and psychology. Why, then, do I write about this book?

Our copy was owned by the Reverend Henry Parry Liddon (his ownership stamp appears on the front blank of each volume) –

Tractarian apologist, Ireland Professor of biblical exegesis at Oxford and canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Although Darwin was surprised at the lack of public censoriousness in the reception of the Descent, the religious grappled with the implications and ramifications of his theories. Reverend Liddon represents the very earliest wave of apologists: those who seek to characterize the theory of evolution – a word that appears for the first time in Darwin’s writing on the second page of the first volume – as compatible with theories of the origins of man derived from scripture.

Liddon marked — we can be all but sure — some passages:

No one supposes that one of the lower animals reflects whence he comes or whither he goes,– what is death or what is life, and so forth.    (vol. I, p. 62)

There is no evidence that man was aboriginally endowed with the ennobling belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God. On the contrary there is ample evidence, derived not from hasty travellers, but from men who have long resided with savages, that numerous races have existed and still exist, who have no idea of one or more gods, and who have no words in their languages to express such an idea. The question is of course wholly distinct from that higher one, whether there exists a Creator and Ruler of the universe; and this has been answered in the affirmative by the highest intellects that have ever lived.    (vol. I, p. 65)


Liddon has underlined “ennobling” in the second quoted passage, and written a reference to p. 106: “The ennobling belief in God is not universal with man.” Passages such as these are the footholds of claiming a place for divinity in Darwin’s thought.

Darwin died on 19 April 1882, and three days later Liddon delivered a sermon at St. Paul’s, which his friends called “the famous sermon:”

It may be admitted that when the well-known books on the Origin of Species and on the Descent of Man first appeared, they were largely regarded by religious men as containing a theory necessarily hostile to the fundamental truths of religion. A closer study has generally modified any such impression.
(The Recovery of St. Thomas… with a Prefatory Note on the Late Mr. Darwin, London: Rivintgons, 1882. Second edn., p. 29.)


The present item may therefore be regarded as a significant document in one of the most consequential debates of the modern era: that of the relationship of science and religion. Liddon’s reclamation of Darwin in his Famous Sermon was a project that had perhaps begun a decade prior while reading this very copy of the Descent.



Vol. I: Blank, A4 B-2D8 2E4 2B8 [$2]. 224 leaves; pp.  i-v vi-viii, 1 2-250 251-253 254-423, blank, 21 22-16 (advertisements).
Vol. II: A4 (+A5) B-2G8 2H4 2I2 2B8 [$2]. 251 leaves; pp. i-v vi-viii, [1], blank, 1 2-475, blank, 21 22-16 (advertisements).