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Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection

Publication supported by the Susan Elizabeth Abrams Fund in History of Science

Darwin’s concept of natural selection has been exhaustively studied, but his secondary evolutionary principle of sexual selection remains largely unexplored and misunderstood. Yet sexual selection was of great strategic importance to Darwin because it explained things that natural selection could not and offered a naturalistic, as opposed to divine, account of beauty and its perception. 
Only now, with Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection, do we have a comprehensive and meticulously researched account of Darwin’s path to its formulation—one that shows the man, rather than the myth, and examines both the social and intellectual roots of Darwin’s theory. Drawing on the minutiae of his unpublished notes, annotations in his personal library, and his extensive correspondence, Evelleen Richards offers a richly detailed, multilayered history. Her fine-grained analysis comprehends the extraordinarily wide range of Darwin’s sources and disentangles the complexity of theory, practice, and analogy that went into the making of sexual selection. Richards deftly explores the narrative strands of this history and vividly brings to life the chief characters involved. A true milestone in the history of science, Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection illuminates the social and cultural contingencies of the shaping of an important—if controversial—biological concept that is back in play in current evolutionary theory.

672 pages | 48 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2017

Biological Sciences: Evolutionary Biology

Gender and Sexuality

History: British and Irish History, History of Ideas

History of Science


"[S]imply stunning...not only is this a great book on Darwin, it is also one that serves as a guide on how to write books about Darwin that matter and make a lasting contribution to how we understand his work and its continuing influence."

Times Higher Education

“Long but very readable. . . .  Her book is ex­citingly full of colour, fashion, magazines, women and multi-species sexual display. . . . Richards is very good at tracing out the hinterland of accepted models of female sexuality in the high Victorian period. . . . Richards is brilliant at showing a Darwin half enmeshed in the prejudices of his time, and half able to see beyond them.”

Times Literary Supplement

"The nature and origins of Darwin’s thought on sex are captured in unparalleled depth and sophistication in Evelleen Richards destined-to-be classic. . . . Anyone who wants to know how or why Darwin constructed sexual selection for a capitalist and secularizing society will find an abundance of fresh insights, big ideas, and vivid details."

Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences

“This work investigates ‘the intellectual and social roots of Charles Darwin’s theory of sexual selection’ by examining his notes and published writings, particularly The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. Richards explains how and why Darwin invoked this concept, including a chronological history of its development. In this thorough, comprehensive study, she considers such broad themes as race, sexual politics, marriage, class, adaptation, fashion, competition, beauty, and religion. Even though Darwin regarded natural selection as the prime force driving evolutionary change, he recognized it could not account for the presence of all adaptations. Darwin advanced sexual selection to explain how such traits as coloration in birds and insects were selected, although they did not have protective value. He reasoned their bright colors made males more attractive to females in mating. His ‘big species book,’ the incomplete Natural Selection, was written before he adapted its ideas into the published Origin. Darwin deferred discussion of human evolution and sexual selection in Origin and later addressed them in DescentDarwin and the Making of Sexual Selection has excellent illustrations, which help elucidate its narrative. It is best suited for upper-level students and historians of science. Recommended.”


"It troubled Darwin, a privileged white Victorian man, to impute agency to women and aesthetic discrimination to non-Europeans. His peers rejected the theory. But biologists are revisiting it. Science historian Evelleen Richards’s book vividly excavates its origins. Darwin developed his ideas on sexual selection while immersed in fields as diverse as embryology and pigeon breeding. Deeply personal matters such as choosing his wife, Emma, and daily preoccupations such as women’s fashions, also played a part. In Richards’s view, Darwin’s opposition to slavery did not, as others argue, motivate his work on sexual selection. What did was his human attempt to answer scientific, political, social and personal questions."

Elizabeth Yale | Nature

"Richards’s fascinating story of Darwin’s other theory offers an intriguingly different picture of the development of Darwin’s evolutionary thinking as a whole, in which sexual selection assumes a central position. For this reason, Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection deserves to take its place alongside the best of the substantial scholarly treatments of Darwin from the last three decades. . . . Gracefully written, Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection offers its readers a lively narrative deeply informed by Richards’s formidable grasp of both previous scholarly works and the abundant primary sources. She draws extensively on Darwin’s letters, notes, articles, and books, as well as the writings and correspondence of Darwin’s friends and his intellectual inspirations, and she manages to weave them all into a rich tapestry illuminating the convoluted formation of Darwin’s evolutionary theory shaped by the rapidly changing political, social, religious, cultural, and scientific context. This is impressive, painstaking scholarship at its best."

Journal of the History of Biology

"[A]n ambitious undertaking, offering by far the most comprehensive account of the development of Charles Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. Richards ‘explores the intellectual and social roots’ of Darwin’s theory, ‘analyzes its stages of theory building in his published and unpublished writings and its elaboration in The Descent of Man, and reviews its contemporary reception, reinterpretations and applications’. Richards lavishes on sexual selection the kind of treatment previously reserved by historians for natural selection. This attention is long overdue, for sexual selection, as Richards rightly insists, was more clearly Darwin’s own creation."

Annals of Science

"This extraordinary work of deep scholarship will change the way we think about Darwin and sexual selection. It is certainly the most important book written on a subject that has attracted much less attention than its sister theory, natural selection. . . . Thorough and meticulous, it is at the same time exceptionally readable, moving almost like a detective novel through the various steps Darwin had to take in order to account for a world too complicated to be completely explained by natural selection and yet entirely without supernatural intervention. . . . This reader finds it hard to imagine a Darwin scholar who could come away from this book without learning something new and important . . . . It is impossible to do justice to the detail, nuance, and compendiousness of a book so ambitious and rich as this."

Victorian Studies

“Brilliantly written and deftly constructed, this epic work sets Darwin's theorizing about sex, race, and reproduction in a long-term context extending from the late Enlightenment to the end of the Victorian era. It provides an entirely fresh account of the development of the theory of sexual selection, tracing its origins in issues ranging from birth control and radical politics to feminine fashion and the marriage market. A landmark not only in Darwin studies, but also in our understanding of the era in which science achieved unprecedented authority as the arbiter of truth.”

James A. Secord, author of Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age

“Far more than natural selection, sexual selection was distinctively Darwin’s own theory, and it underpinned, albeit not without considerable controversy, much of his wider evolutionary thinking. In meticulously reconstructing just how Darwin formulated his controversial concept of the struggle for mates, Evelleen Richards provides perhaps the richest and most detailed account of the making of any scientific theory. Ranging from Enlightenment physiognomy to Victorian high fashion, and examining an unprecedented array of both Darwin’s own writings and his voluminous reading, Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection is a tour de force of rigorous historical scholarship.”

Gowan Dawson, author of Show Me the Bone

“A towering achievement and a magnificent feast. All the leading Darwin themes are here: race, empire, capital, sex, gender, marriage, family, breeding, class, competition, mind, brain, heredity, embryology, ancestry, adaptation, progress, fashion, aesthetics, morals, politics, and religion. All are related to one another and to Darwin’s theory of sexual selection with cogent, comprehensive, contextual interpretations; incisive, meticulous, textual explications; tireless, critical, archival research, and judicious, sensitive, biographical scholarship. There is no better book on Darwin.”

Jonathan Hodge, author of Darwin Studies: A Theorist and his Theories in their Contexts

"A 'big book': worth dwelling on, worth wallowing in. It bids fair to change our understanding of sexual and natural selection alike."


"A work of tremendous merit and value. It is my intention to re-shelve my copy of this book so that it sits right next to my copy of The Descent of Man. It belongs next to the volume in the same way that notes belong in texts, in order to more fully reveal the foundations of ideas at the time of their conception."

Evolutionary Psychological Science

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations
Prologue / “An Awful Stretcher”
Part I: Beauty, Brotherhood, and Breeding: The Origins of Sexual Selection
One / The Ugly Brother
Two / Good Wives
Three / “Bliss Botanic” and “Cocks Heroic”: Two Darwins in the “Temple of Nature”
Four / Beauty Cuts the Knot
Five / Reading the Face of Race
Six / Good Breeding: The Art of Mating
Seven / “Better Than a Dog Anyhow”
Eight / Flirting with Fashion
Nine / Development Matters
Part II: “For Beauty’s Sake”: The Making of Sexual Selection
Ten / Critical Years: From Pigeons to People
Eleven / Putting Female Choice in (Proper) Place
Twelve / The Battle for Beauty: Wallace versus Darwin
Thirteen / Writing the Descent: From Bird’s-Eye View to Masterful Breeder
Fourteen / The Post-Descent Years: Sexual Selection in Crisis, Female Choice at Large
Epilogue / Last Words


History of Science Society: Pfizer Award
Short Listed

History of Science Society: Suzanne J. Levinson Prize

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