Science and religion both have a great deal to say about sex and gender. In contemporary culture, they are most often not talking to but rather past one another on these subjects. But in any given news cycle, it’s easy to find stories that show how these discourses are mixing together; on everything from purity balls, evolutionary dating, whether women should lean in, to the recent features on transpersons in Time. Debates over sex and gender inspire some of the most heated and polarizing political divides of our time. And the root of these debates are questions about the foundations for understanding sex and gender: what should we trust to tell us about sex and gender identity? Are biological definitions of sex and gender helpful or restrictive? Do religious traditions inhibit contemporary expressions of gender?

At Cosmologics, we want to discuss the conclusions, messages and restrictions that both science and religion place on our understandings of gender. And yes, I did say both. For while many liberals and progressives can clearly articulate the ways in which religion inhibits gender, sex, and sexuality, I find that recent conversations are not so clued into the ways in which science can be similarly confining. (For instance, sex advice columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage is among those who often champions science as the best explanation for contemporary sexuality). But there is a reason that there is a robust tradition of feminist criticism of the biological sciences. Biological binaries have been and continued to be used to harden the social roles for males and females. Work in the field of evolutionary psychology has been used in recent decades to explain (and sometimes justify) everything from why women wear high heels,the origins of male sexual jealousy, to the difficulties of social monogamy.


This kind of research is more than just diverting—it should matter to anyone involved in today’s debates over sex and gender.


This a long and complex conversation, and one in which we’ll be thinking about in the coming months with more series and posts. But this week we’re starting by hearing from four recently graduated Harvard seniors on the roots of the evolutionary science of gender. Each student has put together a piece on Charles Darwin’s thoughts on the science of sex by using his personal letters. Their projects came out of a partnership with the Darwin Correspondence Project, a long-standing research project at Cambridge University that is editing, annotating, and publishing all of Charles Darwin’s scientific and personal correspondence. One of the most exciting new areas of research to emerge from this material has been a set of new insights into Darwin’s understandings of sex from his biological researchers and his social context.

Now, these projects are fun. And for anyone who has even a passing interest in Charles Darwin, or his science, it’s really a delight to read more of his more personal thoughts in his letters. But I would argue that this kind of research is more than just diverting—that it should matter to anyone involved in today’s debates over sex and gender. So much of contemporary evolutionary reasoning on sex and gender is rooted in the Darwinian perspective. Some of Darwin’s own thoughts on the matter, including his theory of sexual selection, are still very much in play in current biological research. Knowing more about the influence of his culture can help us to deconstruct and even criticize the assumption built into evolutionary science.

So stay tuned, and over the next couple days we’ll hear why Darwin thought women were inherently moral, the fuss he made over women’s smaller skull size, and the influence that his daughter Henrietta had on the composition of the Descent of Man. We hope that you’ll find these creative explorations into Darwin’s science entertaining. But we also hope it’s food for thought on how we use biology to understand gender in our own society.

We’re featuring work done by students done for Sarah Richardson‘s course “Sex, Gender and Evolution” held in Harvard University’s History of Science Department and Committee on Degrees on Studies of Women and Gender Studies. These projects were the result of a third annual collaboration between Richardson’s students and the Darwin Correspondence Project (DCP). Projects from earlier years can be found on the DCP blog (which is also a great place for research, anecdotes and even archival puzzles that the editorial team at the DCP unearth in their work with Darwin’s letters).

The Moral Superiority of Victorian Women

Our first project comes from recent Harvard graduate Sarah Amanaullah. Sarah’s interest in the relationship between biology and gender was developed in her concentration in Human Evolutionary Biology. She now works at the UCSF non-profit Alliance Health Project.

Sarah’s project captures one of the key insights of the DCP’s research into Darwin’s understandings of sex and gender. In his 1871 book, the Descent of Man Darwin argued that women were intellectually inferior to men based on their stunted evolutionary and physiological development. He argued, for instance, that in “formation of [women’s] skull, is said to be intermediate between the child and the man”[1] Darwin believed, however, that although women were less intelligent, they were actually morally superior to men.

Sarah argues that understanding Darwin’s belief in the higher morality of women reveals much about his understanding of gender. She spells out the logic for us here:

Morally superior people, according to Victorian social theory, better control their base instincts. Thus, by considering women as morally superior, Darwin bestows women a sliver of fundamental rationality that men must lack, even in their superior intellect.

Sarah points this out in her project, not to exonerate Darwin for views that are flagrantly sexist by today’s standards, but to “give a window into Darwin’s more personal and complex thoughts and opinions about women.”

You can read more of Sarah’s insights, including her discussion of Darwin’s exchanges with the Victorian feminist Caroline Kennard in the rest of her paper.

Private Affair 

The next project was the work of Amalia Salcedo-Marx. Amalia originally took Professor Richardson’s course on a whim, interested in the relationship between social stereotypes and science. She now hopes to concentrate in History of Science and will graduate in 2017.

Amalia also believes that there is room to complicate Darwin’s published views on sex and gender by looking further into his correspondence. She also focuses on Darwin’s letters to Caroline Kennard, and argues that Darwin’s  “personal communications reveal that while he may have been a firm believer in male intellectual superiority, he did not view female inferiority as immutable.”

Amalia delves into Darwin’s exchanges with Kennard; exchanges that he marked as “for your private use.” [2] In this personal exchange, she finds evidence that Darwin believed women could improve their intellectual capabilities through training and education; in others Amalia argues that Darwin did not believe that women’s intellectual inferiority was entirely a matter of innate ability, but was also due to the work of society.

You can read more of Amalia’s conclusions in her paper (including Darwin’s approbation of a Mary Treat, a fellow naturalist working on co-evolution in plants in New Jersey).

Both of these projects reveal the challenges and rewards of working with the private papers of a very famous figure. When we read Darwin’s published work on the biology of sex and gender, many may wish to defend his sexist views as natural products of his time. Others may wish to excoriate him for creating a scientific justification for sexism; a justification that continues to have a life in our own society. These students took on the challenging task of setting aside their own perspectives (at least for a time) in order to understand the context and internal logic of Darwin’s views. But they undertook this project neither to celebrate nor defame Darwin as a thinker. Rather, by uncovering the complex interplay between Darwin’s biology and Darwin’s culture, these students help us to realize that we can disentangle scientific conclusions from their broader social context. A good lesson, both for doing history, and for understanding the influence of science in our own world.

Darwin on Female Intelligence 

Miranda Morrison graduated from Harvard with a degree in Government. She was drawn to Professor Richardson’s class after growing up in Carlisle, Massachusetts where she could conduct her own scientific explorations in the swamp surrounding her house.

Miranda focuses on the role that Darwin’s domestic life played in his experience of gender roles. Recently, historians have highlighted the role that Darwin’s eldest daughter Henrietta played in editing his work. Indeed, Darwin asked Henrietta to help him with the manuscript of The Descent of Man (1871), the very same work that claimed that women did not have the same ability for deep thought as men!

In this video rendition of Miranda’s project, you can learn more about Darwin’s reliance  and trust in Henrietta’s intelligence and editorial eye. Darwin sent the manuscript of the Descent of Man to Henrietta, telling her that “the more time you can give for deep criticism or corrections of style, the more grateful I shall be.”  [3] Although Miranda acknowledges that we can never know for sure what role Henrietta’s sex played in Darwin’s choice to have her edit the Descent of Man, she offers us a glimpse into the complex gender landscape of Darwin’s private and domestic world.

“Only For Your Private Use”: A Satire 

Vanessa Tan graduated from Harvard with a degree in Computer Science, with a particular interest in artificial intelligence. Her personal experiences in both research laboratories and technology settings have led her to develop a strong interest in theories of gender difference as well as the sociology of science.

Vanessa takes a creative approach to the tension between Darwin’s published views and his private letters on the subject gender. She asks us to imagine that Darwin was a feminist, and creates an “anachronistic tabloid-style article” that exposes Darwin to his society as a subversive and hypocrite. She highlights Victorian society’s “gendered perceptions of scientific ability by portraying ‘feminist leanings as ruinous to Darwin’s reputation.” By asking us to consider a historical counterfactual, Vanessa emphasizes both the subtle gendering of Victorian language about female scientists, as well as the explicit condemnation of women’s ability to be “objective”. Darwin emerges through the piece as a champion of women, and is condemned by the social strictures of his time.

Her goal, however, was not to convince her audience that Darwin was a feminist. Instead she shows us the “power of Victorian social norms” in a project that is both incisive and playful.

You can see Vanessa’s tabloid rendition of Darwin as a feminist here.

Myrna Perez Sheldon is editor-in-chief of Cosmologics.

1. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man: And Selection in Relation to Sex (London: John Murray, 1871), 564.

2. Charles Darwin, “Letter 7124- Charles Darwin to Henrietta Darwin” The Darwin Correspondence Project Database.

3. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man: And Selection in Relation to Sex (London: John Murray, 1871), 556.

4. Charles Darwin. “Letter 13607 – Darwin, C.R. to Kennard, C.A., 9 Jan 1882.” The Darwin Correspondence Project Database.

Image is a woodcut of Victoria Woodhull and other woman suffrage activists at the House Judiciary Committee, January 11, 1871. Image from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper February 4, 1871. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


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