What Darwin Got Right and Wrong About Human Evolution

A Feb. 17-18 Dartmouth symposium brings together leading scholars with local community members to analyze Charles Darwin's Descent of Man through the lens of modern science.

In his preface to A Most Interesting Problem: What Darwin's Descent of Man Got Right and Wrong about Human Evolution, Professor of Anthropology Jeremy DeSilva writes: "Even the very best scientists in the world—in this case, Charles Darwin—err." 

In the chapters that follow, 12 leading scholars and science communicators analyze Darwin's 1871 book, The Descent of Man, through the lens of modern science. In the two-volume follow-up to On the Origin of Species, Darwin charts the evolutionary origins of humankind—what he referred to as "a most interesting problem for the naturalist"—nearly a century before the discovery of DNA and long before thousands of human fossils were discovered. 

"Darwin was remarkably prophetic in some of his predictions—for example, that the earliest human fossils would be discovered on the African continent," DeSilva says. "But he was flat out wrong in other areas. This is how science works. New discoveries force us to constantly tweak what we thought we knew." 

This Feb. 17-18, contributors to A Most Interesting Problem will share their findings at a Dartmouth symposium on Darwin and human evolution sponsored by the Fannie and Alan Leslie Conference Fund and the Department of Anthropology. (The conference was originally slated for 2021 when the book was published, 150 years after the publication of The Descent of Man, but the COVID-19 pandemic intervened.) 

DeSilva conceived of the symposium as an opportunity for members of the Upper Valley community to explore scientific advances and unpack evolutionary theories on race and gender with luminaries in the field. Local K-12 teachers have been invited, and the anthropology department has also arranged for the transportation and lodging of AP biology students from North Country Union High School in Newport, Vt. 

"We want to engage with students and teachers who don't often have the opportunity to be here," says DeSilva, a passionate science literacy advocate who discovered his love of early human fossils when he was an educator at the Boston Museum of Science. 

A board member at the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, Vt., DeSilva regularly visits K-12 classrooms, develops short educational videos and podcast episodes for young learners, and has authored many articles that make science intelligible to the general public.

If there's a theme besides evolutionary science that ties symposium presenters together, it's their passion for making scientific advances accessible and relatable. 

They include biologist and neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel, whose TED talk What Is So Special About the Human Brain? has been viewed more than 3 million times; DeSilva, chair of the anthropology department and author of First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human; evolutionary psychologist Brian Hare, co-author of the 2012 bestselling book The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think; anthropologist John Hawks, whose John Hawks Weblog serves as an authoritative source for paleoanthropology and human genetics news; anthropologist and prolific author Agustín Fuentes, whose books include Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths About Human Nature; Michael Ryan, author of A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction; anthropologist and science blogger Holly Dunsworth; and award-winning science journalist Ann Gibbons, author of The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors. 

DeSilva also looks forward to welcoming students, faculty, and staff from across the Dartmouth community to the symposium. The 15 students in his "Darwin in Human Evolution" class will have lunch with each of the conference presenters whose chapters they studied—humanizing their work, DeSilva says, and showing how "science and scientists are approachable." 

A Community Conversation on Race 

As a prelude to the conference, the Department of Anthropology and the Montshire Museum of Science will host a "community conversation" on race at the museum on Thursday, Feb. 16, at 6 p.m. Invitees include local K-12 teachers, school board and law enforcement officials, and public representatives, as well as Dartmouth faculty and staff. (The event is by invitation only.) 

Four leading scientists will illuminate how racial categorization has no basis in biology, while race as a social construct exerts damaging biological effects on the victims of racism and discrimination. Anti-bias and cultural diversity educator Ellen Hofheimer Bettmann will facilitate the program, which in addition to symposium presenters Fuentes and Dunsworth features biologist Joseph Graves Jr. and anthropologist Jada Benn-Torres.


Joseph Graves, Jr., Holly Dunsworth, Agustín Fuentes, and Jada Ben-Torres (clockwise from top) will lead a conversation on race at the Montshire Museum of Science (left).

After each of four short science talks, participants will participate in small-group discussions and then share takeaways with the larger group as part of a moderated discussion. 

"The best learning happens when there's audience participation and engagement," says DeSilva. "We want to make sure participants can voice their questions and concerns in a safe environment around a topic that can be contentious and emotional." 

For DeSilva, it's critical to make the latest scientific advances on race not only accessible, but actionable. 

"When we think about the effects that really toxic, racist thinking have on the world and on our community," he says, "we wanted to make sure that the conversation didn't stop at the door, that people will take this information and bring it home with them and into their classrooms and communities beyond the walls of the Montshire and Dartmouth."

Ultimately, the symposium and community conversation underscore the complexities of science as a human endeavor. 

"Darwin was writing as a mid-19th-century Englishman at the height of the British empire. He couldn't get past his own bias that put white men at the pinnacle of human evolution," DeSilva says. 

"As scientists, we work with the data we have at the time, and we work within the world in which we find ourselves. Some would say it's impossible to achieve full objectivity, which is why we need a diverse scientific community and constantly have to question our assumptions and retest our ideas over and over again."