The history of evolution has influenced an astonishing number of areas of critical thought and practice since the eighteenth century, ranging from the direction and tenor of scientific inquiry, to conceptions of natural creation and religion, to the “human betterment” movement and notions of social and economic Darwinism. While Charles Darwin was not the first person to conceive of evolution, he posited for the first time the mechanisms by which evolution worked, most notably, natural selection. His 1859 publication The Origin of Species was arguably the most important book published in the history of scientific ideas since Nicolas Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbis coelestium appeared in 1543.
This course – being taught through the Integrative & Evolutionary Biology Department -- is designed to present, analyze and discuss the key set of issues surrounding evolution, starting with Darwin’s immediate intellectual predecessors at the end of the eighteenth century – including his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin -- and continuing up through into the 1970s. The primary chronological emphasis, however, will be on the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth century.
It is my desire to help scientists-in-training, pre-med students and medical students (and any other students interested in the topic) to understand the implications of the history of evolution. This will make you better scientists, doctors, and yes, better-informed citizens. Science and medicine never take place in a vacuum, and those disciplines are highly influenced by cultural environment, mores, and the state of other scientific activities at the time. To understand Darwinian thought and its influences and successors is to be able to better contextualize modern conceptions of evolution, biological inheritance, and religion. This course will thus provide a look at the historical antecedents to Darwinian evolutionary theory; the thinking of catastrophists versus ideas of the linear, progressive nature of evolution; the responses of religious and spiritual thinkers to the appearance of the Origin of Species; and the changes to his theory in the decades following its appearance, including the new understanding of genetics at the start of the twentieth century (a critically explanatory piece of the evolutionary puzzle which Darwin did not live long enough to incorporate). We will analyze Darwin’s thought, scrutinize the influences on and of Darwin, and embed Darwin’s thinking within the social and political fabric of his era. We will also discuss changes in evolutionary thinking up through the Modern Synthesis era.
A couple of the class sessions will meet at the Huntington Library in order to take advantage of its extraordinarily rich holdings in this area. The Huntington holds the largest collection of Darwin’s printed works extant in North America, as well as many important manuscript collections, photographs and printed works related to his predecessors and successors. The course will thus also offer insight into some of the research methodologies used by scholars in working with the archival and historical record to continue and advance Darwinian and evolutionary scholarship, with an eye towards the most recent historiographical trends.
Regularly attending class is important. Missing more than three classes will result in an F. If you do have to miss a class I will assign a project for you to make it up.
Please also note the Statement for Students with Disabilities and the Statement on Academic Integrity following the weekly schedule below.
The class will include an analytical paper of approximately 20 pages in length due by the final class of the semester; details to follow during the semester.
Your final grade will be based as follows:
30% for a variety of short projects and assignments, both in class and outside of class.
30% for class participation, presentations and assigned class discussions to lead. Note that this is a substantial part of your grade, so it’s very important that you do the readings thoroughly, ask lots of questions, and participate enthusiastically.