October 24-26, 2002

Few texts have had as wide ranging impact as Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Not only has Darwin's inquiry into the comparative morphology of living beings made myriad biological relationships newly visible, but the consequent implications of humankind's connections to the animal world has served as the basis for work in religious studies, bioethics, and genetics. Further, the historical model emerging out of Darwin's theory of evolution and natural selection has been vigorously debated by social theorists and reformers across the political spectrum.

Darwin's accomplishment presented challenges to the accepted Victorian world order, in which humans occupied a divinely ordained position as beings utterly distinct from other animal creatures. While the germs of evolutionary theory were certainly present in the thought of earlier naturalists such as Erasmus Darwin (Charles's grandfather), and Lamarck, it was nonetheless the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species that was to create a radical reordering of 19th-century beliefs and systems of knowledge. Conservatives argued that certain peoples were lower in the evolutionary hierarchy, while socialists saw in Darwin's theory the fluidity of class structure. The social implications of evolutionary theory remain hotly contested even today, while the reach of those implications touches all areas of science and human relations.

Such thinking was grounded in Darwin's understanding of evolutionary transmutation - a notion that, in contrast to the controversies it raised among social theorists, remains a foundational concept in modern biology, genetics, and paleontology. Darwin was instrumental in establishing a connection between fossils and living organisms, and in arguing for the macro-evolutionary transitions of simpler organisms into more complex ones. Contemporary scientists argue about whether the large evolutionary shifts in Darwin's thinking are indeed borne out by the relative lack of transitional forms in the extant fossil record. At the same time, Darwin has offered paleontologists and biologists alike a powerful means of classifying and connecting living organisms and their traces. In arguing for the mutability of life forms, Darwin has provided a basis for examining the effects of environmental conditions on species populations, as well as for the numerous anthropological and biological studies of primates.

Our seminar explored Darwin's text through discussions based on close readings, following our usual practice. Presentations situated Darwin's ideas against the backdrop of his time, and also discussed subsequent and contemporary applications of Darwinian evolutionary theory across disciplinary fields, with special attention to the sciences, where these ideas have had their deepest impact. Speakers included Jerry Coyne (Ecology and Evolution), David Hull (Emeritus, Philosophy, Northwestern University), Susan Kidwell (Geophysical Sciences), Robert Perlman (Biology), Robert Richards (History, Philosophy, Psychology), and Phillip Sloan (History and Philosophy of Science, University of Notre Dame).

Pre-readings

Fleeming Jackson’s 1867 review offers an early scientific response to Darwin’s understanding of variability, mutation, and selection. Michael Ruse traces Darwin’s reception in the late-Victorian culture more broadly, focusing on the how the scientific community’s response to Darwinian thought interacted with contemporary philosophical, religious, and political concerns. Robert Richard’s essay places Darwin’s understanding of nature within the legacy of Romanticism; working out of this placement, Richards argues that Darwin’s response to romanticism in fact permits an understanding of humans as endowed with a moral conscience capable of altruistic engagement with others in a newly detheologized account of the natural world.

Suggested Reading:

Joanthan Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time (New York: Vintage, 1995) offers an excellent account of the work of Rosemary and Peter Grant’s work on the very finches Darwin discusses in The Origin. The Grants demonstrated that evolutionary selection can occur more intensely and more rapidly than previously thought possible. Weiner’s book offers an excellent review of their work and its implications for contemporary evolutionary biology.