ENVIRON 304 - Topics in Culture and Environment
Section: 002 Darwin and Evolution in Historical Perspective
Term: FA 2008
Subject: Program in the Environment (ENVIRON)
Department: SNE Program in the Environment
With permission of instructor.
May be repeated for a maximum of 12 credit(s). May be elected more than once in the same term.
Primary Instructor:

Many people have opinions about Charles Darwin and Darwinism, but few have read his work. During his lifetime (1809-1882), his views on the mechanisms underlying the development of the living world gave rise to oversimplification as well as to glorification. Subsequently, the importance of his work has been both over- and under-rated depending on which framework of prejudice is in operation. In order to locate Darwin intellectually within the history of Western philosophy and science, this course explores Darwinism and its many facets through reading Darwin and contextualizing his writings historically, philosophically, and scientifically. This approach also involves the history of evolutionary thought since the seventeenth century and Victorian society which served as the societal backdrop in which Darwin’s reasoning was embedded.

One half of the course will be dedicated to a close reading of Darwin’s writings (The Voyage of the Beagle, 1839; On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, 1859; The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871; The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 1872) as well as contemporary scientific and non-scientific reactions in order to identify key concepts, lines of argumentation, notable figures of thought, and major controversies. We shall then turn to pre-Darwinian theories of evolution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (e.g., Buffon, Cuvier, Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck and others) in their relation to Darwin and how Darwin can be read against earlier political philosophy (e.g., Hobbes, Rousseau, Diderot). The last section will be devoted to critical aspects of post-Darwinian evolutionary thought, in particular its relation to eugenics on the one hand, and religion on the other.

The requirements of this course are:

  1. consistent attendance and timely and careful reading of assignments, to be evaluated on the basis of lively participation in discussions, several response papers (one page) and oral presentations;
  2. one short research paper on a topic selected by the instructor, and one short (~1000 words) essay on a topic of the student’s choice, and;
  3. a final term paper (~5000 words), in which each student focuses on the specific intellectual issue of greatest interest to him/her.

These components will constitute the basis for the final grade (in equal thirds).

ENVIRON 304 - Topics in Culture and Environment
Schedule Listing
001 (LEC)
MW 11:30AM - 1:00PM
002 (LEC)
MW 4:00PM - 5:30PM
Note: This is a meet together with RCIDIV 302.001
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