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Darwinian Revolution

Darwinian Revolution

Professor Frederick Gregory Ph.D.
University of Florida
Course No.  1527
Course No.  1527
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Published 150 years ago, Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species—the text that introduced the world to natural selection—is among a handful of books that have changed the world.

Born amid a ferment of speculation about evolutionary scenarios in the early 19th century; vilified and later pronounced dead at the turn of the 20th century; and spectacularly confirmed by discovery after discovery in succeeding decades—natural selection ranks with the theories of Copernicus and Newton for its iconic stature in science.

But the route to that status has been surprisingly circuitous and uncertain. Darwin's profoundly revolutionary message has often been misunderstood, and so have his own views on evolution, the intellectual background that led to them, and the turbulent history of their reception.

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Published 150 years ago, Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species—the text that introduced the world to natural selection—is among a handful of books that have changed the world.

Born amid a ferment of speculation about evolutionary scenarios in the early 19th century; vilified and later pronounced dead at the turn of the 20th century; and spectacularly confirmed by discovery after discovery in succeeding decades—natural selection ranks with the theories of Copernicus and Newton for its iconic stature in science.

But the route to that status has been surprisingly circuitous and uncertain. Darwin's profoundly revolutionary message has often been misunderstood, and so have his own views on evolution, the intellectual background that led to them, and the turbulent history of their reception.

Consider the following points:

  • Although Darwinism and evolution are often equated, evolution was debated long before Darwin's time. Darwin's innovation was to propose an astonishingly powerful process for how evolution took place: natural selection.
  • By 1900, Darwin's theory was near death, superseded by the widely accepted view that evolution did indeed occur, but under a purpose-driven mechanism that had little to do with natural selection.
  • In the 1930s, Darwinism made a stunning comeback as researchers realized that the small variations required by natural selection were indeed driving evolution. The resulting "evolutionary synthesis" reigns to this day.

The Darwinian Revolution—24 absorbing lectures by award-winning Professor Frederick Gregory of the University of Florida—introduces you to the remarkable story of Darwin's ideas, how scientists and religious leaders reacted to them, and the sea of change in human thought that resulted.

Perhaps more than any other idea in science, Darwin's theory of natural selection shows how a strikingly original concept can break the bounds of its discipline to influence society at large—in religion, politics, philosophy, and other spheres.

Intellectual Dynamite

Natural selection is the elegantly simple idea that those members of a species that happen to be most well adapted to their surroundings and are best equipped to survive will tend to outlast others; and that over time, species change as a result.

How did Darwin arrive at this theory? Professor Gregory shows that he did so slowly and cautiously, since he was well aware that natural selection was intellectual dynamite, implying that no divine intervention was needed to populate the Earth with a rich diversity of life forms.

In working out the details of the theory, Darwin built on his own observations and on the insights of others, but he also made amazing leaps in the face of apparently contrary evidence.

These are some of the steps to natural selection that you investigate in The Darwinian Revolution:

  • Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology argued that the forces that shaped Earth's surface were slow-acting over eons, rather than operating quickly through planet-wide catastrophes, in accord with biblical views. Lyell's theories suggested that the Earth was much older than commonly believed at the time. Darwin took Lyell's book on his exploring voyage aboard HMS Beagle.
  • Darwin's five-year expedition around the world on the Beagle was the most important event in his life, introducing him to a diverse panorama of flora and fauna that far surpassed his expectations, and which he spent years trying to understand.
  • Darwin was well acquainted with the ability of breeders to promote desirable traits in animals and plants. He took the next crucial step of asking whether this process did not also occur in the wild, under the pressure of the struggle for survival.

The theory that eventually emerged from these reflections was rushed to publication when Darwin got a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist in Indonesia who had reached similar conclusions. But, despite the hurry, Darwin's resulting work, On the Origin of Species, was a meticulously argued case that led to one of the greatest paradigm shifts in the history of science.

The Darwin Debate

Professor Gregory recounts the vigorous scientific criticisms that met Origin, including these objections:

  • On the basis of the rate at which the Earth was cooling, physicist William Thomson calculated that the planet could not possibly be old enough to harbor life forms that evolved by natural selection.
  • Engineer Fleeming Jenkin argued that, contrary to Darwin's theory, favorable characteristics in an individual would have no chance of spreading through a much larger population.
  • Philosopher Ludwig Büchner praised Darwin's commitment to the concept of evolution but saw a fatal flaw in natural selection due to its purposelessness—its failure to account for progress in nature.

You learn how each of these arguments was eventually answered, including the deep mystery that puzzled Darwin himself: What are the actual "atoms" of inheritance that are passed from generation to generation and that initiate evolutionary change? The answer would come long after Darwin's death with the discovery of DNA as the genetic blueprint.

Religious Reactions

But the scientific controversies that Darwin encountered were overshadowed by the firestorm of criticism that he faced from religious thinkers, a reaction that has scarcely subsided to this day. Religious attacks on Darwin were inspired by a wide range of theological perspectives. However, most critics agreed with Darwin's contemporary, the theologian Charles Hodge, that what was original with Darwin was a mechanism that resulted from unintelligent causes; that was the core of Darwin's theory of natural selection, and that was what was unacceptable.

Ironically, the notorious Scopes "monkey" trial in 1925 focused on evolution in general, an idea that was widely accepted by many Christian thinkers. Natural selection, the radical theory that implied atheism in the eyes of many, hardly came up during the proceedings. Professor Gregory points out that the trial was a publicity stunt designed to promote the town of Dayton, Tennessee—not the persecution of a brave teacher for freely speaking out.

A noted authority on the development of modern science, Professor Gregory is uniquely qualified to probe the religious dimension of this subject, since he holds a degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in addition to a Ph.D. in the History of Science from Harvard University. In The Darwinian Revolution, he brings the controversy up to date by carefully examining the claims of intelligent design, which is the latest and most sophisticated attempt to challenge Darwin on religious grounds.

Far-Reaching Questions

"We have every right to feel enormous pride at what evolutionary scientists have accomplished," Professor Gregory says. But he notes that Darwin's theories raise far-reaching questions about the nature of human identity, society, and the demarcation between science and the supernatural that defines the limits of human knowledge.

Explore the fascinating story of evolution in The Darwinian Revolution and let a remarkable teacher reveal the astounding implications this provocative theory has had on both science and society.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    The Meaning of Evolution
    Why was Darwin so revolutionary and why does he remain so? His breakthrough was not in introducing the idea of evolution, which had long been debated, but in proposing how evolution occurs. In this lecture, you survey these and other themes that are developed in the course. x
  • 2
    The Way It Used to Be
    This lecture examines the traditional worldview in the West, which was based on the biblical account of creation, fixed by one 17th-century scholar at 4004 B.C. An allied idea was the Great Chain of Being, pictured as an immutable scale of life forms from the most primitive to God himself. x
  • 3
    Theories of Evolution in the 18th Century
    You study three 18th-century thinkers: Benoît de Maillet, who estimated the cosmos to be billions of years old; Georges Buffon, who believed that living things descended from more primal forms; and Pierre Simon Laplace, who proposed a developmental theory for the formation of the solar system. x
  • 4
    Fossils and Catastrophism
    At the end of the 18th century, fossils were not necessarily regarded as actual remains of living things. You learn that they became central to the work of Georges Cuvier, who connected fossils to extinct species, which he believed had died out in violent catastrophes. x
  • 5
    Theories of Evolution Just before Darwin
    The idea of evolution was in the air by the early 19th century. This lecture looks at precursors to Darwin, including Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who wrote a systematic account of the evolution of species over time and proposed that acquired characteristics can be inherited. x
  • 6
    Why Evolution Was Rejected before Darwin
    You investigate the dubious status of evolutionary ideas in the years before Darwin's book. Among the objections: Evolution challenged the Bible and lacked convincing empirical support. Some critics even classed evolution with fringe ideas such as Mesmerism and phrenology. x
  • 7
    Darwin's Conversion to Evolution
    The young Darwin's intention to join the ministry was interrupted by an offer to travel around the world as a naturalist aboard HMSBeagle. The experience changed his life, giving him a growing conviction that species had altered over time, a conclusion he kept largely to himself. x
  • 8
    What's in On the Origin of Species?
    Darwin spent two decades developing his theory of evolution through natural selection. You learn how he was rushed to publish prematurely by the independent discovery of the same principle by Alfred Russel Wallace. Yet Darwin's book On the Origin of Speciesis a masterful statement of his idea. x
  • 9
    How Origin Fared among Scientists
    Even as Darwin's book stimulated greater acceptance of the idea of evolution, scientists criticized his specific mechanism, natural selection. This separation of the general notion of evolution from the means by which it occurs has permitted Darwinism to mean different things to different people ever since. x
  • 10
    The Religious Reaction to Darwinism
    This lecture explores the religious response to Darwin's theory. Some argued that natural selection was tantamount to atheism, raising an issue that endures to the present day. Others reinterpreted natural selection to make it compatible with a belief in God. Still others completely separated science from religion. x
  • 11
    The Social Implications of Evolution
    Those who accepted evolution in the 19th century generally considered it a purposeful or goal-directed process, rejecting the random variation of natural selection. You explore how such an understanding influenced Herbert Spencer's social philosophy of the survival of the fittest. x
  • 12
    Evolution and Heredity
    You examine the difficulty that evolutionary theory faced in showing its compatibility with a theory of heredity. Darwin proposed a particulate theory of heredity, called pangenesis. Meanwhile, Gregor Mendel, an obscure Austrian monk, developed a powerful hereditary theory based on his experiments with pea plants. x
  • 13
    A Nadir for Natural Selection
    In the early 1900s, Darwin's theory was in eclipse as its two fundamental tenets—selection and small variations—were rejected by a majority of scientists. You also see how Mendel's rediscovered work was interpreted as further evidence against natural selection. x
  • 14
    Groundwork for Recovery
    This lecture discusses how developments in cell biology in the early 20th century clarified the process of heredity, showing that small changes in chromosomes were responsible for determining larger characteristics of organisms. This hinted that Darwin had been correct to focus on small continuous variations. x
  • 15
    Human Evolution
    Darwin did not deal with the explosive issue of human evolution in Origin, but others were quick to see the implications of natural selection for the question of human origins. You learn how the discovery of Neanderthal remains and other humanlike fossils fed the controversy. x
  • 16
    The Scopes Trial
    This lecture investigates fact and fiction in the famous Scopes antievolution trial in 1925. Supposedly, teacher John Scopes was persecuted, attorney Clarence Darrow rose to Scopes's defense and defeated prosecutor William Jennings Bryan, and the antievolution movement was discredited. There are problems with all three statements. x
  • 17
    Lamarckian Inheritance on Stage
    Two controversies in the 20th century show the staying power of Lamarck's theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics. In Austria, biologist Paul Kammerer claimed that bodily changes in amphibians were heritable. In the Soviet Union, agronomist T. D. Lysenko made a similar claim about food crops. x
  • 18
    Forging an Evolutionary Synthesis
    You learn how the work of population geneticists, field naturalists, and paleontologists in the early 20th century led to an evolutionary synthesis that recognized Darwin's theory of natural selection as the major agent of evolution. Factors such as Lamarckian inheritance were rejected. x
  • 19
    Evolution and Molecular Biology
    The new science of molecular biology added stunning evidence for Darwin's theory with the discovery of DNA as the carrier of genetic information. The decoding of DNA's double-helical structure by Francis Crick and James Watson shed new light on the origin of the minute variations responsible for natural selection. x
  • 20
    The Rise of Biblical Creationism
    This lecture examines the backlash against evolution by American evangelicals, who came up with increasingly sophisticated attacks on Darwinism to defend the biblical account of creation. Their tactics led to an alternative explanation of the origin of life, called "scientific creationism." x
  • 21
    Tinkering with Evolutionary Theory
    Altruistic behavior poses a problem for natural selection at the level of individuals. Therefore some scientists have theorized that selection acts on groups or even on individual genes. You investigate these proposals and also the field of sociobiology, which sees a Darwinian component to human social behavior. x
  • 22
    The Heritage of Eugenics
    You learn how evolution has inspired controversial ideas such as eugenics—the study of improving human heredity through controlled selective breeding. Eugenics led to restrictive marriage laws and forced sterilization in the United States and to mass euthanasia in Nazi Germany. x
  • 23
    Intelligent Design
    You see how the classical philosophical argument from design has been restyled "intelligent design" to attack natural selection, leading to a 2005 court case in Dover, Pennsylvania. The trial ended in an adverse ruling against a school that sought to teach intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. x
  • 24
    Adding Things Up
    In this final lecture, you take stock of the Darwinian revolution and some of the scientific, philosophical, and religious reactions to it. An analysis of these issues illuminates the difference between metaphysical beliefs and scientific explanations, and how they are inextricably linked when it comes to interpreting Darwin. x

Lecture Titles

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Frederick Gregory
Ph.D. Frederick Gregory
University of Florida

Dr. Frederick Gregory is Professor of History of Science at the University of Florida, where he has taught for 30 years. He holds a B.S. in Mathematics from Wheaton College in Illinois, a B.D. (Bachelor of Divinity) from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, an M.A. in the History of Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Ph.D. in the History of Science from Harvard University. Professor Gregory has received numerous grants for research in his field, including an Alexander von Humboldt grant from the German government and a fellowship from the Dibner Institute for the History of Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was awarded the 2009 Joseph H. Hazen Education Prize for excellence in education from the History of Science Society. He also won the University of Florida's John Mahon Teaching Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching, as well as the Norman Wilensky Graduate Teaching Award. He has provided commentary for the American production of the television series The Day the Universe Changed. Professor Gregory's research interests have focused on German science in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly as it reflects the larger cultural setting in which it is embedded. His two-volume undergraduate textbook, Natural Science in Western History, was published in 2008.

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Reviews

Rated 4.6 out of 5 by 36 reviewers.
Rated 4 out of 5 by Sensitive and Informed Overview Having just completed the course from Professor Larson covering this vital subject I was drawn to the longer course from Professor Gregory who has specialised in the History of Science for more than 30 years. This course obviously covers much of the same ground as Professor Larson but the extended 24 lecture format permits a deeper background on some of the key topics. There is a plenty of useful analysis of how the concept of "evolution" was being discussed by a number of scholars in the decades before Darwin including his own grandfather. I also found the Professor very even handed in terms of seeking to highlight the importance of clearly defining the terms of any debate about the religious implications of Darwinian evolution. The Professor was able to show how some on each side seek to caricature the views of their opponents in order to denigrate their respective position. There are many nuances involved in this subject. Darwin for example in his lifetime did not necessarily see natural selection as a completely random process. The neo-Darwinian synthesis that developed in the first decades of the 20th century is arguably materially at variance with Darwin's views in particular relating to the role of "Lamarckian" inheritance. It is also vital to show that from contemporaries of Darwin to the present day there have been highly respected scientists who have not seen a contradiction between theism and evolution. Asa Gray being an obvious example from the time of Darwin. This, as stated above, is gathered together beautifully in lecture 24 which should be listened to by all who comment on this subject. I have only given a 4 star as the one disappointment of the course was that the booklet accompanying the course was very thin. Some notes of lectures were barely over a page. Given the complexity of some of the topics covered this made it challenging to review the lecture notes before proceeding to the next lecture. Professor Larson's course booklet by contrast has much more detailed lecture summaries. Subject to this proviso this is a recommended course. February 8, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent coverage of Evolution This course does an excellent job of showing evolutionary theory way beyond the superficial Darwinian Natural Selection that most people seem to think of when hearing "evolution". January 7, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by No missing links I reviewed the audio version because it was cheaper. Prof. Gregory was thorough and polished. No misses. I don't know what further benefit there may with the video version. I didn't feel as though I might have missed something with the audio version. That said, Great Courses has another course called Theory of Evolution: A History of Controversy by Larson. The two courses are virtually identical in content, near identical twins except this one by Gregory is longer and better presented. I recommend this course by Gregory over the other. January 1, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent overview of the history of evolution I am surprised that some expected this to be a course on modern principles of evolution. For that, you should probably consider a very recent textbook. This is an informative, well organized, and well researched overview of the thinking and the cultural influences that shaped evolutionary thinking over history. Professor Gregory shows no personal bias for or against religion, no bias toward or against any historical worldviews, and obviously knows this historical perspective on evolution like one who loves and is interested in the genre. It should be mandatory watching for any biologist contemplating teaching of biology who wants to enlighten his/her listeners with a very rich past history of the cornerstone of modern biology, November 23, 2013
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