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Theory of Evolution: A History of Controversy

Theory of Evolution: A History of Controversy

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Theory of Evolution: A History of Controversy

Course No. 174
Professor Edward J. Larson, Ph.D., J.D.
Pepperdine University
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Course No. 174
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Course Overview

Charles Darwin's theory of organic evolution—the idea that life on earth is the product of purely natural causes, not the hand of God—set off shock waves that continue to reverberate through Western society, and especially the United States. What makes evolution such a profoundly provocative concept, so convincing to most scientists, yet so socially and politically divisive? The Theory of Evolution: A History of Controversy is an examination of the varied elements that so often make this science the object of strong sentiments and heated debate.

Professor Edward J. Larson leads you through the "evolution" of evolution, with an eye toward enhancing your understanding of the development of the theory itself and the roots of the controversies that surround it. In these lectures you will:

  • Explore pre-Darwinian theories of the origins of life, from Genesis and the ancient Greeks to such 18th- and 19th-century scientists as Georges Cuvier and Chevalier de Lamarck
  • Follow the life and work of Charles Darwin, and the impact of his 1859 masterpiece, On the Origin of Species. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection was immediately recognized as a threat to traditional religion, but was quickly accepted (the first printing of Origin of Species sold out on the first day)
  • Examine the history of evolutionary science after Darwin—a fascinating story that includes the "rediscovery," after 35 years, of Gregor Mendel's work on genetic variation; the unearthing of prehominid, or early human, fossils by Raymond Dart in 1925 and the Leakey family in the 1950s; and the confusion created by the sensational, but later discredited, discovery of Piltdown Man—a fake evolutionary "missing link"—in 1912
  • Trace the history of religious objections to evolution, from those of Darwin's own time to contemporary efforts to teach creation science in American schools. This includes a detailed discussion of the famous Scopes "monkey trial," which in fact was a staged media event, designed to create publicity for the town of Dayton, Tennessee.

Are Our Genes more Important than We Are?

This course makes it clear that the history of controversy surrounding evolution is not limited to a dispute between science and religion. Even within the scientific community, the fine details of the theory of evolution have long been a matter of passionate dispute.

In fact, in the last third of the 19th century, the principal objections were scientific, not religious. Although the fossil record was a key piece of evidence for evolution, it had gaps that could be used to argue against the theory. And both proponents and critics wondered how altruistic human qualities such as love and generosity could possibly have evolved through the competitive, often harsh, processes that Darwin described.

From Professor Larson's presentation, you will learn that new ideas in evolution science have often created new controversies. For example, is it truly possible, as some scientists now maintain, that humans exist merely to ensure the survival of their genes? Such research has created disagreement among scientists about the degree to which evolution drives human behavior, and has further alienated many segments of the public.

Evolution's "Dark Side": Social Darwinism

In these lectures, you will review perhaps the most sinister controversy associated with the theory of evolution: social Darwinism. From the beginning, the Darwinian theory of evolution has been linked to economic and political views. Thomas Malthus's theories of population growth and competition for limited resources even inspired Darwin's thinking on natural selection.

Unfortunately, later supporters of evolution carried this line of thinking too far. Beginning with Herbert Spencer, who coined the term "survival of the fittest," Darwin's ideas were used as evidence for a wide range of social beliefs, from laissez-faire capitalism to racism, colonialism, and, in perhaps the worst application, Nazism. In the United States, social Darwinism has served as a basis for the creation of IQ tests and for eugenics programs that resulted in the forced sterilization of thousands of mentally ill or retarded Americans.

Unsettling Implications: The Growing Gulf Between Science and Religion

During the late 19th century, largely through the efforts of scientists who sought to integrate evolutionary science with spiritual belief, evolution was widely accepted by the religious community in the United States. Today, this is hardly the case.

In his last four lectures, Professor Larson examines the trends that have, since 1920, widened the gulf between science and religion. These include an increase in fundamentalist Protestantism, the weakening of liberal Protestantism as a counteracting force, and the growing power of a firmly conservative South.

In the 1960s, federally funded neo-Darwinian textbooks provoked a conservative backlash. Beginning with the publication of Henry M. Morris's The Genesis Flood, efforts to gain equal time for the teaching of creation science, based on biblical teachings, gathered strength. Rebuffed by the courts, creationism continues to thrive through the increasing numbers of private Christian schools and through home schooling.

The growing gulf between science and religion has unsettling implications for our society. Large segments of the American population reject the naturalism of current evolutionary thinking. Nine of 10 Americans believe in spiritual causes for life, with only 10 percent accepting the purely naturalistic explanations espoused by evolution. Strikingly, these statistics are almost exactly the opposite among the scientific community.

A Pulitzer Prize-Winning Teacher

As both a historian of science and a professor of law, Professor Edward J. Larson brings exceptional qualifications to this subject. His book, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in History. His analysis provides an invaluable perspective on the volatile history of what is arguably the single most significant idea of modern times.

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12 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
Year Released: 2002
  • 1
    Before Darwin
    By 1800, biblical and other ancient accounts of origins dissatisfied many scientifically sophisticated Europeans. French naturalist Georges Cuvier concluded that history was punctuated by epochs of life-destroying catastrophes, with distinctive species populating each epoch. This was the leading scientific theory of origins during Charles Darwin's youth. x
  • 2
    Evolution in the Air
    The idea that species evolve from pre-existing species gained currency early in the 19th century. The emerging fossil record and developments in geology laid a foundation for evolution theory. A new notion of geological formation, Charles Lyell's gradualist theory, was the springboard for Darwin's thinking about evolution. x
  • 3
    Darwin's Inspiration
    Charles Darwin set sail aboard the H. M. S. Beagle in 1831 as the ship's naturalist. Inspired by Lyell's Principles of Geology, which he read on the voyage, Darwin was persuaded by his observations on the Galapagos Islands that existing species evolved from pre-existing ones. He struggled to refine his theory until 1858, when he learned that Alfred Wallace had hit on the same idea. x
  • 4
    An Intellectual Revolution
    On the Origin of Species spawned an ongoing revolution in human thought. Although Darwin's theory did not preclude belief in God, it dispensed with the need to believe in a supernatural creator. As extended in Descent of Man, Darwin's thinking excluded God as the creator of humans. The study of man and nature became an investigation of natural, not supernatural, causes. x
  • 5
    Debates over Mechanism
    By 1875 virtually all biologists in Europe and America adopted an evolutionary perspective. Yet, even as they accepted the basic idea that species evolve, biologists doubted the sufficiency of Darwin's theory of natural selection. Alternative theories flourished, cushioning the impact of evolutionary science for traditional social and religious beliefs. x
  • 6
    Missing Links
    By 1900 technical arguments on evolution that appealed to scientists failed to persuade the public, particularly the notion that humans evolved from apes. Beginning late in the 19th century, those intent on proving evolution hunted for "missing links" in the fossil record. Any such missing links became front-page news and boosted popular acceptance of evolution. x
  • 7
    Genetics Enters the Picture
    At the dawn of the 20th century, biologists still believed that evolution happened, but there was no consensus on how it operated. As often happens in science, answers came from an unexpected source: the 35-year-old work of Gregor Mendel. x
  • 8
    Social Darwinism and Eugenics
    Even before Darwin published his theory in 1859, Herbert Spencer proposed that a survival-of-the-fittest process drove social progress. With the rise of Darwinian biology, such thinking gained credence under the banner of "social Darwinism." One result was the eugenics movement, a social crusade advocating more children from genetically fit parents and fewer children from genetically unfit ones. x
  • 9
    America's Anti-Evolution Crusade
    Decades of popular concern erupted during the 1920s into a crusade by conservative American Protestants against teaching evolution in public schools. The issue reached a public climax in 1925, when a schoolteacher named John Scopes challenged Tennessee's new law against teaching evolution. x
  • 10
    The Neo-Darwinian Synthesis
    By the 1940s biologists reached a consensus on how the evolutionary process worked. Evolution was a purely materialistic process driven by the natural selection of random variation at the genetic level. This so-called modern or neo-Darwinian synthesis was more fully Darwinian than Darwin's own conclusions. x
  • 11
    Scientific Creationism
    Commemorating the centennial of On the Origin of Species in 1959, scientists hailed the triumph of a consensus theory of evolution. They largely ignored the anti-evolutionism that marked conservative Christianity in America. If anything, however, the rise of neo-Darwinism heightened tensions between traditional religious beliefs and modern scientific thought. x
  • 12
    Selfish Genes and Intelligent Design
    Americans remain divided by the origins debate. The God-less theory of origins dominates science. But the public believes overwhelmingly in a supernatural source of life and individual species. The debate over origins remains as intense as ever. x

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Edward J. Larson

About Your Professor

Edward J. Larson, Ph.D., J.D.
Pepperdine University
Dr. Edward J. Larson is University Professor and Hugh & Hazel Darling Chair in Law at Pepperdine University. He earned a B.A. from Williams College and a J.D. from Harvard University. He also holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in the History of Science from the University of Wisconsin- Madison. He previously taught at the University of Georgia and served as Associate Counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on...
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