Darwinian Revolution

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

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  • By 1900, Darwin's theory was near death, superseded by the widely accepted view that evolution did indeed occur, but under a purpose-driven mechanism that had little to do with natural selection.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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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 HMS Beagle. 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 Species, is 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 human-like fossils fed the controversy. x
  • 16
    The Scopes Trial
    This lecture investigates fact and fiction in the famous Scopes anti-evolution 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 anti-evolution 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

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Your professor

Frederick Gregory

About Your Professor

Frederick Gregory, Ph.D.
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...
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Darwinian Revolution is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 56.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from well done basics Professor Gregory presented a well organized, coherent chronological history of the evolution of the idea of Evolution; I hadn't realized the debates surrounding the validity of Natural Selection and I'm still confused with the importance of small variations but the course exceeded my expectations of what I would learn from it.
Date published: 2020-08-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Fair-mined overview of Darwinism This course provides a great overview of the history and development of the Theory of Evolution, starting off with natural philosophers prior to Darwin and working its way to the 21st century. It touches upon every significant event related to Darwinism along the way: from the Scopes Trial to Intelligent Design (ID). Overall, the author does a commendable job of being balanced and fair-minded. The professor's statement, in his concluding remarks, that metaphysical presuppositions-which are beliefs not founded in science-skew how scientists interpret data, was well articulated. His point that when a popular scientist says something like (not an exact quote): "Reality is only physical, there is no supernatural, that the physical world is eternal, and nothing will ever prove otherwise" then we should realize that this is a statement of belief, not a scientific statement. Now that's a point that a lot of people need to ponder! However, there were a few negative moments when Professor Frederick Gregory's thinking seemed to get sloppy or, if I wanted to be charitable, I'd say his explanation was less than stellar. For example, in the last lecture he says that "most of us probably feel unsure, just like Darwin did. Some even declare uncertainty to be their position-agnosticism. I confess I'm not impressed with that option. I think we ought to try to figure out what we believe, what we're bringing to the table"-as if agnostics don't "try to figure out" what they believe! Indeed they do, but they simply conclude that the so-called proofs are indecisive. The professor is obviously mired in some sloppy thinking here and presents a false dilemma. Lots of agnostics struggle mightily to determine what they believe in regard to various issues, but they're intellectually honest enough to state that they don't believe that the proofs are decisive on either side. The professor goes on to say that "we do want our beliefs to be consistent with the explanations we employ whenever possible, and if we demand that of ourselves-as most of us do-then we're going to have some challenges. One way of handling this is to insist that our explanations are provisional, not final"-which means we recognize the "uncertainty" of our beliefs. Once sentence previous to this statement, he claims that he's "not impressed with that option" and labels it as "agnosticism"-but then goes on to say that "uncertainly" is probably the best way to handle our beliefs. Well that was as clear as mud! Sure, there might be room for further distinctions here, but the professor's simplistic, and seemingly contradictory, statements do a dismal job of making that clear. He's obviously fallen into the common trap of viewing "agnosticism" as indecisiveness rather than as the intellectually honest position that it often represents. That having been said, Professor Frederick Gregory's explanation of why Intelligent Design (ID) is not science, is solid. He explains: "I say ID is not science because the intelligent cause it infers is not testable. We can't find out if it works or not…or discard it if we find out something better. We can't do anything with it…In fact, it stops things in their tracks-and that's what bothers many scientists about ID. It seems to stop our explanations about how the world works." That's exactly right, and the reason why ID has no business being taught in a biology class. If people want an overview of ID-which is simply Creationism masquerading under another name-included in comparative religion or philosophy classes, I'm fine with that. But if that is done for the sake of "balance," then how many other pseudo-scientific and crack-pot theories are we also going to include? Food for thought.
Date published: 2020-08-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This was more than "Survival of the Fittest." A thorough portrayal and analysis of the history of evolution. Evolution did not start with Darwin but he revolutionized the theory with "natural selection." And this course seems to cover all the factors.
Date published: 2020-06-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Darwin from a historical-philosophical perspective An informative, in-depth science-history course, on evolution in general and on Darwin’s theory of natural selection in particular, covering scientific, philosophical, theological, social, and political aspects. Often somewhat slow-moving but each lecture contained important and worthwhile material. The only visuals are head shots of many of the individuals mentioned, and the presenter reads every word from a teleprompter. He’s pretty good at it, and the script is well written, but it doesn’t make for a stimulating watching experience.
Date published: 2019-01-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor Frederick Gregory’s lectures “The Darwinian Revolution” from “The Great Courses” is a presentation of how Evolution came to be understood (and misunderstood) in science and it is told in a brilliant and thorough academic rendering. Following these lectures, you get a very good information about how evolution was viewed over the years from antiquity until today. It is a fascinating story that tells us that at any epoch there have been people who suspected that there has been an evolution and we learn about the arguments that they held for their conclusions based on observations and deductions. It is interesting to learn that when religion strongly fought against the arguments used to prove that evolution took place, so did science as well in many cases, the latter though has formed our actual understanding of evolution while the former does not bring the matter to a conclusion. This course emphasises what the Darwinian principals is about; Natural selection by small changes. This has not always been clear when you try to understand what Darwinism means. In my opinion these lectures fully constitute a course that you normally may get by following a university class. Basically, it is a course about the history of evolution but you get a good account of the natural and biological mechanisms of evolution as well. Learning that while religious opposition to many ideas of how evolution works was prominent in Europe in the 19th century this is hardly the case today, at least not in Scandinavia where I live. However religious protests against Darwinism are told in the course to exist in the USA up until today, in a country that I consider to be the spearhead of excellent science. It has been a great pleasure for me to follow the course which I bought in the audio format and I am sure that I will re listen to many of the lectures several times in the future. It is possible to buy a Transcript of the lectures in 368 pages with handouts and references. This is a textbook by itself.
Date published: 2018-07-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Redefining Lecture Series This lecture series completely changed my understanding of Darwin's great contributions to society. I wish I would have listened to this sooner in my life.
Date published: 2018-05-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent review of the evolution of evolution As a layman long interested in the subject of biological evolution I found this lecture series very satisfying. It is comprehensive but I never felt overwhelmed. Professor Gregory is an entertaining and engaging speaker who really knows his subject well and does an amazing job of being fair to all parties of the debate.
Date published: 2018-04-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating content. Great Lecturer. The course was fascinating beyond my expectations. The pre-Darwin history is amazingly unfolded by the Lecturer, who has an engaging and captivating style. He makes the players in the development of evolution come to life. Enthralling. Anyone who loves history and especially evolutionary theory must listen to this course.
Date published: 2017-12-06
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