The Evolution Debates

📚 syllabus by Peter Sachs Collopy, University of Southern California, January 9, 2017

As the evolution of life generally and humanity in particular became scientific orthodoxy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, scientists and other intellectuals debated what this meant. Some conceptions of God were compatible with evolution and others were not, for example, but the inverse was also true: certain conceptions of evolution were compatible with God and others were not. And at the same time, some conceptions of evolution emphasized cooperation and suggested humans would achieve the happiest lives through socialism, while others emphasized the roles of competition and “survival of the fittest” and suggested that capitalism was a better system for human achievement. Some theories of human evolution justified white supremacy, while others suggested racial equality. As a result, debates about biology were often also debates about religion and politics, and the three fields were repeatedly re-formed together.

This is a syllabus for The Evolution Debates, a course offered for four units of credit in spring 2017 as HIST 255g at the University of Southern California. This course will explore the history of ideas about evolution and human origins from about 1800 to the present. We’ll focus on debates and controversies, both within biology and geology and at intersections of science, religion, and politics, as well as famous incidents like Charles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle and the Scopes Monkey Trial. More broadly, we’ll study the development of evolutionary theory, the histories of creationism and theistic evolutionism, and the roles of debates about human evolution’s political consequences in the histories of eugenics and scientific racism.

This is a General Education course in the category of Humanistic Inquiry. We’ll use the history of evolutionary thought to understand how scientists, theologians, and others have thought about what it means to be human and to live together in organized societies—and about how we became such social animals. In the process, we’ll interpret not only scientific texts for both professional and popular audiences, but also novels, visual art, film, and works of philosophy and theology. We’ll read carefully in order both to understand how arguments work and how the ideas of evolutionary thinkers have been shaped by the particular times, places, and experiences in which they lived, as well as by changing media and systems of publishing and scientific communication.

The course will meet for lectures on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, 9 to 9:50, from January 9 to April 28, in Von Kleinsmid Center room 102. I will be available for office hours on Mondays from 10:00 to 12:00 in Social Sciences Building room 281, and encourage you to come by and talk.


This course is organized around substantial reading assignments of primary sources, which is to say texts written by biologists, geologists, philosophers, theologians, and other participants in the evolution debates. We’ll discuss readings during every class, so please read everything assigned before the class meeting it’s listed under. Each week I will expect you post a short reaction to the reading by Sunday (or by Tuesday on weeks when the class doesn’t meet on Monday) using Blackboard’s blog feature. You can use this as an opportunity to raise questions, to comment on arguments you found particularly surprising or compelling, or to suggest ways the reading might relate to previous readings or forthcoming assignments.

You are required to buy two books, both of which are also available at the USC Bookstore. Please buy these specific editions, so we can refer to the same page numbers and editor’s notes:

All other required readings for the course will be available online; for the first half of the semester, we’ll mostly be reading texts available through the web repository HathiTrust (and linked to below). When we get to more recent texts, I’ll make scanned copies of the excerpts we’re reading available to you.

My lectures will provide historical context for these readings, introduce you to debates between historians about their significance, and describe the roles of historical figures beyond those whose work you’re reading. You’re therefore not required to read a textbook for the course, but if you’d like one to refer to or to follow along in for an additional perspective on this history, I’ve included page numbers below for relevant sections of Peter J. Bowler, Evolution: The History of an Idea, third edition (2003), which is available from the USC Bookstore and on reserve at Leavey Library’s circulation desk, and listed with them some other books for further reading or as sources for writing papers. Two other useful reference sources will be the Dictionary of Scientific Biography and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, each of which is useful for finding introductory information on particular scientists and philosophers and citations for books and articles that provide more detailed information.

Your first substantial writing assignment, due February 10, will be a paper approximately five pages long in which you develop your own analysis of a review of The Origin of Species, contextualizing it in the life of its author, with attention to their other scientific, religious, political, and philosophical interests and commitments, and in the editorial agenda of the publication in which it appears. We’ll spend some time in class looking at different ways you might find such reviews and research their authors and publications.

Your second writing assignment, due April 7, will be an online exhibit on a particular book in the evolution debates as a material text. In this exhibit, you’ll demonstrate what you can learn from looking at a physical book about its intended audience and how it was meant to be read. We’ll spend some time in class in advance of this assignment thinking about books in precisely this way, and will visit the USC Libraries’ Special Collections to look at original editions of books on evolution including some of those we’ve read ourselves. You’ll also have an opportunity to present the book you’re thinking about to the class on March 3.

Your last essay assignment, of approximately five pages and due April 28, will be to analyze what was at stake in a particular controversy about evolution. What did the people involved care about? What did they want to persuade others of? How did they use the idea of evolution to do so?

Additionally, there will be a midterm exam during class on March 10 and a final exam on May 5. These exams may involve short answer questions, longer essay questions, or a combination. In any case, the purpose will be more to evaluate your understanding of how ideas about evolution and its scientific, social, and religious consequences have changed over time, and less to test your memory of specific names or dates.

Your grade for the course will be based 15% on each of the two essays, 15% on the online exhibit, 15% on each of the two exams, 10% on reading responses, and 15% on your engaged and insightful participation in class.

Schedule of Class Topics and Readings

Is Nature Stable or Changing?

Darwin and Wallace’s Answers

Is Darwinism Atheistic?

How Did Humans Evolve?

The Politics of Evolution: Competitive or Cooperative?

The Eclipse of Darwinism: What Are the Mechanisms of Evolution?

The Evolutionary Synthesis: Is Evolution Progressive?

Adaptationism: Does Natural Selection Explain All Traits?

Subjects: anarchism, biology, capitalism, Christianity, communism, conservatism, eugenics, evolution, gender, genetics, geology, human sciences, liberalism, philosophy, politics, race, radicalism, religion, science, socialism, white supremacy
Category: teaching