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BI 496 — Seminar in Evolution: Darwin and His Critics

Questions for Discussion

A large part of our course will consist of in-depth discussion of the assigned readings. The questions below are intended to guide us in that discussion, and to provide starting points for additional explorations of Darwin’s ideas. Students should come to class having written down at least one additional question to put to the class for discussion: a thoughful open-ended question that can lead people into the material, not simply a factual question (though questions about facts are also very welcome).

A Sample of Questions for Discussion on 17 February

1. What are the components of Paley’s worldview? (Tort p. 22ff)

2. Have you been to any of the places the Beagle visited? (Tort pp. 30–31)

3. What are the main components of Lamarck’s transformism? (Tort pp. 34–36)

4. What is actualism? (Tort p. 37)

5. Do Malthus’s arguments apply to humans today?

6. What are the different senses of the word “evolution”? What other terms are more or less synonymous with “evolution”?

7. What sense do you have of Darwin’s character from his correspondence?

8. How many times does the word “evolution” appear in the Darwin/Wallace papers?

9. What did Darwin and Wallace get from Malthus?

10. Darwin and Wallace appear to reach opposite conclusions with regard to domestic animals and plants. What are these conclusions and why do they disagree?

A Sample of Questions for Discussion on 24 February

1. How does Darwin present himself rhetorically in the Introduction to the Origin?

2. “Our oldest cultivated plants, such as wheat, still often yield new varieties” (p. 8). So what?

3. What does Darwin think are the causes of individual variation in a population?

4. “Any variation which is not inherited is unimportant for us” (p. 12). Why?

5. Why might Darwin have chosen pigeons to study?

6. What difference does it make whether the different breeds of pigeons (or cattle, or dogs, or sheep) came from one wild stock or several?

7. What is “reversion” (p. 14) and why is it important? (Think about essentialism.)

8. Trick question: I have a pet pigeon named Fluffy. How could Sir John Sebright (p. 31) possibly change Fluffy’s beak?

9. What do the sheep of Messrs. Buckley and Burgess teach us?

10. What are the “circumstances favorable to selection”?

11. What difference does it make whether species vary in nature?

12. Who cares about “doubtful species”? What are they, anyway?

13. Why do Messrs. Babington and Bentham (p. 48) disagree?

14. How are the species within a genus often related to one another (p. 57)? In what sense is the word “related” being used here?

A Sample of Questions for Discussion on 3 March

1. Why is Darwin so concerned about adaptation? (pp. 60–61)

2. In what sense does Darwin use the term “struggle for existence”? Why does he make a point of this? (p. 62)

3. How does the phrase “in order to tempt birds” (p. 63) strike you?

4. “Arguments about explosive population growth are purely theoretical. We have no evidence that this sort of thing could actually happen.” How would Darwin reply to this claim? (p. 64)

5. What are the principal checks to increase?

6. What is Darwin’s straightforward definition of natural selection? (p. 81)

7. What do you think about this “good of the being” stuff? (pp. 83–84)

8. How does sexual selection differ from natural selection?

9. What is the nature of the comparison Darwin makes between natural selection and Lyellian geology? (p. 95)

10. What circumstances are favorable to selection?

11. What do all the elements of Darwin’s tree diagram mean?

12. What do you think of the “tree of life” passage (pp. 129–130), aesthetically and scientifically?

A Sample of Questions for Discussion on 10 March

1. Aren’t our fossil collections direct evidence of the process of evolutionary change?

2. What is false about picturing direct intermediates between existing species? (p. 280)

3. What is the significance of the form of the pebbles embedded in conglomerate? (p. 283)

4. What does Darwin think about continental drift?

5. What are “species” in a paleontological context? (p. 297ff)

6. “But surely, Mr. Darwin, you know that whole groups of species appear suddenly in the fossil record.” How might Darwin respond to this? (p. 302ff)

7. As with the tree of life passage earlier, what do you think of the “book of the past” allegory, scientifically and aesthetically? (pp. 310–311)

8. What is the basis for Falconer’s claim (p. 313) that his fossil crocodile is a representative of a living species? What does it mean to make such a claim?

9. If a species becomes extinct can natural selection recreate it? (p. 315)

A Sample of Questions for Discussion on 17 March

1. “If we look to the islands off the American shore, however much they may differ in geological structure, the inhabitants, though they may be all peculiar species, are essentially American” (p. 349). So what?

2. What is the “deep organic bond, prevailing throughout space and time” that Darwin refers to on page 350?

3. What does Darwin mean by a “law of necessary development”? (p. 351)

4. How do we know that the members of a species were not created in several locations at once? (p. 352)

5. Why does Darwin care that, when placed in water, “ripe hazel-nuts sank immediately, but when dried, they floated for 90 days and afterwards … germinated”? (p. 359)

6. How are we to understand the fact that the same species is often found on two isolated mountain tops very distant for one another? (p. 365)

7. For what purpose did Darwin suspend a duck’s feet in water? (p. 385)

8. Substantial question: What are the several phenomena relating to distribution on oceanic islands that Darwin believes argue decisively in favor of the theory of descent? (p. 388ff)

A Sample of Questions for Discussion on 31 March

1. How do the diverse forms of life appear to be arranged? (p. 411)

2. What is meant by the Natural System? (p. 413)

3. What is the distinction Darwin is trying to make between arrangement and classification? (p. 420ff)

4. Why are analogical characters unimportant? (p. 427)

5. What is meant by “unity of type” and how does Darwin explain unity of type? (p. 434ff)

6. How had people previously explained the existence of rudimentary organs? (p. 453)

7. “Why … have all the most eminent living naturalists and geologists rejected this view of the mutability of species?” (p. 480)

8. How far does Darwin extend the doctrine of the modification of species? (p. 483)

9. What will happen to us when we adopt Darwin’s views? (p. 484ff)

10. What do you think about progress in mental endowments? (p. 489)

11. With what paragraph does Darwin conclude the Origin of Species?


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