BI 496 — Seminar in Evolution: Darwin and His Critics

When The Origin of Species appeared in 1859 it generated a storm of controversy within the scientific community as well as in society at large. In this course we will examine criticisms of Darwin’s work made by his scientific contemporaries, including Adam Sedgwick, St. George Jackson Mivart, and Richard Owen. We will contrast these criticisms with the support offered to Darwin by Thomas Huxley, J.D. Hooker, and others. We will distinguish carefully between criticism of the theory of descent and criticism of natural selection, Darwin’s proposed mechanism of evolutionary change. Readings will be taken from the Origin itself and from the contemporary reviews and commentaries on the Origin collected together in David Hull’s book Darwin and His Critics. This is not a course on the modern creation/evolution debates. BI 195 or the permission of the instructor is a prerequisite; students will be assumed to have a basic understanding of biology and evolution.


Dr. Robert J. O’Hara, Bicentennial Hall 353. Office hours: Monday/Wednesday 1:30–3:30 p.m., or any other time by appointment or chance. You’re always welcome to stop by my office any time to talk about our class or about academics generally. If you’d like to know more about my own work and interests you’re welcome to visit my webpage (rjohara.net).

Required Texts

Assignments and Grading

Because this is an upper-level seminar, regular attendance and class participation are essential. Students will be expected to come to class having read and thought about the material; irregular attendance and poor participation will lower your grade. The formal assignments are as follows:

To help class discussions along the instructor will supply a list of questions that can serve as entry-points into the text. Students should come to class having written down at least one additional open-ended, thoughtful question that can be put to the class as a discussion-starter.


February 10: Introduction to the course; observations relating to diversity, variation, and population growth.

February 17: Tort, pp. 1–112; Malthus On Population, Chapter I; Darwin and Wallace correspondence; Darwin and Wallace papers of 1858.

February 24: Tort, pp. 114–137; Origin Introduction, I, and II.

March 3: Origin III and IV.

March 10: Origin IX and X.

March 17: Origin XI and XII.

March 31: Origin XIII and XIV.

April 7: Hull pp. 1–77; reviews by Hooker and Carpenter.

April 14: Reviews by Bronn, Wollaston, and Pictet.

April 21: Reviews by Sedgwick, Owen, and Haughton.

April 28: Reviews by Hopkins, Fawcett, and Hutton.

May 5: Reviews by Jenkin, Mivart, and Wright.

“Final Exam”

On the last day of class you will be asked to reproduce from memory the following paragraph which concludes the Origin of Species. It is one of the most famous passages in the history of science.

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (Charles Darwin, 1859, On the Origin of Species.)

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