UNCG BIO 589a — Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology

From the nineteenth century right up to today, conceptual debates have been central to evolutionary biology. Understanding evolutionary biology has meant and still means understanding concepts such as selection, species, competition, fitness, altruism, homology, phenotype, niche, adaptation, and progress. For example: do species actually exist in nature or are they just theoretical constructs? Is the evolutionary process progressive or random? Are organisms optimally adapted to their environments or is adaptation limited by developmental constraints? If the past history of life cannot be observed and experimented upon how can we learn anything about it? In this seminar course we will examine the central concepts of evolutionary biology through reading and class discussion of primary literature (helpfully brought together in new anthologies). Students will write abstracts of selected papers, and will be expected to participate in and occasionally lead class discussions with the instructor’s assistance.

Meeting Time and Place

Thursdays, 7:00–9:50 p.m., 111 Foust Building.


Dr. Robert J. O’Hara, 100 Foust Building (rjohara@uncg.edu). Office hours: Tuesday/Thursday 1:00–2:00 p.m., or any other time by appointment or chance. You’re always welcome to stop by to talk about anything relating to our class or to academics generally. E-mail messages are welcome and are a reliable way to reach me. If you’d like to know a bit 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 and prepared to engage in discussion. Grades will be based on these assignments:


January 11: Introduction to the course.

January 18: Bowler, pp. 1–25; Malthus On Population, Chapter I; Darwin and Wallace correspondence; Darwin and Wallace papers of 1858.

January 25: Origin Introduction, I, and II.

February 1: Origin III and IV.

February 8: Origin IX and X.

February 15: Origin XI and XII.

February 22: Origin XIII and XIV.

February 29: K & L chapters on Darwinism, Evolution, Natural Selection.

March 14: K & L chapters on Species, Adaptation, Fitness.

March 21: K & L chapters on Altruism, Competition, Niche.

March 28: K & L chapters on Lamarckism, Progress, Teleology.

April 4: Sober chapters on Essentialism and Population Thinking.

April 11: Sober chapters on Adaptationism.

April 18: Sober chapters on Phylogenetic Inference.

April 25: Sober chapters (to be decided).

“Final Exam”

On the last day of class (April 25) you will be asked to reproduce from memory the following paragraph which concludes the Origin of Species. It is one of the most famous texts 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.)

© RJO 1995–2022