UNCG Biology 589a — 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 Louis Agassiz, 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. The course is open to advanced undergraduates and graduates; students will be assumed to have a basic understanding of biology and evolution.


Dr. Robert J. O’Hara, Center for Critical Inquiry in the Liberal Arts, 100 Foust Building (rjohara@uncg.edu). Office hours: Monday/Wednesday 3:00–5:00 p.m., or any other time by appointment or chance. If you’d like to know more about my own work and interests you’re welcome to visit my webpage (rjohara.net).

Required Texts

Recommended Text

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. Grading will be based on these assignments:


August 25: Course introduction; field trip to consider diversity, variation, and population growth.

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

September 8: Origin Introduction, I, and II.

September 15: Origin III and IV.

September 22: Origin IX and X.

September 29: Origin XI and XII.

October 6: Origin XIII and XIV.

October 13: Hull pp. 1–77; “The Darwin Industry.”

October 20: Reviews by Hooker, Carpenter, and Bronn.

October 27: Reviews by Wollaston, Pictet, and Sedgwick.

November 3: Reviews by Owen and Haughton.

November 10: Reviews by Hopkins and Fawcett.

November 17: Reviews by Hutton and Jenkin.

December 1: Reviews by Mivart and Wright.

December 8: Reviews by Von Baer and Agassiz.

“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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