UNCG FMS 104W — Charles Darwin and the Origin of Species

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, is the foundational text of modern evolutionary biology. We will examine the topics that were central to Darwin’s work, and remain central in evolutionary biology today, including natural selection, the nature of species, the fossil record, and the geographical distribution and relationships of animals and plants. The Origin itself will be our primary source, but we will also consider some of Darwin’s predecessors (Georges Buffon, Charles Lyell, Thomas Malthus, and Alfred Wallace), some modern historical interpretations of his work, and his broader cultural context.


Dr. Robert J. O’Hara, Center for Critical Inquiry in the Liberal Arts, 100 Foust Building. E-mail: rjohara@uncg.edu. Office hours: Monday 1:00–2:00 p.m. and any other time by appointment or chance. You are always welcome to stop by my office to discuss anything relating to our course or to academics generally. If you’d like to know a bit about my interests and other activities, you’re welcome to visit my webpage (rjohara.net).

Required Texts

Grading and Exams

The course grade is made up of three elements: (1) several short written assignments given throughout the term (60%); (2) two exams (30%); and (3) a time-line depicting important persons and events discussed in class (10%). The short written assignments will be required to undergo revision after they are first submitted; each version will be commented upon, but only the last version of each assignment will be graded. Handouts describing the writing assignments, the exams, and the time-line in detail will be provided in class. One of the questions on the second exam will ask you to reproduce from memory the paragraph from the Origin of Species that appears at the end of this syllabus. This paragraph nicely summarizes Darwin’s argument for evolution, and has been chosen for that reason.


This class will follow an informal seminar format, and attendance is required of all students. Beginning in the second week of the term attendance will be taken at each class meeting. Three absences over the course of the term are the maximum permitted without penalty; each unexcused absence beyond three will result in one point (out of 100) being deducted from your final grade.

Outline of Topics

  1. Introduction. Natural history observation. Natural history and its place in the sciences. The history of nature in the Nineteenth Century and before. Natural theology as a research program. Darwin’s life and times.

  2. Species: Essentialism and Population Thinking. Animals and plants in nature seem to come in various “kinds” known as species. What are species? Are the “species” of animals and plants different in any way from the “kinds” we recognize among inanimate objects?

  3. The Discovery of Time. The acceptance of evolution was facilitated by the earlier work of geologists, who had shown by the early 1800’s that the earth had a long and complicated history. What sorts of evidence and what methods of reasoning did geologists use to reconstruct the history of the earth?

  4. Natural Selection. Natural selection is the evolutionary mechanism Darwin proposes in the Origin; it is the driving force of evolutionary change. What is distinctive about natural selection as a process, and what is its relation to determinism and randomness?

  5. The Geographical Distribution of Animals and Plants. The species of animals and plants are distributed neither uniformly nor randomly across the surface of the earth. What does the geographical distribution of animals and plants tell us about their history and the history of the earth?

  6. Recapitulation and Conclusion. The historical sciences, the history and classification of the sciences, and the evolution of science.

Second Exam Question

One of the questions on the second exam will ask you to reproduce from memory the following quotation, which concludes Darwin’s Origin of Species. It summarizes Darwin’s argument for evolution. We will practice it regularly in class, so learning it will not be difficult.

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