The Darwinian Revolution

Jonathan Shaw
LS 760-14
Fall 2016
Mondays, 6:15-8:45 PM; Aug. 29-Nov. 28 (no class on Oct. 10)
Biological Sciences Building 130

Darwin’s book (1859), On the Origin of Species, shook the world.  What really was the “Darwinian Revolution”?  Why is Darwinism, or evolution, still so controversial? How do evolutionary ideas affect medicine, agriculture, astronomy, psychology, sociology, even religion? Is evolution and spirituality incompatible?  What IS the evidence for evolution?  These are some of the issues we discuss in The Darwinian Revolution.

This course consists of three (very) general and overlapping components.  In the first section of the course we will read (at least) some of The Origin of Species so we can see how Darwin framed the problem and provided evidence in support of his theory.  Although biology has come a long way since Darwin published his book, it’s amazing that the basic tenets of evolution by natural selection, as we understand them today, were accurately laid out more than 150 years ago.  We will then do some reading to better understand the historical context of evolutionary biology. As we shall see, the idea of evolution was not entirely new with Darwin. Darwin’s really original contribution was in proposing a naturalistic (as opposed to a supernatural) mechanism for evolution – that is, natural selection.  First, of course, we will need to consider what we actually mean by “evolution”, what “natural selection” is, and how scientists study these topics. We will also discuss terms such as “fact”, “theory”, and “hypothesis”, as they are used in the scientific literature and by the public. We will read about and discuss the philosophical implications of Darwinism, and examine the “creationist” alternative to evolution in a variety of contexts from the legal to philosophical.

In the second component of the course we will have a look at the modern evidence for evolution. We examine the history of life on earth as revealed by the fossil record, including human evolution over the last two million years.  We will also discuss other sorts of less direct evidence from the fields of genetics and molecular biology, biogeography, and comparative anatomy.

In the last section of the course, we will discuss some of the uses and abuses of evolutionary ideas.  These include critically important applications in medicine and agriculture, as well as horrendous misapplications of (pseudo)evolutionary ideas, including eugenics and racism.  Here we also examine and discuss current ideas about the evolution of what we think of as uniquely human characteristics such as moral/ethical thinking, and laughter, and discuss the role of natural selection in contemporary human populations.

A couple important points about this course.  You need not be a scientist or biologist!  We will address these issues in a way that is accessible to all.  Who might this course interest?  If you are opposed to the idea of evolution on religious grounds – join us; we need to hear your voice!  If you just don’t know what to think in that regard, and want more information – join us!  If you are interested in biology and natural history – join is; evolution is the glue that holds all of biology together!  The more diverse our class, the more interesting the course.  Several years ago was the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, and the 150th anniversary of publication of The Origin, so the time is right!



About Jonathan Shaw

Jonathan Shaw is a Professor in the Department of Biology. He received his Ph.D. in 1983 from the University of Michigan. Dr. Shaw's research is on the systematics, population genetics, and evolution of bryophytes (mosses). Some of his research interests have included the taxonomy and classification of particular groups of mosses, developmental anatomy, and genetic relationships among populations of very rare species. A current focus in the lab is the evolution of peatmosses (Sphagnum) and Dr. Shaw's field work tends to be in polar and high altitude environments. He has published some 200 scientific papers and has edited two books, one on the evolution of tolerance in plants to toxic metals in the environment, and one on the biology of bryophytes. Dr. Shaw taught for eight years at a liberal arts college (Ithaca College) before coming to Duke in 1996.