Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Evolution: The Darwinian Revolutions

Long-time readers of this blog will know that every summer I teach an introductory evolution course for non-scientists at Cornell. This year the focus of the course will be somewhat different. In honor of the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his monumental book, On the Origin of Species..., we will be focusing on the impact of Darwin's concept of evolution by natural selection, both on the sciences and on society as a whole.

Darwin's theory of evolution is the most revolutionary idea ever entertained by the human mind. It fundamentally alters our perception of reality. In profound and unsettling ways the theory of evolution changes our understanding of who we are, where we come from, why we do the things we do, and where we might be going. It does this by making us look carefully and dispassionately at the world around us, asking questions and seeking answers in the things we can observe.

This summer we will explore Darwin's theory and the impact that it has had on the sciences and on human society. Here is the syllabus for the course:

BIOEE 2070 / HIST 2870 / STS 2871
Cornell University Six-Week Summer Session – Summer 2009

PREREQUISITES: None - Intended for non-science majors with an interest in evolutionary theory

CREDIT HOURS: 3 (does not count toward evolution distribution requirement in biological sciences)

CLASS TIMES: Mondays and Wednesdays 6-9 PM, Monday 22 June 2009 to Wednesday 29 July 2009

CLASS LOCATION: Lectures in Morrison Room, Corson-Mudd Atrium. Discussions TBA in class.

COURSE FORMAT: The format for each class will be a two-hour interactive lecture/discussion, in which the professor outlines the major concepts, followed by a one-hour discussion section in which all participants present their interpretations and opinions of the concepts and readings under consideration. Participants will also have the opportunity to make full-length presentations of their original work. Grades will be based on the quality of three essays, due at the end of each two-week segment. Students may also opt to do one essay and a research paper (see description and point scores, below).

GRADE BASED ON: Attendance and participation in lecture and section, plus combined letter grade on three essays (suggested length = 4 to 8 pages) or one essay and one research paper (maximum length = 20 pages), for a total of 100 points (electronic/email submission encouraged, but not required)

COURSE DESCRIPTION: Evolution is the founding concept of the science of biology. This course examines evolution in historical and cultural contexts. Aims of the course include understanding the major issues in the history and current status of evolutionary theory and exploring the implications of evolution for culture and human psychology. Issues range from controversies over mechanisms of evolution in natural populations to the philosophical implications of evolutionary theory.


Darwin, Charles (E. O. Wilson, ed.) (2006) From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin's Four Great Books. W. W. Norton, ISBN: 0393061345 (hardcover, $39.95), 1,706 pages. Available online here

Goldschmidt, Tijs (1998) Darwin's dreampond: Drama in Lake Victoria, MIT Press, ISBN: 0262571218 (paperback, $27.00), 274 pages.

Jabloka, Eva & Lamb, Marion J. (2006) Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life, MIT Press, ISBN: 0262600692 (paperback, $19.95), 474 pages.

Raup, David M. (1991) Extinction: Bad genes or bad luck? W.W. Norton, ISBN: 0393309274 (paperback, $14.95), 228 pages.

Ruse, Michael (2004) Darwin and design: Does evolution have a purpose? Harvard University Press, ISBN: 0674016319 (paperback, $19.50), 371 pages.


Darwin, Charles (1892) The autobiography of Charles Darwin (Nora Barlow, ed.), W.W. Norton, ISBN: 0393310698 (paperback, $14.95), 365 pages. Available online here


All of the course packet readings listed below are available from the course website. The password to access the course packet is “evolutioncp” (without the quotation marks). Alternate weblinks are provided for your convenience.

NOTE: Students will not be required to read all of these articles. Your instructor and/or TA will tell you which articles you are responsible for.

Ayala, F. (1970). Teleological explanations in evolutionary biology. Philosophy of Science, vol. 37, pp. 1–7.

Behe, M. (2002) Intelligent design as an alternative explanation for the existence of biomolecular machines. Unpublished manuscript.

Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J. (1997) Evolutionary psychology: A primer. Center for Evolutionary Psychology. Available online here

Dembski, W. (2005) What every theologian should know about creation, evolution, and design. Orthodoxy Today. Available online

Dobzhansky, T. (1973) Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. The American Biology Teacher, vol. 35 (March 1973), pp. 125–129. Available online

Eldredge, N. and Gould, S. J. (1972) Punctuated equilibria: An alternative to phyletic gradualism. In Schopf, T. J. M. (1972) Models in Paleobiology, Freeman, Cooper, & Co., pp. 82–115. Available online here

Gould, S. J. And Lewontin, R. C. (1979) The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: A critique of the adaptationist programme. Proceedings Of The Royal Society of London, Series B, vol. 205, no. 1161, pp. 581-598. Available online here

Huxley, T. H. (1860) Letter to Charles Kingsley, Available online

Jenkin, F. (1867) Review of Origin of Species. The North British Review, June 1867, vol. 46, pp. 277-318.
Available online here

Kaviar, B. (2003) A history of the eugenics movement at Cornell. Unpublished manuscript.

MacNeill, A. (2004) The capacity for religious experience is an evolutionary adaptation for warfare. Evolution and Cognition 10:1, pages 43 to 60.

MacNeill, A. (2005) Natural selection, sparrows, and a stochastic God. Available online here

MacNeill, A. (2006) Vertical polygyny in modern America: An evolutionary perspective. Available online here

Mayr, E. (1974) Telological and teleonomic: A new analysis. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, XIV, pages 91 to 117.

Mayr, E. (1982) The growth of biological thought. Harvard University Press. Chapters 12 & 13, pages 535 to 627.

Pinker, S. (2004) The evolutionary psychology of religion. Freedom From Religion Foundation. Available online here

Wegner, D. (2002) The illusion of conscious will. MIT Press: Cambridge. Chapter 3, pages 63 to 98.

The science of evolutionary biology began with the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. It is one of the most important books ever written and should be read by any person who wants to understand who we are, where we come from, and why we are here (and how we know).

Darwin's theory was accepted by most scientists of his generation within a surprisingly short time. Then, within just one more generation, it fell out of favor, replaced by genetic theories of evolution suggested by the rediscovered work of Gregor Mendel. Then, in another generation, the pendulum swung the other way, and Darwin's ideas were integrated with Mendel's and codified in the "modern synthesis."

Evolutionary theory has exploded in the fifty years since the "modern synthesis" was proclaimed. Sociobiology, punctuated equilibrium and new ideas about evolutionary psychology, genetic engineering, macroevolution, speciation…these are just a few of the directions that evolutionary theory and biology have expanded in the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st.

I would like to invite anyone who has found this blog interesting to take this course, or follow along with us by keeping up with the course materials posted at the course website. Either way, you will find your mind being stretched and your view of reality challenged. What better way could one spend a few summer evenings?

See you this summer!


As always, comments, criticisms, and suggestions are warmly welcomed!


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At 4/15/2009 02:31:00 PM, Blogger Larry Moran said...

Random genetic drift is the predominant mechanism of evolution but I don't see it in your list of topics. When do you cover it?


At 4/15/2009 05:59:00 PM, Blogger Allen MacNeill said...

Hi, Larry:
I cover genetic drift quite extensively in the second third of the course: "The Modern Synthesis". To be specific, I cover it when I talk about Sewall Wright's original concept of genetic drift and how it relates to his "shifting balance" theory of evolution (which includes adaptive landscapes as well).

Hope this makes you happy!

BTW, you know that my colleague here at Cornell, Will Provine, has lectured and written for years on the idea that Random genetic drift a la Sewall Wright doesn't exist. I disagree with him, but not entirely. John Gillespie claims to have been inspired by Will's criticisms to come up with his theory of "genetic draft", which I find difficult to refute. What do you think of his work?


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