The course will require 5 written assignments, totaling c. 22 pages of assessed writing in all. The first assignment will concern the range of views about origins that were extant around 1800, i.e., in the period immediately prior to the emergence of evolutionary ideas of nature and society. Subsequent assignments will be concerned with the Darwinian debates of the 1860s, and evolution and society in the late-19th, early-20th centuries. The fourth assignment will be a special on a selected topic from the history of evolutionary thought in the 20th century; and the fifth and final paper will be a contribution to a "Student Debate", in the form of prepared notes plus an oral presentation.

Assignment 1

Handed out session 3, due session 5

Maximum length: 3 pages

What, in your view, are the principal strengths and weaknesses of William Paley's famous "argument from design for the existence of God", as set out in his Natural Theology (1802)? Please give a clear summary of the argument, and try to think of at least 3 possible strengths and 3 possible weaknesses of it. In doing this, please try to avoid "the wisdom of hindsight" (i.e., what we know, or think we know, today). In other words, try to use only ideas and knowledge that were available at the time that Paley wrote.

Assignment 2

Handed out session 5, due session 7

Maximum length: 5 pages

Assignment #2: Write an essay on the birth of the science of historical geology in the early-19th century. In writing this essay, you should use material from both the lectures and the required readings. What were the distinctive features of historical geology at this time? What made it novel, and interesting, and important? Who were the key players, and what were the key factors (ideas, observations, events, publications, etc.) that contributed to the rise of historical geology? Try to organize your essay around a strong theme.

Assignment 3

Handed out session 8, due session 13

What explanation can you offer for the fact that two English naturalists independently discovered the theory of evolution by natural selection at almost exactly the same time?

Assignment 4

Handed out session 14, due session 24

Students select a special topic on an aspect of "Evolution in the 20th Century", as the basis for an 8 page special paper that analyzes a particular issue in depth.

Assignment 5

Handed out session 22, due session 26

Students prepare a speech for delivery as part of a "Student Debate" on a selected topic in Evolution and Society. Students adopt roles (first speaker for the motion, first speaker against the motion, etc., etc.) and prepare written notes (3 pages, or equivalent) from which they make their contributions in the debate.


Each student will be assigned a character. Each character will give a brief speech of no longer than 3 minutes. If you are sharing a character, please choose a single speaker to represent your character. Speeches will be accompanied by two 10—minute "open floor" sections. In each, characters will have the opportunity to pose questions to each other; responses should not exceed 1 minute. In the case of shared characters, open floor questions may be asked or answered by either student.

Debate Fact Files are profiles of the various characters designed to help students get into character and understand their role. (PDF)


  • Huxley/Thompson
  • Gray/Mivart (or Agassiz)
  • Wallace/Wilberforce
  • Open Floor (10 minutes)
  • Kingsley/Flemming Jenkin/Hooker (or Kingsley/Mivart)
    • Flemming Jenkin/Hooker
  • Owen/Lyell
  • Open Floor (10 minutes)