21L.448J | Fall 2010 | Undergraduate
Darwin and Design


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

In the Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin gave us a model for understanding how natural objects and systems can evidence design without positing a designer: how purpose and mechanism can exist without intelligent agency. Texts in this course deal with pre- and post-Darwinian treatment of this topic within literature and speculative thought since the eighteenth century. We will give some attention to the modern study of feedback mechanisms in artificial intelligence. Our reading will be in Hume, Voltaire, Malthus, Darwin, Butler, H. G. Wells, and Turing.

Course Requirements

Class Format

Our format will be two 1 1/2 hour general meetings with in-class discussion of readings and exploration of issues raised by them. This is primarily a reading course, with a special emphasis on writing. Our focus is on books and interpretation.

This course consists of four topics:

1. William Paley’s problem: Does the existence of design (organized, self-sustaining, or self-reproducing systems) argue that there is a designer or organizer, an intelligent agency responsible for its creation?

2. Alan Turing and John Searle’s problem: Can such allegedly designed systems be credited with intelligence themselves?

3. The place of Darwin’s Origin and his idea of Natural Selection in the course of debates on the first two problems.

4. The implication of Darwin and Darwinism for ideas of nature and of mankind’s place therein, as well as collateral, and often independent, manifestations of such undesigned worlds in literary texts.


Readings consist of textbooks and selections. Your reading and discussion of authors who have considered this question will help provide you with a historical foundation for understanding a rich literary tradition, as well as many assumptions held by people in many contemporary cultures.


There will be about 100 pages of weekly reading - sometimes less, sometimes more.

The class will place extra emphasis on writing and speaking. There will be 3 papers: two 5-page, and one 10-page. You will be asked to revise the 10 page paper. Suggested topics for writing are given below. Late papers will be penalized unless extensions are granted in advance of the paper deadline.

Discussion will be our main means of exploring the class topic. Everyone should contribute to class discussions. To encourage discussion, we will hold panel discussions and break into small discussion groups from time to time.

You will also be asked to introduce a class discussion during the term, to participate in a panel discussion, and to give a short class oral presentation on your main paper.


Two unexcused absences are ok, but more will result in a lower grade.


There may be occasional quizzes to help you maintain your reading discipline. 
There will be no final exam in the class. 
Class participation will be factored into your final grade as a plus, minus, or neutral.

Essays 80%
Talk 20%

MIT Literature Statement on Plagiarism

Plagiarism—use of another’s intellectual work without acknowledgement—is a serious offense. It is the policy of the Literature Faculty that students who plagiarize will receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else’s work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student’s own work. For further guidance on the proper forms of attribution, consult the style guides available at the Writing and Communication Center and the MIT Web site on Plagiarism.

Course Calendar

1 Introduction: Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey and the idea of design in nature.  
2 Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The fantasy world of anti-design.  
3 Aristotle, Genesis. Selections from the Physics. Pattern recognition, narrative and analytical, in nature in the ancient world.  
4 Voltaire, Candide. The Accidental World.  
5 Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: Three theories of world origins.  
6 Hume, Dialogues (cont.): Is the world a Rube Goldberg machine?  
7 Paley, Natural Theology: Intelligent Design Theory. Essay 1 due
8 Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations_: S_elf-Organized Complexity?  
9 Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population: Compound Interest in the biological realm.  
10 Malthus, Principle of Population.  
11 Darwin, On the Origin of Species.  
12 Darwin, Origin (cont.)  
13 Darwin, Origin (cont.)  
14 Darwin, Descent of Man (selections)  
15 Butler, Erewhon or Over the Range. Essay 2 due
16 Butler, Erewhon (cont.)  
17 Wiener, God and Golem, Inc. (selections)  
18 Turing and Searle Essays on computers and evolutionary issues  
19 Turing, Searle (cont.)  
20 Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  
21 Huxley, Prolegomena to Evolution and Ethics. Class oral presentations  
22 H. G. Wells, The Time Machine. Draft of essay 3 due
23 William Gibson, Neuromancer. Class oral presentations (cont.)  
24 William Gibson, Neuromancer (cont.) Class oral presentations (cont.)

25 William Gibson, Neuromancer (cont.) Class oral presentations (cont.)

26 William Gibson, Neuromancer (cont.) Class oral presentations (cont.)

Final version of essay 3 due

Course Info
As Taught In
Fall 2010
Learning Resource Types
theaters Lecture Videos
assignment Written Assignments