Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

This subject offers a broad survey of texts (both literary and philosophical) drawn from the Western tradition and selected to trace the immediate intellectual antecedents and some of the implications of the ideas animating Darwin's revolutionary On the Origin of Species. Darwin's text, of course, is about the mechanism that drives the evolution of life on this planet, but the fundamental ideas of the text have implications that range well beyond the scope of natural history, and the assumptions behind Darwin's arguments challenge ideas that go much further back than the set of ideas that Darwin set himself explicitly to question — ideas of decisive importance when we think about ourselves, the nature of the material universe, the planet that we live upon, and our place in its scheme of life. In establishing his theory of natural selection, Darwin set himself, rather self-consciously, to challenge a whole way of thinking about these things. The main focus of our attention will be Darwin's contribution to the so-called "argument from design" — the notion that innumerable aspects of the world (and most particularly the organisms within it) display features directly analogous to objects of human design and, since design implies a designer, that an intelligent, conscious agency must have been responsible for their organization and creation. Previously, it had been argued that such features must have only one of two ultimate sources-chance or conscious agency. Darwin proposed and elaborated a third source, which he called Natural Selection, an unconscious agency capable of outdoing the most complex feats of human intelligence.

Our course of study will not only examine the immediate inspiration for this idea in the work of Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus and place Darwin's Origin and the theory of Natural Selection in the history of ensuing debate, but it will also touch upon related issues. For example: if the workings of unintelligent nature can produce intelligently designed artifacts in the form of self-guiding or self-sustaining systems, perhaps it is wrong to withhold from nature the credit for being thoughtful itself. Alternately, the question, does nature really select? may be regarded as another version of the question can machines think? The debate over natural selection thereby touches more recent debates about Artificial Intelligence and the differences between mechanical and human intelligence.

Another set of questions concerns the place of mankind in Creation. Is humanity the apex of creation, occupying a privileged position by virtue of its capacity to adapt the natural environment to its needs, or was it simply part of the animal kingdom and no more assured of continued survival as a species than any other kind of organism? Considering whether mankind has especial dominion over the rest of the natural world also raises questions about nature's ethical character. The operations of Natural Selection depend upon a fierce and unrelenting competitive struggle for existence between members of every species as well between members of one species and members of others. Natural Selection is therefore rampantly abhorrent from the standpoint of ethical values. Ethical values are human values, after all, and just as Darwinism discouraged the anthropocentric notion that everything was created with an eye to human benefit, so it gave life to the notion that nature was profoundly indifferent or even hostile to the values by which human beings ought to live and was certainly not the source of ethical inspiration that poets and philosophers often took it to be. Still further, ethics presumably requires that we act for the betterment of our species, but perhaps Natural Selection requires that we turn a blind eye to the difficulties of our fellows and encourage a continuation of the competitive struggle for existence if any improvement in the human species is to be looked forward to. Finally, if natural selection and ethics are opposing powers, how did natural selection favor the development of mankind's ethical sensibilities? With this last question, we enter the realm of sociobiology, and our course of readings will conclude by touching this topic.

Course Format

The subject meets twice a week for two one-and-a-half sessions. Each session begins with a lecture of varying length, but changes over early into general discussion. Active participation in discussion is essential to the life of the class and the force and cogency of student's remarks will have a marked influence on grades. Readings will total approximately seventy-five pages a week, sometimes more, sometimes less. Much of the grade will also depend upon the quality of the three written assignments required by the course, and spaced fairly evenly over the term: the papers will total twenty pages in entirety, two papers running to at least six pages each and a final paper running to at least eight pages. The papers will each deal with some aspect of the readings and discussion; topics may be invented by the students but an extensive list of suggested topics will be circulated two weeks in advance of each paper's due date for those students who require it. The first of these papers will be rewritten upon its return and resubmitted in a form complaint with corrections made by the instruction on the pages of the first version. The second paper may be treated in the same way, depending upon the instructor's judgment. The subject will also offer students opportunity for oral expression by reason of

  • its discussion format and
  • a division into groups of two or three students (depending upon enrollment), each of which will make two fifteen-minute presentations of materials conducive to the discussion of a given assignment, following the model of such presentations offered by the instructor at the outset of the term.

There will be no final examination.