Evolution and Society, c.1800-c.1945

Tutor: Chris Renwick

Module type: MA Option

Module Code: HIS00046M

As the recent debates about socio-biology and evolutionary psychology have shown, the question of how to relate evolutionary theories and society is hugely controversial. However, those debates are far from new. In fact, evolutionary theories have been discussed and evaluated not just for their scientific merits but also for their social implications since the early nineteenth century. This option examines those debates and in so doing puts current discussions into historical perspective.

Beginning with the early nineteenth-century association of evolutionary ideas with revolutionary manifestos and ending with the mid-twentieth-century debate about population control and welfare provision, "Evolution and Society, c.1800-c.1945" will consider key episodes in the discussion of evolution in Europe and North America during that period. While enabling students to thing a out how scientific ideas are shaped by their social and political contexts, studying these episodes will also give students the opportunity to consider the often under appreciated ways that scientific ideas have shaped political and social discussions. In so doing, students will be introduced to a range of different approaches to the historical study of science, including those that utilise sociological and the philosophical tools. By the end of the course, students will have been given a thorough introduction to the history of debates about evolution and society and the different ways of approaching its study.

Possible seminar topics are as follows:

  • Introduction: evolutionary ideas in the age of revolutions
  • On the Origin of Species and Whig politics
  • Darwinism and religion
  • Social Darwinism
  • Evolutionary ethics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
  • Genetics and eugenics in Britain, the USA and Germany
  • Lysenko and evolutionary science in Russia
  • William Beveridge, social biology and the origins of the British welfare state


Preliminary reading

  • Bowler, Peter. Evolution: The History of an Idea, 4th ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
  • Budd, Robert. The Uses of Life: A History of Biotechnology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Paul, Diane. Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present. Atlantic Highlands, NJ : Humanities Press, 1998.
  • Richards, Robert. Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behaviour. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
  • Soloway, Richard. Demography and Degeneration: Eugenics and the Declining Birthrate in Twentieth-Century Britain. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.