Tutor: Chris Renwick

Module type: Special Subject

Module Code: HIS00068H

Evolution is an idea that has helped define the modern world. Indeed, as recent controversies, such as those about intelligent design, have shown, an acceptance of evolution is frequently seen as the final test of what it is to be truly modern. However, the idea of evolution was widely considered to be highly implausible as little as 50 years before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859). How and why did evolution come to be accepted so rapidly and incorporated so fully into the way we look at the world? 

This special subject gives students – who will require no previous knowledge of evolutionary science – the opportunity to think about these questions by exploring the history of evolutionary ideas, from their late eighteenth-century origins to modern debates about religion, human nature, eugenics. By studying primary texts and secondary literature closely, students will explore the way that evolutionists made the case for their theories, how their ideas were discussed in scientific and popular culture, and consider the impact those ideas had on the way we understand ourselves and society. In so doing, students will not only learn how to study closely the processes through which individual ideas and theories emerge but also develop an expert knowledge of the interaction of evolutionary ideas and society in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe and America.

Seminars are likely to include the following areas:

Autumn Term 

  • Erasmus Darwin and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck
  • Natural Theology, Political Economy, and Society in Early c.19th Britain
  • Radical Politics and Science: Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation
  • The Beagle, the Galapagos, and Malthus: Darwin’s Conversion to Evolution
  • The Origin of On the Origin of Species
  • Grandeur in this View of Life: On the Origin of Species and its reception
  • Evolutionary Radical? Darwin on Man
  • Darwinism After Darwin: The Scientific Debate 

Spring Term

  • Darwinism and Religion
  • Social Darwinism
  • Evolution, Race, and Gender
  • Might is Right? Evolutionary Ethics
  • Darwinism and Genetics in the Early Twentieth-Century: the Politics of Knowledge
  • Eugenics 1: Britain
  • Eugenics 2: Comparative Contexts – USA and Germany
  • Eugenics 3: Intelligence, Social Surveying, and Welfarism
  • Lysenko and the USSR


For more information, please visit the module catalogue.