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Evolution & Society, c.1800-c.1945 - HIS00046M

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Chris Renwick
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2022-23

Module summary

Efforts to relate evolutionary ideas and society were contested even before the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. However, the reasons that the application of the scientific theory of evolution to society has been controversial, both before and after Darwin, have been complex and not always what they seem. 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, this option – which requires no background in or previous knowledge of evolutionary theory – examines a selection of those debates, focusing mainly on Britain. While enabling students to think about how scientific ideas are shaped by their social and political contexts, studying these episodes will also provide an opportunity to consider the often underappreciated ways that evolutionary ideas, such as eugenics, 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 module, 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.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Spring Term 2022-23

Module aims

This module aims to:

  • Develop skills of source analysis and interpretation;

  • Assess a range of source material and relevant secondary works; and

  • Develop students’ powers of evidence-based historical argument, both orally and in writing.

Module learning outcomes

After completing this module students should have:

  • Developed a good understanding of different schools of evolutionary thought (e.g. Darwinian, Neo-Darwinian, Lamarckian, etc.)

  • Read, thought about and understood some of the central texts in evolutionary thought

  • Situated those texts and the evolutionary ideas they discuss in the political and political contexts of their time

  • Developed skills in reading, note-taking, essay-writing and oral presentation

Module content

Teaching Programme:

Students will attend eight weekly two-hour seminars in weeks 2-9.

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

  1. Evolutionary ideas in the age of revolutions

  2. On the Origin of Species and Whig politics

  3. Social Darwinism

  4. Evolution and Ethics

  5. Biometricians and Mendelians: the politics of scientific method

  6. Genetics and eugenics in Britain, the USA, and Germany

  7. Lysenko and evolutionary science in Russia

  8. Reform Eugenics, Population, and the Welfare State


Task Length % of module mark
4,000 word essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Students will complete a 2,000-word formative essay, due in week 6 of the term. They will then submit a 4,000-word assessed essay for summative assessment in week 1 of the following term.

For further details about assessed work, students should refer to the Taught Masters Degrees Statement of Assessment.


Task Length % of module mark
4,000 word essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment, students will receive oral feedback at a one-to-one meeting with their tutor and written feedback consisting of comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission. Tutors are also available in their student hours to discuss formative assessment. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the module starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

Peter J. Bowler, Evolution: The History of an Idea, 4th ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

Robert J. Richards, Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behaviour (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Diane B. Paul, Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present (Atlantic Highlands, NJ : Humanities Press, 1998).

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.