Evolution and society, 1700–2000. Biology, politics and religion

Professor Pietro Corsi, Faculty of History


It is the aim of the course to explore the complex relationship between the history of evolutionary doctrines and the national, social and cultural contexts within which they emerged. From the early decades of the eighteenth century until today, the debate on the history and transformations of life on earth has been characterized by a plurality of theoretical standpoints and disciplinary practices. Moreover, religious, social and political assumptions and implications have been and are still seen as relevant to the public debate on the history and variety of life forms, of humans in particular. From eighteenth-century France (B. De Maillet and J:-B. Lamarck), through England (E. and C. Darwin) and Germany (E. Haeckel), up to the evolutionary synthesis of the 1920s–1950s and the recent resurgence of a strong religious opposition to evolution in the United States and elsewhere, the debate on evolution has involved a plurality of social and intellectual actors, and has been used to serve a variety of political and ideological agendas.

Full bibliography (PDF)

“The importance of French transformist ideas for the second volume of Lyell’s Principles of Geology”


Week 1
The philosophy and politics of evolution in eighteenth-century Europe

For several decades, historians have been looking for precursors of Darwin in the century before 1859. This selective and often anachronistic reading of eighteenth-century theories on the history of life and of mankind has obscured important features of a debate of European dimensions. After the French Revolution, accusations of atheism and political subversion effectively curbed a rich intellectual tradition favourable to a broad evolutionary interpretation of biological and cultural phenomena.

Week 2
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829): the physics of evolution

Far from being the founder of modern evolutionary theories, Lamarck summed up and reinterpreted contemporary debates on life in terms of a rigidly deterministic physics, capable of explaining – in his eyes at least – all biological phenomena, from the formation of life forms through spontaneous generation, to the development of human intellectual faculties and culture. Lamarck’s work and teaching exercised a deep influence in early nineteenth-century Europe, though his original ideas were often reinterpreted to fit vitalist and spiritualist concerns.

Week 3:
Evolutionary theories in Europe before Charles Darwin

As would happen a few decades later to Charles Darwin, Lamarck would not have been pleased to see the plurality of theories attributed to him: European Lamarckism (like European Darwinism) had something to do with the original doctrines put forward by its author, at the price of betraying his intellectual and scientific priorities. Many naturalists and thinkers active on the Continent thought that the key issue was the development of an explanation of the history of life on earth in terms of natural laws. The question of man was also central to societies actively engaged in colonial conquests. Thus, “Lamarckian” came to signify a broad allegiance to often rather vague evolutionary tenets.

Week 4
Species without Darwin: evolution and society in England, 1830–1859

Lamarck’s ideas were well known in England from the beginning of the nineteenth century, and the young Charles Darwin knew about them. Yet, he thought they were wrong. Charles Lyell’s critique of Lamarck, published in the second volume of his Principles of Geology (1832) convinced many physicians, racial anthropologists, radical naturalists, economists, writers and theologians that Lamarck might have been wrong, but that the development of an evolutionary theory was a key “philosophical necessity” of the age. When Darwin published On the Origin of Species in the autumn of 1859, public opinion was more than ready to discuss his work.

Week 5
The formation and development of Darwin’s theory of natural selection

Darwin’s theory of natural selection is not the sum of debates on post-Lamarckian evolutionary theories current in the period 1830–1850. He certainly commented upon them, and shared several assumptions, such as the doctrine of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Yet, Darwin’s path to evolution has to be examined in its own terms, by paying attention to his observations, collections and experiments. His key theory of natural selection changed over time, as did his view of speciation and inheritance. Written in plain, accessible style, On the Origin of Species is in fact a complex book, at times seemingly contradictory, and it is not surprising that contemporaries felt authorised to read it according to their own views.

Week 6
Reading Darwin after 1859: Europe and the United States

More than a question of “reception”, the diffusion of Darwin’s theories in Europe and the United States was a question of interpretation, at times amounting to distortion. The presence of local evolutionary traditions – in France and Italy, Russia and Germany – and indeed the United Kingdom – deeply influenced the way in which naturalists, philosophers or theologians read Darwin’s work. The question of man’s place in nature, the political application of the concept of the struggle for existence, the attempts to “domesticate” Darwin’s evolutionary theories to fit religious traditions or political philosophies, pervaded reviews and books commenting, extolling or attacking Darwin’s work. The case of the German naturalist, philosopher and evolutionary thinker Ernst Haeckel well illustrates the complex intellectual, social and political articulations of evolutionary theories in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Week 7
From eclipse to triumph: the fall and rise of Darwin’s theory, 1880–1950

Contemporary naturalists had many difficulties with Darwin’s key concepts. Some felt his reliance on natural selection excessive: others reproached him for the opposite fault. His theory of inheritance, “pangenesis” was harshly judged; his non-teleological view of the history of life (in spite of some hesitation on his part) displeased many, as did his concept of struggle for existence, which at times he replaced by the opposite concept of “cooperation for life”. The growth of Mendelian genetics and laboratory life sciences condemned Darwin’s work to a sort of marginality. Yet, field naturalists, geneticists and palaeontologists active in the 1930s and 1940s elaborated a theory of evolution that vindicated Darwin’s theoretical achievement – not without the risk, at times, of anachronistically modernizing his work.

Week 8
Evolutionary debates today: science, politics and religions

The theory of evolution is today a family of sophisticated theoretical assumptions and experimental protocols. Practitioners of different disciplines – from genetics to palaeontology, from systematics to anthropology, from psychology to medicine – share several common beliefs but often disagree on many substantial points. The philosophical, theological and political implications of evolution in general, and of some brands of it in particular, are discussed with increasing passion throughout contemporary societies. Creationists and Intelligent Design commentators are seeking to put back the clock one hundred and fifty years, and our final session will probably look very much like the first ones, dealing with the theology and the politics of evolution.