Friday, November 27, 2009

Darwin Week: The Darwinian Revolution

Shortly after becoming a genuine college professor, I started getting catalogues from The Teaching Company, which manufactures and sells video and audio recordings of special courses taught by genuine college professors (like me, only smarter). Their catalogue includes titles on just about every subject, and a year or so ago, I finally decided to give them a try. Since I travel a lot, I'm always looking for ways to pass the time in airports, and lugging around big, scholarly books isn't always ideal. Reading while I drive is also ... challenging. I can now say from personal experience with about six of their courses that they really deliver quality material. So when I saw "The Darwinian Revolution" on sale earlier this year, I couldn't resist.

The course is taught by Frederick Gregory, a professor of the history of science at the University of Florida and a graduate of the history of science programs at UW Madison (M.A.) and Harvard (Ph.D.). As usual, I opted for the downloadable mp3 format, but the course also comes in DVD or CD, and you can buy an optional course book for $25 more. Dr. Gregory frequently refers to materials (both primary and secondary) in his lectures that are cited in the course book.

The course itself is divided into 24 half-hour sessions that begin with the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and takes us up to modern debates with intelligent design advocates and within evolution itself. He doesn't spend too much time on the pre-Darwinian state of affairs, jumping into Darwin's early ideas on evolution in lecture 7. The structure of the course is understandably similar to Ed Larson's course "The Theory of Evolution: A History of Controversy," but with twice as many lectures, Gregory can take his time to develop themes only touched on by Larson.

I found Gregory's lecture on the Scopes trial particularly interesting. Instead of reviewing the history of the antievolution crusade in the United States, Gregory begins with a history of the ACLU. That's quite appropriate, since the trial began with their interest in a test case of the Tennessee antievolution law. He's also quick to point out that the trial was not a failure on the part of American fundamentalism, although he does portray Bryan's testimony as a failure. I find this opinion about Bryan common among historians, even though from what I understand, the local eyewitnesses at the trial felt that Bryan won the day, and it's pretty clear from the transcript that Bryan frequently (but slyly) mocks Darrow. I need to look at that issue more carefully.

I also found Gregory's lecture on intelligent design to be almost sympathetic. He stresses that a main point of the ID movement has been that the success of methodological naturalism (allowing only natural causes in science) should not be confused with evidence for philosophical naturalism (the philosophical position that physical material is all there is). Gregory sees the equation of ID with creationism as a confusion, since IDers like Behe accept a form of evolution. I think Gregory is almost too generous here, since so much of ID has become a rehash of antievolutionary arguments originally advocated by creationists, despite the presence of Behe and those like him in the ID movement. It's hardly surprising that ID would be equated with creationism given the circumstances.

Gregory doesn't shy away from other evolutionary controversies either. He devotes a lecture to eugenics, where he discusses the popularity of the eugenics movement in the United States. He definitely explores the association of eugenics with evolutionary ideology, although he does not go so far as to lay the blame directly on Darwin. His presentation of debates within evolutionary biology, especially about sociobiology, were particularly helpful to me.

If you're balking at the price of the course (currently $129.95 for mp3, $254.95 for DVD), keep watching the Teaching Company's website. They have crazy sales throughout the year, and you can get most of their courses for much less that the list price if you're patient. If you're interested in understanding the controversy over Darwin's theories, Gregory's course is definitely worth it.