This subject offers a broad survey of texts (both literary and philosophical) selected to trace the immediate intellectual antecedents and some of the implications of the ideas animating Charles Darwin’s revolutionary On the Origin of Species. Darwin’s text, of course, is about the mechanism that drives the evolution of life on this planet, but its fundamental ideas have implications that range well beyond the scope of natural history, and the assumptions behind its arguments challenge ideas that go much further back than the set of ideas that Darwin set himself explicitly to question. These ideas are of decisive importance when we think about ourselves, the nature of the material universe, the planet that we live upon, and our place in its scheme of life.
Our main focus of attention will be the relevance of Darwin’s thought to what is called “the argument for intelligent design”: the notion that since innumerable aspects of the world (and most particularly the organisms within it) display features directly analogous to objects of human design, it follows that an intelligent, conscious agency must have been responsible for their organization and creation. We will also examine some related questions, for example (a) is natural selection via our genetic endowment the source of our ethical biases? (b) if mindless nature can select, can mindless machinery, like computers, think? (c) does mankind’s intelligence set mankind apart from nature by virtue of its capacity to adapt the natural environment to its needs or is intelligence just one way—and not an especially privileged way—to compete in the struggle for existence? We will read literary texts by authors such as Lewis Carroll, Voltaire, E. M. Forster, H. G. Wells, Samuel Butler, and Robert Louis Stevenson, and excerpts from argumentative works by Aristotle, David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, Thomas Huxley, Alan Turing, and others.