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Willem Halffman
Faculty of Science
Radboud University

3 Evolution


In this lecture

The taxonomic style discussed in the previous lecture formed the basis for the study of species’ variability. Using 19th century collections, Charles Darwin and his contemporaries were able to study variation between organisms and relate this variation to context. In fact, Darwin himself made important contributions to these collections, both as a result of his expedition with the Beagle and as a result of his extensive and global network of personal contacts afterwards.

            However, apart from the biological collections, Darwin had various other considerations and inspirations. For example, the idea of ‘natural selection’ originated in breeding practices with domestic animals, especially pigeons. Social science was another important source of inspiration. Especially the rather pessimistic demography of Robert Malthus provided a key metaphor in Darwin’s thinking: Malthus thought human populations would grow until food scarcity would halt growth through famines. A more surprising third consideration, only recently identified, was Darwin’s rejection of slavery. Whereas pro-slavery biologists justified slavery on the grounds that African people constituted a separate and inferior species (!), Darwin stressed the common descent of humanity.

During the 19th century, evolutionary ideas were used in fierce ideological and theological debates on the role of god and creation in nature, the role of people in nature, and also the relations between people. On the right of the political spectrum, Darwin was used to justify various forms of ‘social Darwinism’, arguing that a ruthless struggle between people would favour the strong and relegate the weak to their rightfully inferior position in society. On the left, people like Karl Marx argued that Darwin showed how humanity should rise above the ruthless state of nature and not live like ever competing animals. The reception of Darwin’s ideas was therefore powerful, but by no means simple and univocal.


  1. Static nature and its problems
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  3. Change: Lamarck and the Revolution IN DEVELOPMENT
  4. Origins: Darwin and The Origin of Species
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  6. Fame and credits IN DEVELOPMENT
  7. Mission: Darwin and humanity IN DEVELOPMENT
  8. Meaning: metaphors and effects IN DEVELOPMENT



Fara, P. (2009). Science: A Four Thousand Year History. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ch. 5 Evolution, p. 230-237.
General introduction to Darwin, his work, and his importance.

Browne J. (1996) Biogeography and Empire. In: Jardine N, Secord JA and Spary EC (eds.) Cultures of Natural History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 305-321.
This text puts Darwin in the context of imperial science: a biology that is part of empire-building, making use of its tools (expeditions, communication), but also some of its ideology, even in the liberal-minded Darwin. The text also nicely connects Darwin’s work with the tradition of natural history discussed in the previous week.

Detail and illustration:

Darwin, C. (1859). The Origin of Species (1st ed.), fragments from chapter 3 en 4 in: James A Secord (ed.) Charles Darwin: Evolutionary Writings, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 132-162 (shortened, fragments).
Darwin moves very systematically and with great attention to detail and possible objections – hence this heavily edited and shorted version of the text. Reading Victorian biology is not easy, but this is one of the most important books ever written in biology and every biologist should at least read some of “The Origin”. Pay special attention to Darwin’s (admitted and non-admitted) use of metaphors. In later editions, Darwin would try to remove explicit references to metaphors, to prevent tackle objections from critical opponents.


To see whether you have understood all the material for this lecture, check whether you can answer the questions.


If you would like to read more outside of the course:

Desmond, A., & Moore, J. (2009). Darwin's sacred cause: Race, slavery and the quest for human origins. Harcourt: Houghton Mifflin.
The book that linked Darwin to the abolitionists and rocked the world of Darwin studies. Great detail about Darwin’s life and family. Very well written.

Fodor, J., & Piattelli-Palmarini, M. (2010). What Darwin Got Wrong: Profile Books.
Very interesting critical re-appraisal of the logical structure of the evolutionary argument.

Jardine N, Secord J.A. and Spary E.C., eds. (1996) Cultures of Natural History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Beautiful book with many short studies in the history of natural history.