Darwin in Introductory Biology

John H. Wahlert, 4 June 1998
Natural Sciences


[John H. Wahlert]Participation in the "Darwin and Darwinism" grant initiative has made a significant difference in both my teaching and my interaction with faculty colleagues. I discovered that my knowledge of Darwin, the central figure in biology, was extremely limited, and that my colleagues in the humanities and business had much to say that broadened my understanding both of the context in which Darwin wrote and of the effect of his ideas outside of science.

You might assume that, as a biologist, I would know a great deal about Charles Darwin. However, my knowledge was from secondary sources. Like the introductory biology texts from which I teach, I did not relate Darwin's ideas to the aspects of modern ecology and genetics that provide some of the most convincing evidence in support of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Students in general know something of Darwin but think of him as an old man (the most circulated images) and as someone who was born with the theory. The story of his preparation for a career in the clergy--steeped in the ideas of Paley--comes as a surprise. Many students have likewise been taught Paley's argument from design, and knowing about Darwin's growth and development toward the theory of evolution provides an understandable parallel to their own educational journey.

I prepared a lecture class handout that compares a partial chronology of Charles Darwin's life with a list of historical events. This is available as an Adobe Acrobat file (.pdf) which you may download and use if you like.

Participating in the faculty seminar and co-teaching a Feit Seminar, entitled, "Darwin and Darwinism: Scientific Theory and Social Construction," with Professors Gary Hentzi (English Department) and Susan Tenenbaum (Political Science) were remarkable experiences. I not only learned about the roots of Darwin's innovation in economic and social theory, but I learned how perceptions of natural selection have influenced social policies and how the changed view of man's place in the cosmos has affected literature and philosophy.

The recent establishment of the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Center at Baruch College drew many of us into studying ways to purposefully develop communication skills in students taking our courses. I had always said that I hoped my students in introductory biology would take away a new interest in science and would not only read newspaper articles about science but read them critically. I began to xerox current articles about the environment, genetic engineering, human population, etc. and asking the student simple questions to be answered in short paragraphs. Then I saw that I could use excerpts of the pre-Darwinian and Darwinian literature as unifying themes for discussing the articles. Assignments based on Malthus and on Lyell are given here as examples. Many students were surprised that principles in contemporary thought were proposed so long ago. The majority wrote as I expected; a few took issue with application of the statements of Lyell and Malthus to the specific world situations today, and these were the most thoughtful papers.

Link to my web page in the Natural Sciences Department.


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Last updated 2 January 1999 (JHW)