Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

Philosophy 220, University of Canterbury, second semester, 2010.

Professor Denis Dutton, with Mick Whittle, tutor

Wednesdays, 3.10 PM - 4.45 PM, Lecture Theatre A5. Tutorials immediately following the lecture and Wednesday, noon. Phil 220 is available in both the Science schedule for credit toward a BSc and the Arts schedule for credit toward a BA.

Audio content for the course is HERE. Mick Whittle's page, including video content is HERE. The full text of Richrd Dawkins's abridgement of On the Origin of Species, as well as links to his Darwin readings, are HERE.

Darwin's Dangerous Idea will engage evolution from multiple perspectives. The title of the course is borrowed from a splendid book by philosopher Daniel Dennett, the man who famously called Darwin's formulation of evolution "the single best idea anyone has ever had." One of the purposes of this course will be to demonstrate why it is arguable that Dan's claim is exactly correct.

At age 22, Darwin set off on a
five-year voyage around the
world on HMS Beagle.

The required anchor text for the course is The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, by the redoubtable Richard Dawkins (Bantam Press, 2009). Writings by Darwin will be sourced from another recommended text, Darwin's On the Origin of Species, edited by Joseph Carroll (Broadview Texts, 2003). Carroll's collection includes important excerpts from The Voyage of the Beagle and The Descent of Man, as well as historical background (including Darwin's own short autobiography) and source material on other important evolutionary thinkers.

In Phil 220, however, we are not sticking to traditional books. We have assembled a substantial collection of lectures and other commentaries that will be available as audio files to be listened to with an iPod or other MP3 player. This material can also be listened to directly off a laptop or other computer. Although the Origin of Species may be read in the Carroll edition, we also recommend as an alternative the abriged audio edition by Richard Dawkins, available at Audible.com. By special arrangement with Prof. Dawkins, we have on a website the text he used to produce the Audible.com version of the book. You can find that HERE.

Frigatebird in the Galapagos Islands.

A course in our time slot normally ends around 4.45 PM. However, we have reserved Lecture Theatre A5 for the two hours that follow the lecture. This will allow us to take advantage of the chance to see some the marvelous films and documentaries relevant to Darwin that have been produced over the last few years.

Darwin found the natives of Tierra del
Fuego "miserable, degraded savages,"
but blamed this on cultural lag rather
than racial inferiority.

Phil 220 will examine evolution in terms of (1) the history of the idea, going back to the Greeks, (2) the gradual emergence of the evolutionary thinking in the mind of the young Darwin, particularly during the voyage of the Beagle, (3) the structures of natural and sexual selection, (4) evidence for and criticisms of Darwinian evolution, (5) the impact of Darwinian evolution on religious thinking in the nineteenth century through till today, (6) extensions of evolution (clearly adumbrated by Darwin himself) into human psychology, including such areas of sociality, sexual life, moral feeling, and aesthetic response, and (7) some of the political controversies that have been incited by applications of evolutionary thinking to human affairs. In addition to this specific content, Darwin's Dangerous Idea will also teach more general skills in critical thinking, including how in general to assess the validity of scientific theories.

The peacock's tail is the most famous
example of Darwinian sexual selection.

Denis Dutton is Professor in the Philosophy Department. He is a founder and past president of the New Zealand Skeptics and a recipient of the Royal Society of New Zealand Medal for Services to Science and Technology. Prof. Dutton is the author of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution (Oxford University Press, 2009), the first systematic, general application of Darwinian principles to aesthetic responses and the arts. Other lecturers will include Prof. Jack Copeland of the Philosophy Department, who will lecture on creationism. Mick Whittle M.A., tutor for the course, is a former teacher and journalist with a life-long interest in evolution. He is currently writing a Ph.D thesis on the political implications of Darwinian theory.

In preparation is a separate webpage linking to many audio and video files that will be useful for students as background for issues raised in the course.

The University's webpage for Phil 220, with relevant times, fees, prerequisites, etc., can be accessed by clicking here.



Lectures for Phil 220 are Wednesdays between 3.10 PM and approximately 4.45 PM. (Lecture Theatre A5). A two-hour block of time has been reserved in A5 following the lecture period. This will be used both for tutorial discussion and to show video material relevant to the course. The other tutorial time is Wednesdays, noon - 1.00 PM, History Bldg., room 508.

There will be a ninety-minute test on Wednesday, August 18th and a final examination (three hours) at a time that will be be determined by the University.

The famous 1859 first edition
of On The Origin of Species.

Students will write an essay on a topic covered by the course. A list a of suitable essay topics will be circulated. This essay should be approximately 1200 to 1500 words in length, and will be due Monday, October 18th. All work will count towards the final course mark. The test will count 25% toward the final mark, the essay 25%, and the examination 50%.

The main text for the course is The Greatest Show On Earth, by Richard Dawkins (Bantam Press, 2009). Recommended is Darwin's On the Origin of Species, edited by Joseph Carroll (Broadview Texts, 2003). These will be available in the University of Canterbury bookshop. Beyond this, supplementary material will be available as separate audio files suitable for any MP3 player. The Greatest Show On Earth (complete) and One the Origin of Species (abridged) are both available from Audible.com, read by Richard Dawkins. These are highly recommended, as is Dawkins's reading of excerpts of The Voyage of the Beagle.

There is no detailed weekly syllabus for the course. The progression of the twelve two-hour lectures will roughly follow the thirteen chapters of The Greatest Show on Earth.