The Genius of Darwin: What He Got Right, and What He Got Wrong

University of Pennsylvania

Susan Lindee is a Janice and Julian Bers Professor of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the Associate Dean for the School of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Lindee has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Burroughs Wellcome Fund 40th Anniversary Award, as well as support from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Wenner-Gren Foundation.


Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species presented one of the most important ideas in the history of human thought. Darwin’s impact over the last 150 years cannot be overstated: his ideas have provided the central organizing core for modern evolutionary science. But DNA had not been discovered, and therefore Darwin could not have foreseen the complexities of modern genetics. He did not understand that certain situations that occur in nature could confer advantages upon organisms that worked as a group, instead of as selfish individuals. This fascinating class will bring us up to date on Darwin’s remarkable theory which has survived a century-and-a-half of rigorous scientific skepticism and scrutiny.



Professor Lindee’s Recommended Reading:

Charles Darwin: Evolutionary Writings, by James Secord

Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography, by Janet Browne (2006)

Charles Darwin: Voyaging, by Janet Browne (1996)

Charles Darwin: The Power of Place, by Janet Browne (2003)

Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection, by Evelleen Richards


Discussion Questions:

  1. As a Victorian gentleman, Darwin had access to resources that the British empire made readily accessible, including his remarkable voyage on the HMS Beagle.  And as Karl Marx observed, Darwin’s ideas about nature and competition perfectly mirrored the capitalist competition of industrializing Britain.  Darwin saw in nature what he saw in society.  Should we see him as a remarkable genius, or as a product of the circumstances of privilege and opportunity that characterized his life?
  2. Evolution has been seen as both consistent with faith and a challenge to faith–it was seen that way in his own time and is still seen that way today. What aspects of his theory of evolution have made it so controversial?
  3. Darwin misunderstood the sources of variation, invented non-existent gemmules that traveled around gathering information in the body, thought all heredity was blending, and was deeply confused by social instincts and by the complexity of animal behavior. Given all of his mistakes and blind spots, should we still give him so much credit today?





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Maggie Olmstead


I learned a lot about the research, politics and public opinion that surrounded the development of the theory of evolution.

2 years ago
Pete Che'


Enjoyable presentation with great information and insights into Darwin.

1 year ago
Jonathan Rogan


Very well presented and extremely interesting

6 months ago
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