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Theory of Evolution: A History of Controversy

Discover the "evolution" of evolution with an eye toward enhancing your understanding of the development of the theory itself and the roots of the controversies that surround it.
Theory of Evolution: A History of Controversy is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 103.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Worth it This course is focused on the historical aspects of the theory of evolution and made for an interesting journey through time to understand how it was developed, received, refined. It was worth learning about how science progresses, both via purely scientific advances, and in accordance with the characters involved and society's impacts.
Date published: 2024-01-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Important information Adds to existing knowledge for the average listener. I enjoyed the presentation.
Date published: 2022-11-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course Great course, well taught. The lectures provide a good balance of the science of evolution (for the layman) with the historic background leading to Darwin's publications and the resultant religious controversies, ongoing to this day in the case of evangelical christians. Only a guess but I suspect these same anti-evolutionary christians would have stood firmly on the side of the church had they lived in the times.of Copernicus and Galileo. Course recommended.
Date published: 2022-10-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Foundational Evolution Course Although the Great Course "Origins of Life" remains the academic standard for evolutionary courses, Larson's “Theory of Controversy: A History of Controversy" remains the best non-technical synopsis of evolution. This course plus Solomon's Great Course “What Darwin Didn't Know” are a good basis for understanding how we arrive at modern evolutionary theory. As Larson and Solomon show, evolutionary theory remains a work in progress. PROS: I do not dwell on the PROS of this course because they are so numerous. However, here are a few striking examples: 1.) Larson is marvelously accurate in portraying historic foibles of “Social Science” making political opinion sound “scientific" and its constant struggles from early eugenics (L8) to when “Evolutionary Psychology” was forced to concede: “people enjoy a measure of control over their instincts not shared by other animals” (L12). This latter conclusion admits the concept of “Free Will” that I mention later. 2.) After relating almost innumerable historical religious viewpoints as being retrospectively "unscientific", Larson ends well on both on law professor Phillip Johnson’s POV: “science should not a priori exclude supernatural causes for natural phenomena” and on Michael Behe’s work on integrative molecular biochemistry (a topic well developed in the Great Course “Stress and your Body" by Sapolsky). CONS: A few Logical Fallacies hinder even Larson’s excellent course. As J. Rufus Fears states (in the scope of his Great Course "The World Was Never the Same"): "Science is never ‘pure’ science. It is the product of the political and intellectual currents of its time.” Therefore, the following fallacies need addressed: 1.) AD HOMINEM LOGICAL FALLACY (“uneducated people believe that”): L12 posits a "disconnect between scientific and popular opinion " on evolution based on "surveys of scientists". This assumes all “scientists" have studied evolution in detail (the vast majority have not – which actually puts most scientists in the “uneducated people believe that” category). Further evidence lies at our feet: many Great Courses students are NOT scientists but understand a great deal about evolution, given its vast coverage in Wondrium, etc. 2.) GENETIC FALLACY (ideas are rejected on the basis of their origin). As so many Great Courses demonstrate, error-prone science remains but a shadow of what is out there. Larson rightly portrays science as constantly amending itself, thereby improving its conclusions. However, when Christians (or Muslims or Jews) re-interpret the Bible based on the gained knowledge, Larson suggests Biblical error. 3.) FALSE DILEMMA (a restricted set of options are given when there are actually more available): When discussing the troubling (for materialistic evolutionary theory) concepts of love and consciousness, Larson does fairly, but he leaves out any concept of Free Will. All parents have watched children purposefully misbehave to test their mentors. Most such observers would conclude that such behavior is not due to Dawkins' (L12) “selfish gene robotic control" but rather represents willful misbehavior. Free Will also suggests that if there is a God, his creation does NOT include points where he is obliged to step in to adjust evolution (L2 on): such obvious display would negate Free Will…a major dilemma Larson avoids. CLOSING REMARKS: Complexity accurately reflects Larson’s "Theory of Evolution". I close by emphasizing Michael Behe's (L12) ideas on integrative organ systems. As a student of nonlinear systems (see Great Course “Chaos" by Strogatz) and integrative biochemistry, I have given lectures on how an organ (basically a collection of independent, identical cells) can communicate in real time with other organs to produce extraordinarily finely tuned responses via mechanics beyond hormonal control. However, when complex systems are subjected to massive perturbations they sometimes recover by reorganizing. If an organ, it sometimes reorganizes output to satisfy the unusual input chatter. If a species, they sometimes evolve. Behe's main insight on evolutionary systems is that nonlinear integration of species systems trump inconceivably lucky evolution. Larson’s "Theory of Evolution" is to be praised for presenting both schools of thought.
Date published: 2022-07-25
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Just so-so Excellent content but the presentation becomes “um, ah, um, um” very distracting. The presenter writes much better than he speaks! Suggest reading his books versus watching the course.
Date published: 2022-04-22
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Where is it? I ordered this about 6 weeks ago but as it hasn't arrived I can't do a review
Date published: 2022-03-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good course Good course. Balanced approach giving all sides of the issue.
Date published: 2022-02-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent lectures on the history and motivations I am quite familiar with the evolution and creationist history, with some involvement with teaching problems of science in Texas. This series examines the thinking and motivations behind both scientists and those blinded by religion.
Date published: 2021-11-01
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What makes evolution such a profoundly provocative concept, so convincing to most scientists, yet so socially and politically divisive? The Theory of Evolution: A History of Controversy is an examination of the varied elements that so often make this science the object of strong sentiments and heated debate. Professor Edward J. Larson leads you through the "evolution" of evolution, with an eye toward enhancing your understanding of the development of the theory itself and the roots of the controversies that surround it. In these lectures you will: explore pre-Darwinian theories on the origins of life; examine the history of evolutionary science after Darwin; trace the history of objections to evolution; and much more.


Edward J. Larson

Exploring biology is the ultimate adventure for us and for life itself. It leads outward beyond the ends of the earth and inward to our very own DNA.


Pepperdine University

Dr. Edward J. Larson is University Professor and Hugh & Hazel Darling Chair in Law at Pepperdine University. He earned a B.A. from Williams College and a J.D. from Harvard University. He also holds an M.A. and a Ph.D. in the History of Science from the University of Wisconsin- Madison. He previously taught at the University of Georgia and served as Associate Counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor. While at the University of Georgia, Professor Larson received several teaching awards, including the Richard B. Russell Award for Undergraduate Teaching. He also received the George Sarton Award for Science History from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Dr. Larson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History for his book, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion. He is the author of three other books and more than 50 articles for such publications as Nature, Scientific American, The Atlantic, and The Wall Street Journal.

By This Professor

Before Darwin

01: Before Darwin

By 1800, biblical and other ancient accounts of origins dissatisfied many scientifically sophisticated Europeans. French naturalist Georges Cuvier concluded that history was punctuated by epochs of life-destroying catastrophes, with distinctive species populating each epoch. This was the leading scientific theory of origins during Charles Darwin's youth.

31 min
Evolution in the Air

02: Evolution in the Air

The idea that species evolve from pre-existing species gained currency early in the 19th century. The emerging fossil record and developments in geology laid a foundation for evolution theory. A new notion of geological formation, Charles Lyell's gradualist theory, was the springboard for Darwin's thinking about evolution.

31 min
Darwin's Inspiration

03: Darwin's Inspiration

Charles Darwin set sail aboard the "H. M. S. Beagle" in 1831 as the ship's naturalist. Inspired by Lyell's "Principles of Geology," which he read on the voyage, Darwin was persuaded by his observations on the Galapagos Islands that existing species evolved from pre-existing ones. He struggled to refine his theory until 1858, when he learned that Alfred Wallace had hit on the same idea.

31 min
An Intellectual Revolution

04: An Intellectual Revolution

"On the Origin of Species" spawned an ongoing revolution in human thought. Although Darwin's theory did not preclude belief in God, it dispensed with the need to believe in a supernatural creator. As extended in "Descent of Man," Darwin's thinking excluded God as the creator of humans. The study of man and nature became an investigation of natural, not supernatural, causes.

31 min
Debates over Mechanism

05: Debates over Mechanism

By 1875 virtually all biologists in Europe and America adopted an evolutionary perspective. Yet, even as they accepted the basic idea that species evolve, biologists doubted the sufficiency of Darwin's theory of natural selection. Alternative theories flourished, cushioning the impact of evolutionary science for traditional social and religious beliefs.

31 min
Missing Links

06: Missing Links

By 1900 technical arguments on evolution that appealed to scientists failed to persuade the public, particularly the notion that humans evolved from apes. Beginning late in the 19th century, those intent on proving evolution hunted for "missing links" in the fossil record. Any such missing links became front-page news and boosted popular acceptance of evolution.

31 min
Genetics Enters the Picture

07: Genetics Enters the Picture

At the dawn of the 20th century, biologists still believed that evolution happened, but there was no consensus on how it operated. As often happens in science, answers came from an unexpected source: the 35-year-old work of Gregor Mendel.

31 min
Social Darwinism and Eugenics

08: Social Darwinism and Eugenics

Even before Darwin published his theory in 1859, Herbert Spencer proposed that a survival-of-the-fittest process drove social progress. With the rise of Darwinian biology, such thinking gained credence under the banner of "social Darwinism." One result was the eugenics movement, a social crusade advocating more children from genetically fit parents and fewer children from genetically unfit ones.

31 min
America's Anti-Evolution Crusade

09: America's Anti-Evolution Crusade

Decades of popular concern erupted during the 1920s into a crusade by conservative American Protestants against teaching evolution in public schools. The issue reached a public climax in 1925, when a schoolteacher named John Scopes challenged Tennessee's new law against teaching evolution.

30 min
The Neo-Darwinian Synthesis

10: The Neo-Darwinian Synthesis

By the 1940s biologists reached a consensus on how the evolutionary process worked. Evolution was a purely materialistic process driven by the natural selection of random variation at the genetic level. This so-called modern or neo-Darwinian synthesis was more fully Darwinian than Darwin's own conclusions.

30 min
Scientific Creationism

11: Scientific Creationism

Commemorating the centennial of "On the Origin of Species" in 1959, scientists hailed the triumph of a consensus theory of evolution. They largely ignored the anti-evolutionism that marked conservative Christianity in America. If anything, however, the rise of neo-Darwinism heightened tensions between traditional religious beliefs and modern scientific thought.

30 min
Selfish Genes and Intelligent Design

12: Selfish Genes and Intelligent Design

Americans remain divided by the origins debate. The God-less theory of origins dominates science. But the public believes overwhelmingly in a supernatural source of life and individual species. The debate over origins remains as intense as ever.

30 min