Theory of Evolution: A History of Controversy

Course No. 174
Professor Edward J. Larson, Ph.D., J.D.
Pepperdine University
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Course No. 174
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Course Overview

Charles Darwin's theory of organic evolution—the idea that life on earth is the product of purely natural causes, not the hand of God—set off shock waves that continue to reverberate through Western society, and especially the United States. 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 of the origins of life, from Genesis and the ancient Greeks to such 18th- and 19th-century scientists as Georges Cuvier and Chevalier de Lamarck
  • Follow the life and work of Charles Darwin, and the impact of his 1859 masterpiece, On the Origin of Species. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection was immediately recognized as a threat to traditional religion, but was quickly accepted (the first printing of Origin of Species sold out on the first day)
  • Examine the history of evolutionary science after Darwin—a fascinating story that includes the "rediscovery," after 35 years, of Gregor Mendel's work on genetic variation; the unearthing of prehominid, or early human, fossils by Raymond Dart in 1925 and the Leakey family in the 1950s; and the confusion created by the sensational, but later discredited, discovery of Piltdown Man—a fake evolutionary "missing link"—in 1912
  • Trace the history of religious objections to evolution, from those of Darwin's own time to contemporary efforts to teach creation science in American schools. This includes a detailed discussion of the famous Scopes "monkey trial," which in fact was a staged media event, designed to create publicity for the town of Dayton, Tennessee.

Are Our Genes more Important than We Are?

This course makes it clear that the history of controversy surrounding evolution is not limited to a dispute between science and religion. Even within the scientific community, the fine details of the theory of evolution have long been a matter of passionate dispute.

In fact, in the last third of the 19th century, the principal objections were scientific, not religious. Although the fossil record was a key piece of evidence for evolution, it had gaps that could be used to argue against the theory. And both proponents and critics wondered how altruistic human qualities such as love and generosity could possibly have evolved through the competitive, often harsh, processes that Darwin described.

From Professor Larson's presentation, you will learn that new ideas in evolution science have often created new controversies. For example, is it truly possible, as some scientists now maintain, that humans exist merely to ensure the survival of their genes? Such research has created disagreement among scientists about the degree to which evolution drives human behavior, and has further alienated many segments of the public.

Evolution's "Dark Side": Social Darwinism

In these lectures, you will review perhaps the most sinister controversy associated with the theory of evolution: social Darwinism. From the beginning, the Darwinian theory of evolution has been linked to economic and political views. Thomas Malthus's theories of population growth and competition for limited resources even inspired Darwin's thinking on natural selection.

Unfortunately, later supporters of evolution carried this line of thinking too far. Beginning with Herbert Spencer, who coined the term "survival of the fittest," Darwin's ideas were used as evidence for a wide range of social beliefs, from laissez-faire capitalism to racism, colonialism, and, in perhaps the worst application, Nazism. In the United States, social Darwinism has served as a basis for the creation of IQ tests and for eugenics programs that resulted in the forced sterilization of thousands of mentally ill or retarded Americans.

Unsettling Implications: The Growing Gulf Between Science and Religion

During the late 19th century, largely through the efforts of scientists who sought to integrate evolutionary science with spiritual belief, evolution was widely accepted by the religious community in the United States. Today, this is hardly the case.

In his last four lectures, Professor Larson examines the trends that have, since 1920, widened the gulf between science and religion. These include an increase in fundamentalist Protestantism, the weakening of liberal Protestantism as a counteracting force, and the growing power of a firmly conservative South.

In the 1960s, federally funded neo-Darwinian textbooks provoked a conservative backlash. Beginning with the publication of Henry M. Morris's The Genesis Flood, efforts to gain equal time for the teaching of creation science, based on biblical teachings, gathered strength. Rebuffed by the courts, creationism continues to thrive through the increasing numbers of private Christian schools and through home schooling.

The growing gulf between science and religion has unsettling implications for our society. Large segments of the American population reject the naturalism of current evolutionary thinking. Nine of 10 Americans believe in spiritual causes for life, with only 10 percent accepting the purely naturalistic explanations espoused by evolution. Strikingly, these statistics are almost exactly the opposite among the scientific community.

A Pulitzer Prize-Winning Teacher

As both a historian of science and a professor of law, Professor Edward J. Larson brings exceptional qualifications to this subject. His book, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in History. His analysis provides an invaluable perspective on the volatile history of what is arguably the single most significant idea of modern times.

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12 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    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. x
  • 2
    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. x
  • 3
    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. x
  • 4
    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. x
  • 5
    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. x
  • 6
    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. x
  • 7
    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. x
  • 8
    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. x
  • 9
    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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x

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Your professor

Edward J. Larson

About Your Professor

Edward J. Larson, Ph.D., J.D.
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...
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Theory of Evolution: A History of Controversy is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 91.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Biased presentation Professor Larson presents this course more as an apologist for evolution than he does as a historian. His bias in favor of evolution and his prejudice against any intelligent designer is all too apparent.
Date published: 2019-10-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good Overview for the Lay Scientist This course provides carefully considered historical, religious, and social context for looking at the theory of evolution, including its development, its revisions, and the conflicts between overwhelming scientific consensus and public opinion in the United States and Europe in particular. The professor's engaging lectures provide a myriad of jumping-off points for a person wanting to learn more about the topic, and he does not confine the subject matter to the 19th and early 20th centuries; the work of E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins also enters the picture in the final lecture, discussing their theories on how altruism can be found in social animals whom "social Darwinists" would have declared hard-wired toward survival and reproduction above all else. Religiously motivated rejecters of evolution are given a respectful discussion throughout, but this listener was left wondering how much more we might understand about our species and the world right now if there hadn't been so much resistance to this particular path of scientific discovery.
Date published: 2019-04-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wanted to understand I wanted to better understand what all the to-do over this topic was about. I didn't want lectures going too deep into the details and this overview fit the bill perfectly. I found the "evolution" of positions on evolution quite interesting and now better understand where people are coming from. Before this class I had uneducated views leading me astray. Think I am better prepared now. Thank you Professor Larson!
Date published: 2019-04-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating material, masterfully delivered I have not finished the program - just a few lectures in; so perhaps this review is a bit premature. Still, I am really enjoying the course. The material is fascinating. The 30 minute lectures are a perfect length. The professor presents in a masterful manner and he makes history come alive. He occasionally gets tripped up on a sentence, here or there, which frankly makes me enjoy his lectures even more; it's a fascinating conversation, not a slick polished performance. I highly recommend the program, if this is an area that is of some interest to you.
Date published: 2018-12-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good overview of the subject I went through this course immediately on receiving it, as it has always been an interesting subject to me. The instructor does a good job of outlining the background of the development of evolution theory, going well before Darwin. He also covers the various competing ideas about the mechanism of evolution leading up to the "modern synthesis". He also covers the development of opposition to evolution covering "scientific creationism" and "intelligent design" for example, and spends some time on the issue of why and how there has been a determined opposition to evolution especially in public schools. He does not "talk down" about such ideas, but the information he provides does strongly support the lack of any scientific basis for such opposition. Excellent on a difficult subject.
Date published: 2018-08-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good Introduction I did not know much about evolution before listening to this course. The lectures are well organized and the professor is easy to listen to. While this course may not make you an expert in the theory of evolution, it will help you better understand and follow the cultural debate concerning the theory. I have the audio streaming version of this course and I think that format works well for this course.
Date published: 2018-05-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Light Not Heat This course is recommended for anyone interested in the controversy swirling about evolution, particularly between evangelical Christians and secular scientists. To rephrase that, it is valuable for any such person regardless of which side the listener takes. Dr. Larson begins the short course (only 12 lectures) with the roots of evolution theory well before Charles Darwin. He then focuses on Darwin’s contribution to the theory: natural selection. (Evolution and natural selection are distinct subjects.) The theory was controversial from the day Origins of the Species was published. Interestingly, it received generally favorable reviews from Christians. For example, the person responsible for acceptance of Darwinism in the United States was Harvard botanist Asa Gray; Gray was an ardent Christian. Further, the two primary opponents of Darwinism in the first few decades were Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz and Richard Owen in Britain. They objected on scientific grounds that complex structures such as the eye or symbiosis of plants and insects could not have evolved. Darwin himself acknowledged the force of this argument. Neither Agassiz nor Owen was particularly religious. Dr. Larson claims that the objections were not answered and Darwin, acknowledging issues raised, called for more research. Rather, the opponents simply died out and the students of the opponents became Darwinists. [To me, that sounds like natural selection at work.] Based on problems raised by scientific experiments that explored how traits might change across successive generations, Darwinism had generally been dismissed by the scientific community by around 1900. However, it was resurrected (excuse the expression) with the nascent science of genetics. Thus, by the early 20th century, a Neo-Darwinism emerged with more solid scientific footing. Dr. Larson addresses the re-entrance of the conservative religious community into the area of evolution in the second half of the 20th century. Dr. Larson is an interesting choice for a course on evolution. He is not a scientist; he is a lawyer. However, he teaches the history of science and he does it well. His presentation skills are clear and well-organized but somewhat lacking emotion. (Perhaps it is necessary to be conscientiously even-keeled on so controversial a subject.) Personally, I think those reviewers who consider one of the best lecturers are overstating the case. His most important trait is that he is factual and even-handed. I could never tell what his personal opinions were. Thus, I consider this to be a very important presentation on a very emotional and controversial subject. I came to appreciate both sides of this debate (without necessarily agreeing) as a result of this even-handed treatment. I used the audio version and it was perfectly fine.
Date published: 2018-03-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Darwinian controversy I have heard the two courses TGC has to offer regarding Darwinian theory of evolution through natural selection – this one and “Darwinian Revolution”. I liked them both. The current one, as the name implies is more focused on the non-scientific aspects of the theory – the social and religious controversies it caused. Darwin’s theory was a direct blow to the biblical creation story as it basically disposes of a need for a supernatural creator, and it was (still is) hard for many to swallow. A substantial part of the lectures is devoted to getting acquainted with Darwin himself, and I found these to be particularly well done and worthwhile. The narrative of the theory becoming widely accepted continues, however, long after his death. It includes some very interesting and unexpected twists and turns. One of them was manipulation of his theory to serve as a foundation for racist theories such as social Darwinism and Eugenics. Professor Larson discusses these aspects at some length, including their manifestation in the USA which included quite massive, legally sanctioned, sterilization of so-called “feeble minded” people. A central theme was the dramatic public, peculiarly American battle between the secular, scientifically-based public which thought that evolution should be taught as a topic in school, and biblical fundamentalists which though that it is biased and runs opposite of their beliefs. Naturally, the Scopes trial was central in this discussion but there was much more content discussed that was new to me. Overall, I enjoyed the course and found it to give very good insight. The Professor was balanced and fair in his discussion, but it was clear that he was arguing the case from a scientific-historical perspective that is a-priori opposed to the religious one. The course was easily worth time and effort to hear it.
Date published: 2017-11-13
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