Darwinism: history of a very big idea

Subject HPSC20001 (2013)

Note: This is an archived Handbook entry from 2013.

Credit Points: 12.50
Level: 2 (Undergraduate)
Dates & Locations:

This subject has the following teaching availabilities in 2013:

Semester 2, Parkville - Taught on campus.
Pre-teaching Period Start not applicable
Teaching Period not applicable
Assessment Period End not applicable
Last date to Self-Enrol not applicable
Census Date not applicable
Last date to Withdraw without fail not applicable


Timetable can be viewed here. For information about these dates, click here.
Time Commitment: Contact Hours: 3 (2x1 hour lectures per week and 1x 1 hour tutorial for 11 weeks)
Total Time Commitment:

An average of 8.5 hours each week





Recommended Background Knowledge:

Knowledge gained in at least 75 points of first year study.

Non Allowed Subjects:

Students who have completed 'Darwinism under the codes 136-029, 136-329 or 672-315 are not permitted to enrol in this subject. Students who have completed 'Darwinism' under the code HPSC30004 are not permitted to enrol in this subject.

Core Participation Requirements:

For the purposes of considering request for Reasonable Adjustments under the disability Standards for Education (Cwth 2005), and Students Experiencing Academic Disadvantage Policy, academic requirements for this subject are articulated in the Subject Description, Subject Objectives, Generic Skills and Assessment Requirements of this entry.The University is dedicated to provide support to those with special requirements. Further details on the disability support scheme can be found at the Disability Liaison Unit website: http://www.services.unimelb.edu.au/disability/


Dr James Bradley


Dr James Bradley


Subject Overview:

Darwinism provides students with an exciting introduction to Charles Darwin's big idea: the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. It also explores the huge social and cultural impact of the theory. We begin with the pre-Darwinian cosmos, a place where an omnipotent God designed and ordained the natural world, and where nature was viewed through the lens of the Bible. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries this view was challenged by scientists and philosophers. We explore the impact of these ideas, particularly: the new geology that challenged the Biblical stories of Creation and the Great Flood; the observations of plants and animals that began to suggest common descent; the evolutionary theories that preceded Darwin's own; and the fraught socio-economic context that arguably helped inspire Darwin's vision of a natural world steeped in struggle. Particular emphasis is placed upon Darwin's life, and the influence of society and culture upon his outlook. Here we explore the voyage of the Beagle as a watershed in Darwin's life and thinking. For five years he criss-crossed the oceans and circumnavigated the world, collecting specimens and observing nature. His experiences upon the voyage led him to question contemporary approaches to the origins of species, and to develop his own theory of evolution. But for many years he did not make his theory public, only admitting them to a close circle of friends, until a letter from Alfred Wallace prompted him hurriedly to write Origin of Species in 1859. The appearance of Origin caused a sensation, and we explore the vigorous debates that ensued. We then chart how Darwin’s theory was challenged and refined by generations of biologists, particularly followers of Mendelian genetics. But equally important, is are the ways evolutionary theory was applied to the Big questions of religion, politics, warfare, colonialism, economics, as well as race, class and gender. We conclude with a discussion of Darwin's legacy both in terms of the relationship between science and religion, and the emergence of evolutionary approaches to understanding the human mind and behaviour.

For further subject information please visit: http://shaps.unimelb.edu.au/students/undergraduate/handbook-study-guides.html


Upon successful completion of this subject, students are expected to possess:

  • an effective grasp of the history and historiography of Darwin and evolutionary theory.
  • a sound critical ability, enabling the effective analysis and synthesis of subject materials
  • the ability to form and express a clear and sophisticated opinion about Darwin and Darwinism both to experts and to interested outsiders
  • the ability to extend learning beyond subject materials, enhancing independent research skills, and thus gaining valuable tools for life-learning, and
  • knowledge and experience that address significant aspects of the University’s graduate attributes, especially academic excellence, and knowledge across disciplines

Tutorial assignment of 1500 words 35% (due mid-semester) and a 2500-word essay 65% (due at the end of semester).

Hurdle requirement: students must attend a minimum of 75% of tutorials in order to pass this subject. Regular participation in tutorials is required. Assessment submitted late without an approved extension will be penalised at 10% per day; after five working days late assessment will not be marked. In-class tasks missed without approval will not be marked. All pieces of written work must be submitted to pass this subject.


Prescribed Texts:
  • Janet Browne, Darwin’s Origin of Species: A Biography (New York: Grove Press, 2008)
Breadth Options:

This subject potentially can be taken as a breadth subject component for the following courses:

You should visit learn more about breadth subjects and read the breadth requirements for your degree, and should discuss your choice with your student adviser, before deciding on your subjects.

Fees Information: Subject EFTSL, Level, Discipline & Census Date
Generic Skills:
  • develop skills in written and oral communication.
  • conduct independent research.
  • make appropriate use of primary and secondary sources in mounting an argument.
  • form defensible judgements based on a critical evaluation of conflicting arguments.
Links to further information: http://hps.unimelb.edu.au/

This subject is available for 2nd year science credit for students enrolled in the BSc (pre-2008 degree only), or a pre-2008 combined BSc course (except for the BA/BSc). For science third year, see HPSC30008 (Darwinism (Science 3). HPSC30008 is not available as Breadth and is for pre-2008 science 3rd year only. See HPS major at: https://handbook.unimelb.edu.au/view/2013/!755-BB-MAJ%2B1017

Related Majors/Minors/Specialisations: History and Philosophy of Science
History and Philosophy of Science
History and Philosophy of Science
History and Philosophy of Science Major
Science credit subjects* for pre-2008 BSc, BASc and combined degree science courses
Related Breadth Track(s): Understanding Nature
Science and its Margins

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