SCIE 639
Darwin's Dangerous Idea: The Science of Natural Selection

Michael Xavier Kirby

Course Description

The theory of natural selection is one of the most elegantly simple, yet most profound, ideas ever conceived. With it, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace found a mechanism that could explain the fact of evolution. For from this simple idea, springs forth an explanation for all of the amazing diversity of life that we see on the planet Earth. Why is natural selection such a profound idea? And why is it so dangerous that many in our society find it difficult to accept? In this course, we will examine the science and history behind the theory of natural selection and its broader implications. We will particularly examine the fossil evidence (i.e., paleontology) for (and against) natural selection as the causative agent for evolution.

Course Structure

Classes will consist of lectures and guided discussions of the science and history of the theory of natural selection. We will explore topics concerning natural selection through the primary scientific literature (i.e., original book and journal articles), starting with the work of Darwin and Wallace. The point of view of the course will be from paleontology (i.e., how the fossil record informs us concerning issues relating to evolution and natural selection).


In this course, you will be asked to complete three reports. These reports will be along the lines of essays, where you will conceptualize and integrate the topics discussed in class. All observations, inferences, and positions presented in these reports should be supported by references drawn from the primary literature.


Readings and sources for the course include Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection; Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea; Ernst Mayr, What Evolution Is; and selected articles from the primary scientific literature.


Class participation is 25%.

First research report is 20%.

Second research report is 25%.

Third research report is 30%.

Class Topics Readings and Assignments

Class 1

What is evolution?

What is natural selection? (An algorithm)

Darwin: Chapters 1-4

Dennett: Chapters 1-2

Wallace, 1858

Class 2

Evidence for evolution and natural selection from the fossil record 

Darwin: Chapter 13

Mayr: Chapters 1, 2

Selected articles 

Class 3

The Cambrian Explosion and other problems for natural selection


Darwin: Chapter 10

Mayr: Chapter 3

Dennett: Chapters 4 

Class 4

Variation, adaptation, and anagenesis:

Sky hooks and cranes 

Darwin: Chapter 5

Mayr: Chapters 4-7

Dennett: Chapters 3, 5-6 

Class 5

Whales with feet, dinosaurs with feathers, and other “missing links” 

Darwin: Chapter 6

Selected articles

*****First report due***** 

Class 6

Branching evolution (cladogenesis) and the origin of species


Mayr: Chapters 8-9

Dennett: Chapters 1-3

Selected articles 

Class 7

Extinction is the end of evolution 

Mayr: Chapter 10

Selected articles 

Class 8

How did humans evolve? 

Mayr: Chapter 11

Selected articles 

Class 9

Natural selection, morality, and religion 

Dennett: Chapters 12-18

*****Second report due***** 

Class 10

Natural selection and education 
Selected articles

Class 11

Darwin among the machines 

Dennett: Chapters 7-9

Selected articles


Class 12

Discussions and conclusions 

Mayr: Chapter 12

Selected articles

*****Third report due*****