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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Legacy of Charles Darwin: Interdisciplinary Public Lecture Series


At the end of On the Origin of Species, Darwin wrote that "in the distant future I see open fields for more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation. Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history…". His words sound optimistic, radiant with promise but, even before 1859, Darwin was fully conscious that the theory of evolution would deliver a mighty blow to all dualistic conceptions of human being, theological, philosophical or scientific. He saw that, in the future, human beings would have to face up to their fears that the fundamental division between humans and the rest of creation might be undermined by a scientific theory which finally insists that all natural organisms share a common ancestry - and destiny.

Since Darwin pronounced these famous words, his theory of evolution, and what Daniel Dennett has referred to as that "dangerous idea" of natural selection, have impacted upon almost every area of our existence as human beings and on almost every discipline in the modern academy. Since the modern synthesis of Darwin and Mendel and the early work of population geneticists in the first half of the twentieth century, to the gradual rise of modern molecular biology and neo-Darwinism from the 1950s, Darwin's theory of evolution based on natural selection has become one of the most successful and widely accepted, yet also one of the most controversial scientific theories of all time. Concerned with our origins and our ends as human beings, it is no wonder that Darwin's theory of evolution has come to play such a significant role. We live in a complex, multicultural and technology-driven Western world which has been forced to reformulate perennial questions of human identity, value and purpose in the wake of Enlightenment. Just as genetics has opened up the vision of a Frankensteinian post-human, so evolutionary theory has provided arguments to fortify more traditional accounts of human nature. Darwin's legacy is diverse, controversial and fascinating; so much so, that we perhaps do better to speak of 'legacies'. Versions of evolutionary theory have challenged orthodoxy in disciplines across the arts and humanities and the social as well as natural sciences: evolutionary psychology, evolutionary ethics, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary musicology, theories of the origins of language, moral sentiment, aesthetic expression, social behaviour and cultural formation.

Outline of Lecture Programme

In this lecture series, distinguished scholars from disciplines across the arts, humanities and social sciences will explore the multiple, controversial and complex cultural legacies of Darwin's ideas. Opening lectures will explore the impact of Darwin's ideas on Victorian culture and will conclude with an examination of some of the abuses of the theory of natural selection in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the idea was taken up in racial, eugenic and social theories. A group of lectures will then focus on some of the current debates around neo-Darwinism, in particular, identifying and interrogating the debate around altruism retriggered with the publication of Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene and arguments concerning relations between genes, individuals and social groups. How far can Darwin's ideas offer the basis for a theory of human nature? Where, if at all, might the limits of relevance for Darwin's theories be set? Why are there fundamental controversies and differences between leading theorists of Darwinian ideas? In the final lectures of the series, leading literary and cultural critics and practitioners will examine some of the ways in which Darwin's ideas have been taken up in literature, film, music, popular culture and the visual arts from the 1890s to the present. Artists have explored the cultural resonances of Darwinian metaphors and expressed anxieties and hopes hidden in the interstices of scientific models. But perhaps they too have an important part to play in the scientific development and exploration of Darwin's theory of evolution.

Follow this link for details of the speakers contributing to this public lecture series.