Before Darwin, there was no way to explain the incredible diversity and functionality of life without invoking a deity. Darwin showed how a diversity of forms well adapted to their environments could evolve by a natural process. The elements of his theory–variation, heritability, and selection–are so simple that anyone can understand them, yet their consequences are so profound that they are still being worked out today.
Using evolution to understand our own species is especially new. Darwin and his colleagues were keenly interested in studying all aspects of humanity from an evolutionary perspective, but this inquiry led in directions that can be recognized as false in retrospect. Cultural evolution was envisioned as a linear progression with European societies most advanced. Herbert Spencer and others used evolution to justify a hierarchical society (“Social Darwinism”). Janet Browne’s magnificent 2-volume biography of Darwin and his times (Voyaging and The Power of Place) suggest that these views were inevitable against the background of Victorian culture. Instead of challenging the support that evolutionary theory lent to these views, the theory as a whole became off-limits for many human-related disciplines during most of the 20th century. The controversy surrounding the publication of E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975 illustrates the tenor of the times.
This situation is rapidly changing—but only during the last 10 or 15 years. Virtually every human-related subject is now being approached from an evolutionary perspective—not only subjects typically associated with science, such as psychology and economics, but also subjects associated with the humanities, such as philosophy, literature, art, history, and religion. In many respects, the kind of conceptual unification that took place in the biological sciences during the 20th century is happening right now for our understanding of humanity, making this an exciting moment in intellectual history.
EvoS is arguably the first program that attempts to incorporate these developments into the structure of higher education. Our goal is to make evolutionary theory a common language for the study of all subjects relevant to the natural world and human affairs. Students from all departments are provided an opportunity to learn about evolution early and to develop their knowledge throughout their academic careers. They discover how a few basic and easily understood principles can be used to think intelligently about a wide range of subjects (breadth), and to increase professional competence in their own chosen field (depth).
This tutorial section of the EvoS website provides resources for you to quickly get started on your own.
Learning about basic evolutionary theory.
Many books and websites already do a good job of teaching basic evolutionary theory, as it has developed in the biological sciences. See the books and websites sections of this website for a guide. For books, I particularly recommend The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, What Evolution Is by Ernst Mayr, and Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea by Carl Zimmer. I also recommend the Understanding Evolution website maintained by the University of California at Berkeley, which includes an Evolution 101 tutorial.
The EvoS approach.
What makes EvoS special is the realization that evolutionary theory will probably never be widely accepted–no matter how well supported by facts–until its consequences for human affairs are fully addressed. For a short description of the EvoS approach, see my 2005 article in Public Library of Science (PLoS) Biology titled “Evolution for Everyone: How to Increase Acceptance Of, Interest In, and Knowlege About Evolution” (PDF). For a book length description, see my recently published Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives (Bantam, 2007). For a course-length introduction, our popular introductory course “Evolution for Everyone” (Biol 105) is now available to anyone as an online course.
The recently launched Evolutionary Religious Studies (ERS) website includes a “Beginner’s Guide” section that serves as a tutorial for other human-related subjects as well. It includes answers to questions such as “How can something as cultural as religion be studied from an evolutionary perspective?”, “If cultural evolution refers to any kind of cultural change, doesn’t it explain nothing by expaining everything?”, and “What is the relationship between evolutionary theory and other theoretical perspectives?”
Evolutionary theory is remarkable for the ease with it can be learned and incorporated into one’s worldview. Enjoy!