Modern Evolutionary Theory

Discipline: Biology
Instructor: Campbell
Credits: 3
Day: A
Start: 10:45
End: 12:00
Field Work: Day 1 | Belgium Download Syllabus

Darwinian evolution – the origin of species by means of natural selection – is a central principle of modern biology. It impacts all areas of biology from organismal to molecular and is the lens through which most new biological findings are viewed. It is also a politically divisive issue in contemporary US society but, as we will see during the voyage, it is much less so in the rest of the world. This course will explore the history of the notion of evolution and will review the evidence – evidence that was available to Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace in the mid-19th century and evidence of more recent origin – on which the modern theory is based. Necessary biological background will be provided as the course develops to permit a full comprehension of this evidence. Particular attention will be paid to the work of Alfred Russell Wallace, a working-class English naturalist and contemporary of Charles Darwin who did his early work in the Amazon Basin and who likely had the prior claim to discovering evolution’s secrets. Towards the end of the course, we will try to understand why evolution is such a divisive issue in the USA.

Special Requirements:
A high-school course that has covered cell biology, botany, zoology, systematics and basic molecular biology.

Field Work

Country: Belgium
Day: 1

Part A. Zoo visit -The class will walk from the ship to the Zoo to arrive by 10:00 am. After formal welcomes and introduction, Dr. Geroen Stevens, Staff zoologist, will present a lecture focusing on the contribution that a zoological garden can make to a student's understanding of the evolutionary process; he will also talk about the history of the Antwerp Zoo - it is one of the oldest zoos in the world (1843) - and the commitment of the Antwerp Zoo to animal conservation. Following the lecture, students will be able to interact with the speaker in a question/answer session. Thereafter, there will be a 1-hour docent-led orientation tour of the zoo; then, a break for lunch. After lunch (an out-of-pocket expense for each student) I will lead students back into specific exhibits (currently the bird and monkey houses) for more detailed discussion about species diversity. I will lead this discussion. We will return to the ship on foot. Within 5 days of the visit, I will require a 1000 word report on the topic "How a visit to a zoological garden enhanced my understanding of the evolutionary process". Participation in the zoo visit and the quality of this report will constitute 16% of the student's course grade. Part B. The Weasel Applet -Evolutionary skeptics believe that 'blind chance' is the basis of the evolutionary process. On this basis, they conclude that the "the development of a complex structure such as the mammalian eye by such blind chance, is as likely as having a monkey generate Shakespeare's Hamlet in one fell swoop by randomly typing letters on a typewriter/computer terminal". Such an understanding, however, fails to take into account that biological evolution is not obliged to get everything correct in one try; rather, it works successively over many, many generations improving by mutation and recombination the best outcomes of the previous generation. Such a process is called 'cumulative selection'. Based on the work of Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker, a simple Web-based Java applet ("The Weasel Applet",, which I will have the UVA Library place on the shop's roster of free sites) was written that illustrates cumulative selection quickly and well. Using a 68-character set (all upper- and lower-case letters of the alphabet, plus the ten digits and the six most common punctuation marks) 'evolves' a randomly generated character string into a target character string set by the user.