Free Course: “Darwin and Design” Examines Philosophical Questions of Intelligence and Human Behavior

Darwin’s the­o­ry of evo­lu­tion by nat­ur­al selec­tion pro­vid­ed a sci­en­tif­ic answer to a philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion: must design imply a design­er? To the dis­may and dis­be­lief of many of Darwin’s con­tem­po­raries, and a great many still, his the­o­ry can answer the ques­tion in the neg­a­tive. But there are many more ques­tions yet to ask about seem­ing­ly designed sys­tems, such as those posed by Alan Tur­ing and John Sear­le: might such orga­nized sys­tems, nat­ur­al and man­made, them­selves be intel­li­gent? The his­to­ry of these inquiries among philoso­phers, sci­en­tists, and writ­ers is the sub­ject of Prof. James Par­adis’ MIT course, “Dar­win and Design.” The class explores such a diverse range of texts as Aristotle’s Physics, the Bible, Adam’s Smith’s Wealth of Nations, William Gibson’s Neu­ro­mancer, and of course, Darwin’s Ori­gin of Species.

Along­side the sci­en­tif­ic con­clu­sions so-called “Dar­win­ism” draws are the impli­ca­tions for human self-under­stand­ing. Giv­en the thou­sands of years in which human­i­ty placed itself at the cen­ter of the uni­verse, and the few hun­dred in which it at least held fast to con­cepts of its spe­cial cre­ation, what, asks Prof. Par­adis, does Dar­win­ism mean “for ideas of nature and of mankind’s place there­in?” The class explores this ques­tion through “man­i­fes­ta­tions of such unde­signed worlds in lit­er­ary texts” both clas­si­cal and con­tem­po­rary. See the full course descrip­tion below:

Humans are social ani­mals; social demands, both coop­er­a­tive and com­pet­i­tive, struc­ture our devel­op­ment, our brain and our mind. This course cov­ers social devel­op­ment, social behav­iour, social cog­ni­tion and social neu­ro­science, in both human and non-human social ani­mals. Top­ics include altru­ism, empa­thy, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the­o­ry of mind, aggres­sion, pow­er, groups, mat­ing, and moral­i­ty. Meth­ods include evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gy, neu­ro­science, cog­ni­tive sci­ence, social psy­chol­o­gy and anthro­pol­o­gy.

Prof. Par­adis taught the class in the Fall of 2010, but thanks to MIT’s Open Course­ware, all of the lec­tures (above), assign­ments, and course mate­ri­als are freely avail­able, though you’ll have to pur­chase most of the texts (you can find some in our list of 500 free ebooks). You can’t reg­is­ter or receive cred­it for the course—so you can skip writ­ing the papers and meet­ing  dead­lines of around 100 pages of read­ing per week—but if you work through some or all of the lec­tures and assigned read­ings, Prof. Par­adis promis­es an enlight­en­ing “his­tor­i­cal foun­da­tion for under­stand­ing a rich lit­er­ary tra­di­tion, as well as many assump­tions held by peo­ple in many con­tem­po­rary cul­tures.” Giv­en that this is an MIT course, Prof. Par­adis assumes some famil­iar­i­ty on the part of his stu­dents with the basic Dar­win­ian con­cepts and con­tro­ver­sies. For a broad overview of Dar­win’s impor­tance to a wide vari­ety of fields, take a look at Stan­ford’s online lec­ture series “Dar­win’s Lega­cy.”

“Dar­win and Design” is but one of over 800 free online cours­es we’ve com­piled, includ­ing many on evo­lu­tion, anthro­pol­o­gy, phi­los­o­phy, and cog­ni­tive sci­ence.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Genius of Charles Dar­win Revealed in Three-Part Series by Richard Dawkins

Dar­win: A 1993 Film by Peter Green­away

Charles Darwin’s Son Draws Cute Pic­tures on the Man­u­script of On the Ori­gin of Species

875 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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