Degree course: 
Corso di First cycle degree in History and Stories of the Contemporary World
Academic year when starting the degree: 
Academic year in which the course will be held: 
Course type: 
Supplementary compulsory subjects
Second semester
Standard lectures hours: 
Detail of lecture’s hours: 
Lesson (64 hours)

No particular preliminary knowledge is required.

Final Examination: 

Only a final examination will take place. Some specific questions will be posed to the student in order to ascertain the acquisition of the above described knowledge and abilities. The final grade will be determined by the degree of acquisition of such expected knowledge and skills, with the following criteria which take properly into account of the interdisciplinary perspective characterizing the Degree Course: knowledge of the subjects dealt with (40%); synthetic and analytic skills (20%); ability to formulate autonomously a properly grounded critical judgment (20%); expression and language command (20%).

Voto Finale

Peculiar of biology (or “life science(s)”), in particular of the so-called “evolutionary biology”, is its statute of “historical science” (which is shared with geology and cosmology). Life, in fact, is history or, better, histories: history of the sequence of living beings starting form about 4 billions of years ago (“biological evolution” or “phylogenesis”), history from birth to extinction, when applicable, of each species, history of reproduction and development of each new individual (“ontogenesis” or, as it has been called for a long time from 17th to the end of 19th century, “evolution”), history of the appearance of life on Earth, that is of the “origins”. The figure of Charles Darwin, as the proponent of the theory of evolution by means of natural selection in the second half of 19th century, plays, and still continues to do so, a key role, which can however be understood only when placed in its historical context, from the end of XVIII century to the present.

On the basis of these premises, the course’s aims are the following:
• to critically analyze the history of the ideas on “history/es of life” that have been proposed from the end of 17th century to date, in a bi-directional journey between present and past: what the French historian Marc Bloch has called “judiciously regressive method”.
• To discuss if and how this typically historically approach can be extended from events and ideas to life itself, on which (in the three above sketched meanings: phylogenesis, ontogenesis, origins) many stories (narratives) have on the other hand been written across the centuries, lately those based on Darwinian ideas.
• To relate what exposed in the previous points to the social and cultural contemporary debates.

One should then be able to possibly draw a parallel between the “historian’s craft” (Marc Bloch) and the work of the biologist, thus possibly favoring a dialogue between the scientific disciplines and the humanities within and outside the Degree course in History and Stories of the Contemporary World.

Among the expected learning outcomes, the following are relevant:
• The knowledge of the meaning and of the historical development of the ideas on the evolution of living beings and of the related main biological concepts.
• The ability to transfer and integrate concepts, tools, methodologies between biology (and history.
• The ability to critically interpret current debates in which biology, evolutionary biology in particular, plays or is expected to play a significant role.

The course is articulated in three parts, with the first two interconnected also from a temporal point of view: the first part will deal with the history of the ideas on evolution in relation to the history of ideas on development and on heredity; the second part will progressively deal, whenever possible in an historiographical perspective, topics in history/es of life fueling contemporary debates. The third part, to be given in a seminar form, will consist in an introduction to Paleoantropology, in order to extend the evolutionary framework to the human species, possibly building a bridge ideally joining the courses on Antropology and Human Ecology of the 2nd and 3rd year, respectively. The main theme of historicity of biology will go through all three parts, in a continuing dialogue with the ideas exposed by the historian Marc Bloch in his “The Historian’s craft”, a required reading for the course.

A) First part (32 h)
- The comparative method in life sciences and in history.
- The chain of being and the unity of nature in the 18th century.
- The problem of generation and preformism.
- The idea of epigenesis and the birth of new forms by means of hybridization.
- Natural history and colonialism.
- Linnaeus, Buffon and Blumenbach: species, man, degeneration and races.
- Lamarck and species transformation.
- Darwin and his theory of evolution by means of natural selection.
- The problem of variation according to Darwin.
- The difficulties of evolutionary theory and Darwin’s answers to critics.
- Darwin: “major” and “minor “works”? The story of a scientist.
- Darwinism and Neo-darwinism. Weismann: sex and “immortality”.
- Mendel, the birth of genetics and mutationism. Morgan: “the lord of the flies”
- The “Evolutionary New Synthesis” in the ‘30s of 20th century.
--Ecological Evolutionary Developmental Biology (“Eco-evo-devo”)
- Towards an “extended” Darwinian synthesis in 21th century?

B) Second part (approximately 24 h)
- Race: an old paradigm?
- Plant/Animal/Human (which will continue in the third part of the course)
- “What is life?”: a critics to the “origins” idea in biology and in history.
- An historical re-reading of Lamarck in the light of current epigenetics.
- Kammerer, Lysenko and “Neo-Lamarckian” ideas in Stalin’s Soviet Union: a re-opening of the question?
- Darwin in literature and the movies.
- Darwinian “social” ideas and eugenics’ eternal comeback.
- Punctuated equilibriums: from heresy to a case study?
- Chance and contingency in history/es of life and of men.
- If Darwin did not formulate his theory, if Mendel had not been “re-discovered”: counterfactuals as a method of historical and scientific inquiry?
- Storytelling, history and history of life: a criticism of “canonical” history.

C) Third part (8 h)
- Hominin evolution and their phylogenetic relatedness with other Primates.
- Mosaic evolution of physical, behavioral and cognitive human traits
- Emergence of symbolic intelligence and of language.

To get through the final exam, the study of the below indicated texts, as well as of the material which will be discussed during the course (and made available to students through the dedicated e-learning web platform) is mandatory:

P.Bowler – Evolution. The history of an idea – University of California Press
O.Harman – Evolutions. Fifteen myths that explain our world – Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2019 (e-book available)
M.Bloch – The Historian’s craft – Vintage Books
H.Gee – The accidental species. Misunderstandings of human evolution – University of Chicago Press, 2013

For each lecture, a specific detailed bibliography, referring to the course texts and to the supplementary material made available, will be published on the e-learning site.


Course formative goals will be reached by means of lectures (for a total of 56 hours) and seminars (8 hours). Lectures and obviously seminars will analyze course contents, focusing on the main points, in an interactive way with students, by means of discussions and debates in the classroom. Two visits are planned, during the weekends, to the Civic Museum of Natural History in Milan and to the Mt. St. George Fossil Museum in Meride (CH) (in the latter case an excursion following the geo-paleontological related path is possibly included) respectively. Revision session before each exam session are planned as well.

Students are welcome to come over anytime, by appointment to be fixed via e-mail, to the lecturer's office in the Departmental (DiSTA) building (via J.H.Dunant 3, Varese, third ("red") floor).