An exploration of evolutionary biology at Oxford University
Faculty: Andrew Berry
“There is grandeur to this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”
— Charles Darwin from The Origin of Species
Charles Darwin’s great insight, evolution, lies at the heart of all of biology. But it’s much more than just a biological idea. Our understanding of who we are—both as individuals and as a species—is critically informed by evolution. As such, the conceptual transformation from created-in-the-image-of-God to modified ape is surely the single most seismic shift in the history of ideas. The program explores Darwin’s heritage both in the classroom and in context throughout the United Kingdom.
The program is based in Oxford, a famous university town that embraces old and new. The buildings may be 700 years old, but the ideas discussed within them are twenty-first century. The presence of the past—in the college architecture, winding medieval streets, and strange, antiquated university rituals—serves as a constant reminder of what we owe to the thinkers who came before. Isaac Newton famously observed that he had seen further than other men “by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” In Oxford students have a visceral sense of the presence of those giants.
Oxford itself played a role in the Darwinian revolution. The famous debate between Thomas Henry Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce, bishop of Oxford, took place in the university museum. It ended with Huxley’s triumphant put-down: “If then the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet who employs these faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.”
Even during the summer break, Oxford is a lively, student-oriented city. Much of the center is restricted to pedestrians, and the area—including the university—is small enough to explore thoroughly on foot. In addition, Oxford is well linked by public transportation to London (about an hour away), making it an ideal base for activities related to the curriculum and personal exploration throughout the south of England.
Course of study
Darwin and the Origins of Evolutionary Biology and Darwin and Contemporary Evolutionary Biology make the most of opportunities to learn in context with visits to many Darwin sites, including Down House, Darwin’s home in Kent; the Natural History Museum in London, the brainchild of Richard Owen, Darwin’s most vocal critic; the Linnean Society in London, where the joint Darwin-Wallace paper on evolution was delivered; and Shrewsbury, where Darwin grew up and attended school. Students enroll in both of the following courses.
Prerequisites for both courses: none.
BIOS S-112 Study Abroad at Oxford: Darwin and the Origins of Evolutionary Biology (32400)
This course reviews the history of thought on evolution from its mythic beginnings through the theories of Charles Darwin. Starting with creation stories from around the world, the course then examines the seeds of evolutionary thinking in classical times and the critical intellectual input of scientists in postrevolutionary France, all of which place the Darwin-Wallace insight in its historical context. To best understand each thinker and his or her intellectual milieu, the course takes an explicitly biographical approach, exploring the interactions among an individual's life story, political and social situation, and thought. While the emphasis is on scientists, particularly geologists and biologists, the course also reviews the role that social, political, economic, and philosophical thinkers—such as Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, and Thomas Malthus—played in the development of evolutionary theory. The Darwin-Wallace theory itself is reviewed in detail, and its political, social, and theological ramifications are discussed in the context of the reception of The Origin of Species.
BIOS S-113 Study Abroad at Oxford: Darwin and Contemporary Evolutionary Biology (32401)
This course examines the history of evolutionary biology in the post-Darwinian world. Like Darwin and the Origins of Evolutionary Biology, it takes a historical approach, following strands of thought either introduced or ignored by Darwin in The Origin of Species through to the present. To take one example, several lectures are dedicated to genetics in evolutionary biology: students review Darwin's rather weak understanding of genetics; the controversies surrounding the reconciliation of Mendelism and Darwinism in the early years of the twentieth century; the eventual rapprochement in the so-called "modern synthesis" of evolutionary biology; the development of inclusive fitness arguments that addressed Darwin's concerns about the evolution of altruism; the impact of molecular approaches on our understanding of evolutionary processes; and the neutral theory of molecular evolution. The course covers basic population genetics, speciation, the relationship between micro- and macroevolution, paleobiology, phylogenetic reconstruction, behavioral ecology/sociobiology, and human evolution.
Students must be at least 18 years old and have completed at least one year of college or be a first-year student in good academic standing to apply.
The application materials, outlined below, are due January 29, 2015:
A completed online application that includes:
- A completed online application that includes:
- A $50 nonrefundable application fee
- A statement of interest in the program, including information on relevant coursework and travel experience abroad (previous travel is not a prerequisite)
- Transcripts (student record accepted for Harvard students)
Program directors may ask for interviews.
Students will be notified of admission decisions by mid-February.
There is a nonrefundable $50 application fee. The cost of the program is $8,000 and includes the following:
- Room and some meals
- All scheduled excursions and extracurricular activities
In addition to the program fee, students are responsible for:
- A health insurance fee (waived if students have US insurance that provides coverage outside the United States)
- Transportation to and from Oxford
- The cost of passports and visas (if the latter is needed)
- Any immunizations
See a sample budget for estimated expenses.
How to pay and funding options
See Funding and Payment for payment deadlines, deposit amounts, and more information, including funding options for Harvard College students.
Students live in undergraduate rooms at Queen’s College, located in the medieval heart of Oxford. Accommodations are simply furnished, single-occupancy rooms. Bathroom facilities are shared. Social spaces within Queen’s are available for use. Classes take place at Queen’s College.
Contact Andrew Berry, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Students with disabilities
Students should contact the disability services coordinator as soon as possible. See Students with Disabilities for more information.