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Teaching Evolution: Why and How?

Paul Grobstein's picture


Senior Seminar in Biology and Society

Evolution and Teaching

Questions to think about ...

  • What do we mean today by "evolution"?
  • Why should it be taught?
  • How should it be taught?

Some background reading:

Why Teach Evolution? Chapter 1 in Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science, National Academy Working Group

evolution is the central organizing principle that biologists use to understand the world. To teach biology without explaining evolution deprives students of a powerful concept that brings great order and coherence to our understanding of life ... The teaching of evolution also has great practical value for students.

Teaching Evolution - National Science Teachers Association Position Statement

"evolution is a major unifying concept in science and should be included in the K–12 science education frameworks and curricula"

"Science teachers should not advocate any religious interpretations of nature and should be nonjudgmental about the personal beliefs of students."

"explanations of natural phenomena that are not based on evidence but on myths, personal beliefs, religious values, and superstitions are not scientific."

UAB Professor's New Book Promises Solution for Teaching Evolution Without Conflict

"Children have to understand evolution," he says, "but they don't have to believe it, and that is the key distinction that I have laid out in the book. So if a child asks if God made the whale, it's really an opportunity to talk about natural and supernatural explanations. You are not saying that one is better than the other, only that science is limited to natural explanations."

Science as Storytelling or Story Telling?

"students want to be taught a realistic view of science that is easily understandable. But also, they do not want to feel manipulated, or feel that their religious beliefs are under attack"

Paul Grobstein's picture

evolution as a central theme for biology ... in practice?

What struck me as particularly interesting was not only our difficulty in defining evolution but also our uncertainty about whether evolution was actually "a central organizing principle that biologists use to understand the world."  It appears that much of biology can be, and is, taught without reference to evolution.  My guess is that evolution is rarely mentioned/considered in many courses in biochemistry, molecular biology, cellular biology, physiology, and so forth.  My point is not that evolution is irrelevant in all these realms and others (I think it is quite relevant) but rather that many biologists don't act in their teaching (and in their research, I suspect) act as if evolution is in fact a common "central organizing principle."  Maybe it would be easier to persuade the world of that if we took it more seriously ourselves?

Some reasons to take evolution more seriously, in teaching and otherwise:

  • Making sense of some practical things, like domestication, plant and animal breeding, bacterial resistance
  • Helps to clarify potentials and limits of human abilities to influence things
  • Helps one to make better sense of oneself, limitations and potentials
  • Helps to make better sense of human diversity (including ethnicity, sex/gender, "disabilities")

Sorry our last conversation didn't get to issues related specifically to human evolution.  Maybe we can get back to that at some point. 



Anna Dela Cruz's picture

Even We Have Trouble Defining Evolution

Upon reflection of our discussion on how to teach evolution, I was struck by how much time we spent (I'd say about an hour) just defining the word "evolution" in a biological context. In the end I suppose we as a group settled on the definition: change over time of organized matter by random genetic variation interacting with differential reproductive success. However, there were some who found the word "random" problematic in its implications. For example, how do we know the emergence of a genetic mutation is "random"? Is there still the possibility of a "higher power" to determine such instances? 

Walking away from the discussion I personally felt uneasy in my current understandings of evolution. I think that the fact we as a group made repeated revisions in its definition attests to how the theory of evolution itself is in constant evolution.

Lisa B.'s picture

The Evolution Controversary and the 2008 Presidential Campaign

The theory of evolution by means of natural selection has been debated in American politics since Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. The controversy over evolution was one of the political issues, especially among the Republican presidential candidates, that decided the next President of the U.S. in 2008. At the first Republican presidential candidate debate on May 3, 2007 a reporter asked, “Is there anyone on the stage who does not…believe in evolution?” Three out of the ten candidates raised their hands to speak against evolution. Sen. John McCain said, “I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon…that the hand of God is there also.” Sen. John McCain became the GOP nominee and seventeen months later his vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, was asked the same question by a television anchor. The “CBS Evening News” anchor, Katie Couric, asked the vice presidential nominee whether evolution should be taught in school, which then Gov. Palin replied that “I think it should be taught as an accepted principle” (watch around the 7:30 minute mark of the video link below). Former Gov. Palin’s response was a political shift in her opinion of teaching evolution during her 2006 campaign for governor of Alaska. At this time she believed that evolution and creationism should both be taught in schools.
Former Gov. Palin’s shift in response to whether evolution should be taught in schools indicates how important the evolution controversy is in America. Palin was neutral toward evolution during her campaign for governor in Alaska, but two years later she became a proponent for teaching evolution in schools. This could have been Palin’s attempt to take a stance on teaching evolution in schools, but one that would not anger the majority of her voters. According to a 2006 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 42% of all adults say humans and other things have existed in present form only, meaning that the majority of voters (58%) could believe that life evolved. The political shift of Palin, and that only three out of ten Republicans raised their hands against teaching evolution in schools during the GOP presidential candidate debate, may indicate that America is not ready to formally discuss the evolution controversy.

jrlewis's picture

The links you posted seem to

The links you posted seem to highlight the complex nature of the debate about teaching evolution.  The question is not whether to teach evolution, but how to teach evolution.  What elements of the theory will teachers present to their students?  Different components of the story of evolution are problematic for different groups.  For example, some people recognize evolution as the change of forms of organisms over time.  In this model, it is possible to find a place for a god.  Another perspective includes the concept of randomness and the significance of natural selection in evolution.  In his book, "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," Daniel Dennett admits that the randomness implicit in the concept of natural selection is not inconsistent with all notions of a god.  So maybe the problem with teaching evolution is deciding which components of the theory to give salience to... Some components are more controversial than others.  How do we weight the potential outcry against the valuable information?  What version of evolution should be taught? 

jrlewis's picture

Why is evolution so important to biologists?

Evolutionary theory is important to biology because it is a central paradigm of the field.  It is a story that is capable of making sense of a very diverse set of observations that have arisen from the study of living things.  The story of evolution is applicable to everything from ribosomes to human history. 

Consider the award of the Nobel Prize in chemistry to three biochemists: Ada Yonath, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, and Thomas Steitz for their work determining the structure of the ribosome.  They used x-ray crystallography to determine the three dimensional structure of the ribosome.  The structure of a biological macromolecule or cluster of macromolecules implies something about its function.  Knowledge about the ribosomes of bacteria work will help scientists create drugs that disrupt their function, new classes of antibiotics.  There are significant differences between the ribosomes of bacteria and humans.  New antibiotics are necessary because bacteria have evolved resistance to many of the drugs currently available.  Essentially, random mutations in the bacteria’s genome that allow them to survive in the presence of antibiotics, lead to reproductive success for those mutants.  The wild type bacteria are killed and can not produce offspring.  Scientists are studying ribosomes in part to understand and control bacterial evolution. 

From the publication of Darwin’s Descent of Man, human evolution continues to be a controversial topic.  It is germane to conversations about race, disease, and the future.  How humans evolved could help us predict what the human race might become.  Knowledge of the evolutionary basis of human behavior could allow us to make more informed long-term decisions.  There are a lot of potential applications of evolutionary theory to human culture and society.