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Comprehending Evolution

Lynn's picture

Avery Larson
Web Paper #1

Comprehending Evolution

Supposedly, the theory of evolution is taught in every Biology course in every public high school across America; the theory is accepted as fact in American society, and those few who prefer the theory of Intelligent Design (or Creationism) are quickly branded by popular thought as devoutly religious, backwards, and a bit dim. To disbelieve in evolution, to the modern mind, is to deny all fact, evidence, and common sense one is presented with; while debate between followers of the two schools of thought does exist, most school children are taught that evolution is the correct perspective, and Intelligent Design is a pretty story religious people tell themselves so that they can sleep at night. Little room exists in the collective American mind for entertainment of Intelligent Design. Is this absolute conviction in evolution well-founded, though? The theory itself is not on trial in this paper, but the extent to which its staunch supporters actually understand the theory is. The average American youth may not comprehend all that is taught to him or her about evolution, and, indeed, the lessons themselves may misrepresent evolution. Little purpose exists in teaching a lesson that cannot be understood, especially when the warped understanding of that lesson is defended by its students as incontrovertible fact. If the theory of evolution is to be mandatory in public education, the theory must be taught so that students fully grasp all of its implications and learn to apply those implications to their own lives.

An article in The New York Times mentions that “only 28 percent of biology teachers consistently follow the recommendations of the National Research Council to describe straightforwardly the evidence for evolution and explain the ways in which it is a unifying theme […] others treat evolution as if it only applied on a molecular level” and that of the remaining teachers, about sixty percent take a cautious approach to teaching the theory (Bakalar, “On Evolution”). There are several possible explanations for this tendency of teachers to avoid or misrepresent evolution. One posited explanation is that teachers “often have not taken a course in evolution and […] lack confidence in their ability to defend it” (Berkman and Plutzer). The problems with evolution in education begin before students even enter the classroom; their teachers are just as unable to teach the theory as the students are to learn it. If evolution is to continue to be an unquestioned fact in the collective mind, then it must also be treated as a fact in the classroom, and teachers should handle the topic accordingly. Educating instructors properly in evolution will help them to gain both the understanding and the confidence to teach evolution competently, as well, perhaps, as a certain appreciation for the theory that will encourage them to explore the possible applications of evolution outside of biology. Students cannot be expected to intuit that the universe, just as the species that inhabits it, can change – can evolve – unless their teachers have also been made aware of this possibility. The teaching of evolution is mandatory in high schools across America, but few people stick to the guidelines of the curriculum, and, it may be inferred, fewer still are willing or able to explore evolution in a way that will benefit students most. If students are to truly grasp the theory of evolution, their instructors must first be taught. Several studies corroborate the idea that putting teachers through a course in evolution will improve its management in the classroom: “completing an evolution course is a powerful predictor that […] teachers will integrate evolution into their classroom as a unifying theme” (Berkman and Plutzer).

Indeed, that evolution is taught in the classroom as “a unifying theme” is essential to proper understanding of the theory. Frequently, evolution is taught in the same manner as less abstracted course material; students may be taught to recite the definition of the theory in the same way that they list the parts of the cell or the capitals of the fifty states of America. An improper understanding of evolution leads to a superficial teaching of it, and that, in turn, begets students who approach the theory with the same enthusiasm and engagement with which they regard memorization. Implying that evolution is nothing but a list of facts – or, as the case may be, “facts” – stifles the curiosity and desire for exploration that are essential for a deep, broad understanding of evolution. Evolution is a theory rooted in biology, true, and the most readily applicable aspects of the theory are all biological, but the greatest benefits of the theory can be reaped only when students realize that the entire universe is constantly changing, has been changing, and will continue to change. A student who does not understand evolution may regard his or her world as static; a student who can recognize the universe’s dynamism is more prepared to flow with the change, and even, perhaps, to manipulate the change to his or her advantage. Evolution teaches that change is random and directionless – an idea which would require much more space to fully consider – but also that species can adapt to change, and specialize themselves within it. A student who has properly learned evolution will be more likely to adapt. A student who fails to understand evolution may not be so fortunate.

If a person is to understand the universe that surrounds him or her, that person must first recognize that that universe will never hold itself static, to be explored at his or her convenience. The notion that the universe changes is infrequently – rarely, even – explored in a high school setting, where teachers are already so hesitant to suggest that individual species evolve, they tend to misrepresent or dodge evolution entirely rather than handle its many implications in their classrooms. Somehow, however, most Americans would assert that they believe in evolution unwaveringly; the gap between understanding and belief is impossible to ignore when one considers how little information about the theory is actually transmitted in the classroom. Those who call themselves believers in evolution would insist that they are more rational, modern beings than those who believe in Creationism, but when neither group truly comprehends the theory, can anyone be benefiting from it? Blind belief in evolution is unsatisfactory; teaching it as though it were a collection of questionable “facts” does more harm than good to those who would learn. Little purpose exists in teaching evolution if the lessons prevent the student from learning.  

Works Cited

Bakalar, Nicholas. “On Evolution, Biology Teachers Stray from Lesson Plan.” The New York Times: February 7, 2011. Online.

Berkman, Michael and Eric Plutzer. “Defeating Creationism in the Courtroom but not the Classroom.” Science: January 28, 2011. Online.



Paul Grobstein's picture

Teaching evolution

"Blind belief in evolution is unsatisfactory; teaching it as though it were a collection of questionable “facts” does more harm than good to those who would learn."

Does this make teaching evolution different from teaching other things?  How should it be taught?  What's the relation of evolution to "incontrovertible fact?"