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Educating Evolutionarily

AnnaP's picture

Educating Evolutionarily

The man who has everything figured out is probably a fool. College examinations notwithstanding, it takes a very smart fella to say “I don’t know the answer!”
                    —Attorney Drummond, Inherit the Wind (1955)

Perhaps teaching evolution in schools appears dangerous to many people not simply due to its implications as a biological idea, but rather because the philosophical and educational implications of evolution threaten deeply-entrenched ideas about the way we think about learning in the United States. To fully accept the teaching of evolution in schools would consist not only of teaching the theory in science classes, but of reconsidering the way we teach altogether. By putting Darwin’s Origin of Species in dialogue with Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom and Dewey’s Quest for Certainty, I will explore how evolutionary education has the potential to change the classroom experience and to provide a productive alternative model of active, narrative learning.

In positing his theory of evolution and natural selection in The Origin of Species, Darwin remains aware of the areas in which he remains ignorant, demonstrating a certain comfort with uncertainty that is necessary in his method of inquiry. In discussing the lack of transitional species evident in the geological record, Darwin does not see that this necessarily discredits his theory, but rather challenges assumptions about how much naturalists and geologists thought they knew at that time; given the rapid changes in the paleontological record, Darwin states that it would be “as rash in us to dogmatize on the succession of organic beings throughout the world, as it would be for a naturalist to land for five minutes on some one barren point in Australia, and then to discuss the number and range of its productions” (Darwin, 285). Darwin seems aware of the evolutionary nature of the scientific process itself and the uncertainty inherent in that process, viewing his own work as a new story (albeit one that he finds very convincing) with the power to produce new types of knowledge and thinking.

Indeed, it is Darwin’s investment in challenging tradition and striving to produce new bodies of knowledge that makes him such a controversial figure. Darwin committed himself to the production of knowledge through inquiry; he seemed determined to move beyond creationism not through any specific rejection of the Christian religion (indeed, he identified as a Christian and looked to the Bible for morality throughout much of his life), but rather because remaining open to other views would help humans learn more about the world around them. He recognized that other naturalists viewed their systems of classification merely as the plan of the creator; he himself, however, believed that “unless it be specified…what else is meant by the plan of the Creator, it seems to me that nothing is thus added to our knowledge” (Darwin, 351). For Darwin, the problem with creationism is that it causes our body of knowledge to stagnate.

Darwin realized that a lot of thought, including creationism, was based on a “top down” approach like this one:


In this model, a higher being bestows knowledge down on more ignorant beings, who shouldn’t ask too many questions because, in any case, they will never be able to understand. This hierarchy reflects a certain way of learning in which a supposedly powerful and knowledgeable teacher passes that knowledge on to their ignorant students. Darwin seemed well aware of this way of thinking not only in the concept of creationism but in the methodology of the naturalists who were resistant to his theory of evolution.

Darwin was invested in resisting a simple “top down” approach to knowledge. Instead, he posited what I like to think of as a “bottom up” approach to thinking that looked more like this:


This illustration not only gives us a concrete idea of how evolution plays out, but also shows us what evolutionary thinking might look like. What may begin as one seemingly simple idea or question, when put to the test, may split off into multiple other ideas; through close examination and inquiry, some of these ideas (like species) may seem more useful that others, and will remain (although they will still continually evolve). Others may become less useful and become less common in the way we think until, like a species, they gradually become extinct. Like the theory of evolution, knowledge itself undergoes a slow process of variation. As Darwin states, “…when we have a distinct object in view, and do not look to some unknown plan of creation, we may hope to make sure but slow progress” (Darwin, 364). Evolutionary thinking gives us the opportunity to actively invest ourselves in the production of knowledge.

Decades later in the early twentieth century, one avid reader of Darwin, John Dewey, expanded on the importance of a more “bottom up” and evolutionary way of thinking. Like Darwin, he believed in the importance of inquiry in which “knowledge is obtained…through deliberate institution of a definite and specified course of change” (Dewey, 84). Dewey’s investment in scientific inquiry suggests that if we cease to wait for knowledge to be passed down to us, but rather engage in experiments and experiences to see what happens, we can become subjects that seek to learn rather than objects who are passively “learned” by the teacher at the head of the classroom. Dewey sees the scientific project as one with the potential to make us freer beings, stating that scientific thinking “liberates man from subjection to the past” (Dewey, 101). Like Darwin, Dewey wants to think evolutionarily; he never wants to allow himself to settle into the comfortable ignorant of existing knowledge.

Furthermore, Dewey realizes that, if we are to stop looking to some higher power (whether it be God or a teacher) for descriptive knowledge about the world, there will inherently be uncertainty. Yet, like Darwin, Dewey does not fear or condemn uncertainty but instead recognizes the central role of uncertainty in progressing our understanding: “The scientific attitude…is necessarily alert for problems; every new question is an opportunity for further experimental inquiries—for effecting more directed change. There is nothing which a scientific mind would more regret than reaching a condition in which there were no more problems” (Dewey, 101). Dewey’s goal is not to narrow our possibilities, to gradually come to one common truth that will explain everything; rather, like the above diagram of Darwinian evolution, Dewey’s production of knowledge might look more like a series of different branching hypotheses, some sticking around and evolving while others are ruled out along the way.

With his investment in evolutionary thinking and the production of knowledge, it is no surprise that Dewey believed firmly in education reform and in changing the traditional roles of teacher and student in the classroom by encouraging active hands-on learning; in fact, his ideas had such an influence that some have said that he “rescued learning from the drudgery of the starched collar pedagogue” (Diggins, 80). I believe that Dewey was heavily influenced by Darwin not only due to their shared commitment to scientific discovery, but also due to their evolutionary conceptions of acquiring knowledge (Diggins, 77).

In looking at Dewey as an early proponent of what I would like to call “evolutionary education,” I realized how the ideals of education themselves have evolved over time. After having learned more about Darwin and Dewey, I now realize that Paulo Freire’s influential work on pedagogy embodies a similar commitment to critical shared inquiry—a commitment that he explicitly puts in the service of freedom and social justice. Freire too views knowledge as continually produced, constantly evolving into new ideas that “[replace] what before was new but is now old and ready to be surpassed by the coming of a new dawn” (Freire, 35). Freire envisions education that is constantly in motion, a narrative form that is constantly unfolding in its own telling.

Freire wants us to move forward both with the knowledge we produce and with the methodologies that we use to produce it; he firmly rejects the “top down” method (or as he calls it, the “banking” method) of teaching that would look something like this:


Like Darwin, he moves away from a non-narrative, foundational way of teaching that depends on an authority figure passing down knowledge. Instead, Freire advocates a pedagogical methodology in which both students and teachers consciously work together to produce knowledge. True learning can only occur when “the learners will be engaged in a continuous transformation through which they become authentic subjects of the construction and reconstruction of what is being taught, side by side with the teacher, who is equally subject to the same process” (Freire, 33). This self-reflective, mutual pursuit of knowledge embodies exactly the sort of evolutionary education that encourages individuals to break free from constraints of authoritarian knowledge to actively participate in transforming the world around them. Evolutionary education might look something like this:


By looking at evolution not merely as a challenge to religious ideas of creationism, but also as a challenge to a hierarchical model of education, I more fully understand the controversy behind teaching Darwin in schools. At the same time, I also feel more strongly than ever a commitment to Dewey’s and Freire’s educational models as they both urge us to shed our passivity as students to instead engage in critical dialogue with our peers and educators. As a student strongly invested in both intellectual inquiry and political activism, evolutionary education gives me a model through which to conceive of productive ways to question and engage with my reality.



Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. Ed. Joseph Carroll. Orchard Park, NY: Broadview Press, 2003.

Dewey, John. The Quest for Certainty: A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action. 1929 Gifford Lectures. New York: Minton, Balch, & Co., 1929.

Diggins, John Patrick. “Philosopher in the Schoolroom.” The Wilson Quarterly. 13.4 (1989): 76-83. 7 February 2011 <>.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. Trans. Patrick Clarke. New York: Bowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Lawrence, Jerome and Robert E. Lee. Inherit the Wind. New York: Dramatists Play Service Inc., 2000. p. 39.


Anne Dalke's picture

Bottoms up!

I'm so interested in your project here; it runs wonderfully alongside several conversations taking place right now on campus. One of them is a small faculty working group on assessment. When we met last Thursday, one of us asked the group, "What is it that we want our students to 'get good at'? Another responded, “I want them to be certain of one thing: the uncertainty. I want them to learn to tolerate the ambiguity and be okay w/ that. There isn’t always going to be a clear answer."

We spent the rest of our session exploring this notion of “dynamic uncertainty,” noting how sharply it contrasts with the focus, in much of today's educational reform, on "emergencies and solutions." Most important problems, we agreed, are "too complex to admit of immediate solution." And yet, and yet: we acknowledged that we also want our students to have commitments, and to act on them, to have a community of practice to support them in those commitments, and in the capacity to stick with them, to "take the train to the next station," as another of my colleagues said...

Your project certainly traverses that whole terrain: from uncertainty to action, as it moves from Darwin's work, through Dewey's, to Friere's, to your own interest in political action. (My favorite line from The Quest of Certainty is Dewey's saying that "The distinctive characteristic of practical activity…so inherent that it cannot be eliminated, is the uncertainty which attends it.") And the linchpin of the whole process is the active engagement of students in shaping their education (as you quote from Freire, “the learners are engaged in a continuous transformation"). One question that arises for me is whether you see this as a pattern where the influence is explicit and conscious or not (you say @ one point that Dewey was "an avid reader of Darwin," but @ another that you "believe that he "was heavily influenced by Darwin." Did he say so, or are you saying so?)

I was struck also by your description of the production of knowledge as looking "like a series of different branching hypotheses." In another working group where we are imagining the future of Bryn Mawr, we've been asking, "what's the trunk, what are the branches?" --and just decided last week that an organic process like this can't possibly have a "capstone"; our culminating senior experiences are going to need a new name (I've just floated "taproot" as a possibility!).

Oh, and your cute images of pedagogical interactions put me in mind of Ken Robinson's animated production on changing education paradigms  --check it out!