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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
First Web Paper
On Serendip

"Evolution": What's in a word?

Jen Sheehan

Jen Sheehan

Whenever various debates have taken place in parts of the country regarding whether
evolution should be taught in schools, I have always observed the situation with a degree of
incredulousness; neither the parochial education I received in elementary and middle school
nor the public education I received for high school ever attempted to dissuade us from
learning about evolution, and while none of my classes ever taught evolution with as much
depth as Ernst Mayr attempted to convey in What Evolution Is, both systems taught it as a
fact one that we took for granted. The debate on the use of the word "evolution" in the
Georgia school system initially appeared to me to be a manifestation of more anti-evolution
tendencies, although Superintendent Kathy Cox has not commented on the theory of
evolution itself; "the unfortunate truth," stated Cox as her rationale, "is that 'evolution' has
become a controversial buzzword that could prevent some from reading the proposed biology
curriculum" (Gross A10). Whatever her own beliefs on the subject are, however, the
elimination of the term "evolution" may provide cool comfort to the theory's detractors, but
its overall effect is merely to hamper the student's understanding of what evolution entails.

In place of "evolution," Georgia's proposed replacement is "biological changes over
time"; it hopes to convey the meaning behind the word without using the word itself (Gross
A10). Mayr's own definition seems to be rather similar when he states, "Evolution is change
in the properties of populations of organisms over time," but a word expresses more than
what a clipped dictionary definition can allow (Mayr 8). When "evolution" is used in daily
parlance in a non-biological context, adaption is often an unspoken yet important component
of it. If one speaks of "evolving as a person" or "evolving in his role as team captain," there
is a sense that one is moving from a less-adapted state to becoming better suited for whatever
it is one does. It implies that there is a development of certain qualities to be better suited for
the environment an individual may find him- or herself in, not simply "changes over time"
for the sake of change; while there is indeed a degree of randomness in how a species may
evolve (or come to destruction, as the well-adapted dinosaurs did when a meteor struck and
indelibly altered the environment), for the most part the changes are not entirely due to
chance. "One can conclude from...observations that evolution is neither merely a series of
accidents nor a deterministic movement toward even more perfect adaption. To be sure,
evolution is in part an adaptive process, because natural selection operates in every
generation," and while there is no teleology involved in the evolutionary process, the
replacement of evolution with "biological changes over time" does not attempt to explain
why those changes take place, whether out of chance or necessity (Mayr 229).

"Biological changes over time" is too simple of a reduction and does not represent the
full picture of what evolution is. Evolution, according to one definition in the Merriam-
Webster Dictionary, is "a theory that the various plants and animals are descended from other
kinds that lived in earlier times and that the differences are due to inherited changes that
occurred over many generations"; it takes into account that evolution is generational, not
simply "over time," and that one generation of organisms is the result of generation after
generation of natural selection a process that leaves no room for an entirely static species.
To define evolution as simply being biological changes over time is to neglect evolution's
emphasis on population changes and the role this has in natural selection. Mayr takes care to
focus on populations in his definition, as "population is the so-called unit of evolution. Genes,
individuals and species also play a role, but it is the change in populations that characterizes
organic evolution" (Mayr 8). When an organism fails to produce offspring, it is the
population that is most greatly affected; that organism's genes will not be passed on to the
next generation, and it is in this manner, with particular genes and characteristics being
removed from the population, that a population may be significantly altered enough to be
considered a separate species.

With its implications of adaption, natural selection and population change, the term
"evolution" carries with it all accompanying theoretical baggage that Georgia's shorthand
definition cannot accommodate: baggage that is necessary for a full understanding of what
evolution is. With the Georgia Board of Education's deliberations on the place of the word
"evolution" sparking national attention, Superintendent Kathy Cox has since changed her
mind and has requested that the term with all its associations remain in the curriculum,
explaining her original proposal by stating that "the political consideration was thinking
about the teacher on the front line of a classroom in Georgia, and recognizing that people do
have misinterpretations of that terminology" (MacDonald, "Biology standards reset to cover
evolution"). However, replacing such terminology with vaguer terms does nothing to further
students' acceptance and understanding of evolutionary theory. The teacher may not be able
to control whether a students comes to agree with evolution or not, but censorship of the
word may present an obstacle to any student's full comprehension of such a cornerstone in
scientific thought.

Gross, David. "In Ga., it's evolution by any other name." The Philadelphia Inquirer: Page A10, January 31, 2004.

MacDonald, Mary. "Biology standards reset to cover evolution." The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 13, 2004.

Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York: Perseus Book Groups, 2001.

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