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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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Story vs. Fact: How evolution should be taught in schools


Austin Andrews

I have learned the theory of evolution from four different educators - who held four different teaching methods and beliefs, and used four different texts - over the past four years. So I consider myself rather familiar with evolution and the different styles in which it is taught. Most recently, I was taught using a scientific/anthropologic textbook that presented evolution as fact as well as a book whose goal was to show the evidence of evolution in a story-like, non-textbook method. I felt differently about the idea of evolution and about the way in which I was being fed information while reading each of these two very different, yet somewhat similar books devoted entirely to evolution. Each had its strengths and its weaknesses and each would be received differently depending on the reader and her background. This observation opens up an entirely new window when discussing the teaching of evolution in schools: how should evolution be taught to students? Should it be taught as a story or as fact? And how will the region in which the student lives or the background that the student has affect her understanding?

Roger Lewin's book Human Evolution was written for use in biology and anthropology courses. It presents information in a stereotypical textbook way. Important terms are bolded, there are headlines separating different main topics, and there are pictures and charts that help explain the material. When the student reads the text, it is understood that the information is factual. Although there are places where Lewin points out disagreements or problems among some of the ideas, it is still presented in a manner in which the reader knows that what she is reading is solidly backed up by many different forms of evidence. Surprisingly, however, even within this obvious textbook setup, Lewin makes the information flow really smoothly. The transitions between important terms and their definitions, as well as different concepts, are clean and readable. He gives background information to help make the ideas meld into one another and he writes in a clear-cut, non-prosaic manner that allows the material to be understood and grasped in a very efficient way. Because the information flows so well, it actually ends up feeling slightly story-like, more so than other textbooks I have read, simply because of its readability.

Ironically, Ernst Mayr's What Evolution Is, which has the intention of telling evolution as a story and not as a textbook, actually seems less story-like than Lewin's textbook. Mayr had the goal of teaching evolution as a story, but his final product doesn't quite reflect that. He still uses headlines to break-up different ideas within evolution and includes graphs and diagrams that help explain the concept. He even uses boxes of text to introduce supplemental material, and numbers them just as a textbook would. His writing style is very matter-of-fact, and can even be interpreted as pompous. If he had wanted his book to be story-like, he should have toned down that part of his style and made the writing more open for interpretation and understanding. While reading this book, even though I knew that it was supposed to be a story, I couldn't get over the idea that it seemed very text-like and factual. This definitely took away from Mayr's intentions and made the book less of a read and more of a chore.

When I reflect on the experience I had with each of these books, I notice a significant difference. I felt as if I was able to grasp evolution more fully while reading Human Evolution as opposed to What Evolution Is. I felt more comfortable with the minor details, important terms and ideas, as well as the overall picture as it pertains to the world today with Lewin's book. The only problem is that neither book really did what it set out to do. Mayr's book was supposed to be a story and Lewin's was supposed to be a text, but they seemed to have swapped spots. It still felt this way despite the fact that I, as the reader, knew the author's intentions. So what was it about Lewin's and Mayr's books that I liked and disliked and helped with my willingness to continue in my firm belief of evolution? I think that Lewin's ability to say that not everything about evolution is concrete that there are still conflicting theories and new ideas emerging coupled with his writing style that made each and every part of evolution come together as a whole, made grasping the theory of evolution much simpler. I felt like I was reading a story, just a nearly factual one. Although I am already firm in my belief of evolution, Lewin's Human Evolution simply made those beliefs firmer instead of making me question its validity.

For other people, learning the theory of evolution is not as simple. Some people were raised in environments that left no room for evolution whether it be religious or for other reasons. Many people can't even fathom the theory of evolution and how it can actually be a widely accepted belief. There are, however, also many people that grew up believing in evolution or who strongly believe in its presence in today's world. With evolution being taught in classrooms across the country, each student's background must be taken into consideration so that more people can begin to accept evolution as a part of their lives. To account for this, teaching evolution as a story, rather than as cold, hard fact, could be much more effective.

Students learning the theory of evolution as a story does not take away from its validity or the fact that it has strong scientific evidence to back it up. Learning it in this manner simply allows students with anti-evolution backgrounds a more lenient mechanism through which to learn about and accept evolution. If it is not presented under the somewhat overpowering title: fact, then a person is given a crack in which she can wrap her mind and can better understand the theory. People won't feel so guilty if they come to believe evolution and will feel less pressured and confused if they can believe that it is a story, rather than timeless fact. Even strong believers in evolution can benefit from this theory being taught as a story. Just because it is taught as a narrative, doesn't mean that already strong believers in evolution will lose their understanding or "faith" in this theory. Stories are simple to understand and digest and can aid in an evolutionist's further understanding of this important concept.

If evolution is presented to the population in the form of a non-threatening tale that can be interpreted, believed, and combined with other stories, then maybe the theory of evolution will reach more people and have a greater effect. The theory of evolution should be told and understood, and if packaging it as a chronicle of events is the most effective way of getting its message across, then that is what should be done. Evolution is our past, present, and future and every person on the planet should have the privilege of understanding its concept.

References

Lewin, Roger. Human Evolution. United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York: Basic Books, 2001.


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