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Understanding evolution on Darwin Day

Italian panel depicting Charles Darwin, created ca. 1890, on display at the Turin Museum of Human Anatomy. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By Karl S. Rosengren, Sarah K. Brem, E. Margaret Evans and Gale M. Sinatra

Today is Darwin’s birthday. It’s doubtful that any scientist would deny Darwin’s importance, that his work provides the field of biology with its core structure, by providing a beautiful, powerful mechanism to explain the diversity of form and function that we see all around us in the living world. But being of importance to one’s field is only one way we judge a scientist’s contributions. There is also the matter of how their work has changed lives all over the world, even of those who don’t know or necessarily care about their accomplishments. What has Darwin done for his fellow human beings? Why should they care about what he showed us, or want to learn what he had to teach?

Understanding evolution is challenging, for many reasons. We often point to the religious questions raised by his work as the cause of these difficulties, but there are many more. No creature decides to change their DNA, nor can a species foresee what they should become to survive, but it sure seems like they do. Evolution provides such elegant solutions to incredibly complex problems, it’s hard to see them as the product of random variation and selection. Even for people who lack religious convictions that make evolution discomforting, it’s hard to grasp the mechanisms of evolution. This difficulty arises out of developmental constraints that lead us to look for centralized, intentional agents when we make causal attributions. It comes out of the challenges inherent in altering our conceptions of the world and replacing one belief system with another, and out of the emotional reaction we have to facing the reality that we are not special or superior to our biological cousins, nor are we in control of the fate of our species in generations to come.

If we’re going to ask people to expend the time and effort it requires to wrap their heads around a idea like biological evolution, it seems as though there ought to be a really big payoff for all that work. So, what does learning about evolution get us?

We’ve asked this question to quite a few teachers, biologists, philosophers, and educational researchers along the course of several projects, the most extensive and recent being the one that led to the edited volume OUP will be putting out soon on teaching and learning about evolution. The reaction is almost always the same. First, there is the pause, as they blink, startled that anyone would be asking such a thing. Often they call upon evolution’s importance to science, and its beauty and elegance — who wouldn’t want to spend their time contemplating that? But if pushed back, and asked what practical value they could point to that would make the struggle of mastering these complex ideas worthwhile, they have a hard time coming up with an answer. The most common responses revolve around the (mis)use of antibiotics, and that people need to know that taking these drugs too often could cause real long-term harm. The second most popular argument is that people should understand the importance of biodiversity, how fragile species become when their gene pool dwindles and ecological balances are disrupted, and that being a part of nature — not above it — comes with responsibilities. Usually, though, the list stops about there.

It would be hard to argue against the idea that people in certain professions need to know about evolution. Certainly doctors do, not just because of the dangers in overusing antibiotics, but also because evolutionary theory allows us to understand many of the ways that the agents of disease and our defenses have co-evolved, giving us the insight to find better ways to fight illness. Research chemists who use animal models of human organ systems need to understand the foundation that gives these experiments meaning. Engineers often mimic the processes of evolution to find design solutions in complex problem spaces. Educators who teach science need to understand evolution so that they can pass on this knowledge to the students who are interested, and who will take a career path that requires this knowledge. But for the rest of us, should learning about evolution be an educational requirement, or an offering that those who are interested could elect to take, and others pass over?

The easiest argument, and perhaps one of the most compelling for us as academics is the argument behind all forms of liberal arts education—that being exposed to a broader set of ideas gives you a greater pool to draw upon when looking for the solution to some problem. But this could be made about any number of topics, so it isn’t very interesting here. What we’re looking for is practical gains that people could not achieve without a solid understanding of evolution. What’s your answer?

Karl S. Rosengren, Sarah K. Brem, E. Margaret Evans and Gale M. Sinatra are the editors of Evolution Challenges: Integrating Research and Practice in Teaching and Learning about Evolution. Karl S. Rosengren is a Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University. He has published widely in the fields of cognitive and motor development. In his current research he examines cultural influences in the development of causal reasoning and how children acquire different types of beliefs. He is a fellow of APS. Sarah K. Brem is an Associate Professor in the School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University. A cognitive scientist, her research focuses on public use and understanding of scientific and technical information. She is the recipient of a National Science Foundation Early Career Award. E. Margaret Evans is an Associate Research Scientist at the Center for Human Growth and Development at the University of Michigan. Her research, funded by NSF and the Spencer Foundation, focuses on the cognitive and cultural factors influencing the developmental of scientific and religious concepts. In her current studies she investigates the emergence of developmental learning progressions for evolution as children and their parents encounter museum exhibitions on evolution. Gale M. Sinatra is a Professor at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. She has served as an editor of Educational Psychologist and the Vice President of AERA’s Division C, Learning and Instruction. She is a fellow of APA and AERA. Her research focuses on the role of emotions and motivation in reasoning about socio-scientific issues.

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3 Responses to “Understanding evolution on Darwin Day”
  1. Robert says:

    My answer is simple: the theory of evolution, being a model of a fundamental force underlying all of life, is applicable to everything we do in our lives. Every interaction we have with others, every public policy we support or argue against, every business transaction, etc. is governed by evolutionary principles, and so can only be properly understood by someone who understands those principles. As an evolutionary biologist, I view everything that I do or experience in life through the lens of evolution. And I find that I very often already know things about changes the economy, politics, personal relationships, etc., long before the majority of other people come to the same realizations. While sometimes the conclusions I draw are uncomfortable or unpleasant, I can rationally evaluate my options and likely outcomes and make the best decisions even in unfortunate circumstances, confident in the likelihood of the results. Rather than simply putting my faith in a philosophy, the inner workings of which I can’t understand, I can see the mechanics of how and why my decisions and actions have the results that they do.

  2. Kyle says:

    I’m not an evolutionary biologist, so I can only envy Robert for his ability to apply evolutionary principles and understanding in such a broad manner. However, even with my limited knowledge, I was thinking of a similar response before ever reading Robert’s.

    Everyone, no matter their vocation or avocation, possesses an evolved human body. They also have, at minimum, a stake in the direction of human society. Ideally, everyone would have a voice in the complex societal decision making processes of such a highly evolved social species as ours. A basic, if anthropocentric, understanding of evolution yields utilitarian benefits in regard to health, lifestyle, social interactions, political insight, etc.

    Plus, I think that most people would be simply fascinated by the subject once they reached a certain threshold of understanding. A life-long intellectual pursuit may be triggered, which is never a bad thing.

  3. [...] Sinatra co-authored post on Oxford University Press blog about Darwin Day Oxford University Press blog featured a post co-authored by Gale Sinatra about understanding evolution on Darwin Day titled [...]

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