Friday, April 30, 2010

The Teaching of Evolution

The teaching of evolution is very near and dear to my heart and I was excited to find out a coworker of mine is doing a project about measuring people’s familiarity and comfort level talking about evolution by means of natural selection. I may have mentioned this but improving evolution literacy in the US was one of the primary motivating factors in my decision to move towards becoming a science educator so, again, it’s something I really care about.

Yesterday I made a comment about my primary mode of instruction being to talk explicitly about evolution unless directly told not to in front of some other coworkers. I had been teaching at a Catholic school that day and the reactions were generally of surprise. “Really? You aren’t afraid to talk about evolution?” No. Absolutely not. I am just as sure about evolution being a part of science as I am the water cycle or force being a product of mass and acceleration. The really weird thing is that we are constantly talking about adaptations as if they are this completely separate aspect of animal science. They are not. Adaptations are a product of evolution by means of natural selection. If you tell students that an animal has an adaptation for living in its environment you are telling students that the animal has evolved. Plain and simple.

We’re also constantly talking about animal relationships. Seastars are related to urchins. Octopuses are related to squid. Just like adaptations, phylogeny is a direct admission to our belief in evolution. If animals did not change they would not be related. So why then are we afraid to use the “e” word or talk about my hero Charles Darwin?

More to the point, I firmly believe that we will get nowhere if all we’re doing is taking baby steps towards teaching evolution. We don’t play this awful game with cosmology or geology or really any other branch of science. It is only evolution that remains a political battle.

So I’ve been wondering for a while: how do you talk about evolution? Do you hold back and reserve your comments and teaching to things related like adaptations and relationships? Or do you really insist on the truth of evolution by being unabashedly afraid to talk about the topic with students and the public? Do you believe as I do that it is our responsibility as science educators to encourage a belief in evolution or do you see it as an unimportant and/or evolving (no pun intended) aspect of the publics view of science? Is it inevitable that an acceptance of evolution by means of natural selection eventually become common? And how long will that take if we are not making active strides towards its acceptance?

As always any thoughts, comments, personal attacks on my character are welcome.

1 comment:

  1. I only have this one comment, and it is not intended to deter anyone from teaching, learning, or talking about evolution in any regard. (I repeat: is NOT intended to do so.)

    My father tells a story about coming home from school one day and telling his father what he had learned that day; the teacher had explained to the children about continental drift. So my father excitedly told his father all about how the continents used to be connected but had drifted apart...and his father said, "Don't believe everything they teach you in school."

    This was obviously upsetting to my father at the time for the reason that he was extremely excited by science only to be discouraged...though it worked out alright, seeing as he is now a science teacher. It is upsetting to ME, however, because my grandfather was an MIT-educated scientist. And forty-plus years after the first continental drift theories came about, he still did not believe it!

    I try to remember that every time I feel discouraged by someone's closed-mindedness: people believe what they want to believe, and paradigm shifts are few and far between no matter who you are. Besides, as upsetting as it is to think my grandfather did not believe in plate tectonics, I also think he was right. We should not believe everything we learn in school. There are a lot of misinformed adults in the world, and still many unanswered questions.

    Still, go on teaching what you (and for the record, I) firmly believe--but expect, and be prepared to counteract, the constant questioning that will and in many ways should occur.

    (I am curious, though: was talking about evolution in the Catholic School acceptable?)