Blog Post

Why Teach Evolution?

Olivia Judson's "back to school" column in the New York Times on"Optimism in Evolution" is a wonderfully concise argument on behalf ofthe planet. Why I admire her writings so much are threefold: (1) she takes the best science and not only makes it accessible through beautiful and clear and evocative writing, but she also takes crucial scientific experiments but then is willing to provide her own interpretation of the research based on some deeply held and fundamental views of her own; (2) one of those fundamental views changes, for me, everything about evolutionary theories: she does not believe that humans are the be-all and end-all of evolution but that we are part of an intricate and intertwined evolutionary process in which we are both acted upon by natural and environmental forces--the world--and upon which we powerfully act (through our pollution, depletion of natural resources, and our own selecting out of nature for food or shelter).

 

In other words, she understands the human place within natural selection and knows the world will exist long after humans have managed to make our "nest" uninhabitable for other humans but perhaps not for rats, carp, cockroaches, or millions of other species older than us and likely to exist beyond us; and (3) she understands that precisely those evolutionary selections for intelligence that allow for human achievement also probably make us particularly incapable of existing harmoniously in our world. That is, the problem with some evolutionary biology is that it is teleological. It assumes that the process happens like an arrow, straight and narrow, from reptiles emerging from the muck to primates to Man.

 

Well, actually, the path isn't straight and not everything that allows the reptiles to rise from the muck helps the evolving species to survive if there is an environmental catastrophe that requires muck-survival again. Think about all those hairy mastadons and dinosaurs that didn't survive past the last the ice age. More to the point, the evaluing of certain traits as "good" and others as "lesser" means we tend not to pay attention to certain important survival skills (and alternative forms of intelligence) that are also part of our evolutionary selection. Or, conversely, we select out certain traits for reproduction because we think they are "good" (like intelligence) but may also carry real deficits.

 

Here's her splendid piece for today.


 

August 13, 2008, New York Times
Guest Columnist

Optimism in Evolution

LONDON

When the dog days of summer come to an end, one thing we can be sureof is that the school year that follows will see more fights over theteaching of evolution and whether intelligent design, or even Biblicalaccounts of creation, have a place in America?s science classrooms.

In these arguments, evolution is treated as an abstract subject thatdeals with the age of the earth or how fish first flopped onto land.It?s discussed as though it were an optional, quaint and largelyirrelevant part of biology. And a common consequence of the argumentsis that evolution gets dropped from the curriculum entirely.

This is a travesty.

It is also dangerous.

Evolution should be taught ? indeed, it should be central to beginning biology classes ? for at least three reasons.

First, it provides a powerful framework for investigating the worldwe live in. Without evolution, biology is merely a collection ofdisconnected facts, a set of descriptions. The astonishing variety ofnature, from the tree shrew that guzzles vast quantities of alcoholevery night to the lichens that grow in the Antarctic wastes, cannot beprobed and understood. Add evolution ? and it becomes possible to makeinferences and predictions and (sometimes) to do experiments to testthose predictions. All of a sudden patterns emerge everywhere, andapparently trivial details become interesting.

The second reason for teaching evolution is that the subject isimmediately relevant here and now. The impact we are having on theplanet is causing other organisms to evolve ? and fast. And I?m nottalking just about the obvious examples: widespread resistance topesticides among insects; the evolution of drug resistance in theagents of disease, from malaria to tuberculosis; the possibility that,say, the virus that causes bird flu will evolve into a form thatspreads easily from person to person. The impact we are having is muchbroader.

For instance, we are causing animals to evolve just by hunting them.The North Atlantic cod fishery has caused the evolution of cod thatmature smaller and younger than they did 40 years ago. Fishing forgrayling in Norwegian lakes has caused a similar pattern in these fish.Human trophy hunting for bighorn rams has caused the population toevolve into one of smaller-horn rams. (All of which, incidentally, isin line with evolutionary predictions.)

Conversely, hunting animals to extinction may cause evolution intheir former prey species. Experiments on guppies have shown that,without predators, these fish evolve more brightly colored scales,mature later, bunch together in shoals less and lose their ability tosuddenly swim away from something. Such changes can happen in fewerthan five generations. If you then reintroduce some predators, thepopulation typically goes extinct.

Thus, a failure to consider the evolution of other species mayresult in a failure of our efforts to preserve them. And, perhaps, topreserve ourselves from diseases, pests and food shortages. In short,evolution is far from being a remote and abstract subject. A failure toteach it may leave us unprepared for the challenges ahead.

The third reason to teach evolution is more philosophical. Itconcerns the development of an attitude toward evidence. In his book,?The Republican War on Science,? the journalist Chris Mooney arguespersuasively that a contempt for scientific evidence ? or indeed,evidence of any kind ? has permeated the Bush administration?spolicies, from climate change to sex education, from drilling for oilto the war in Iraq. A dismissal of evolution is an integral part ofthis general attitude.

Moreover, since the science classroom is where a contempt forevidence is often first encountered, it is also arguably where it firstbegins to be cultivated. A society where ideology is a substitute forevidence can go badly awry. (This is not to suggest that science isnever distorted by the ideological left; it sometimes is, and theresults are no better.)

But for me, the most important thing about studying evolution issomething less tangible. It?s that the endeavor contains a profoundoptimism. It means that when we encounter something in nature that iscomplicated or mysterious, such as the flagellum of a bacteria or thelight made by a firefly, we don?t have to shrug our shoulders inbewilderment.

Instead, we can ask how it got to be that way. And if at first itseems so complicated that the evolutionary steps are hard to work out,we have an invitation to imagine, to play, to experiment and explore.To my mind, this only enhances the wonder.

Olivia Judson, a contributing columnist for The Times, writes The Wild Side at nytimes.com/opinion.

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