How do you teach evolution? This was a challenge put forward by one of my Board members a few years ago and I tried, I really did. We had a few activities that helped with the concept of natural selection but I don’t know if we managed to help teens understand evolution. When I hear things like: I don’t think we came from monkeys…I haven’t seen a half-monkey, half-person yet…[Glenn Beck], I die a little inside. It also shows me that people don’t really understand evolution.
To be fair, the challenge was for teens in British Columbia, Canada to understand evolution, not right-wing American talk show hosts but I wonder how much we accomplished.
Evolution has four important parts: variation, inheritance, selection, and time. I think the first 3 areas are often covered well but the amount of time needed is often missing. And missing the time means that people think *poof* a new species shows up. Even with the idea of punctuated equilibrium, where evolution occurs in rapid bursts of speciation, the change is gradual over many generations. These rapid bursts are only rapid from a geologist perspective and still encompass a very long time.
We did an activity (Islands of Adaptation) to determine which utensil was best suited for picking up food at different ‘islands’. The utensils included spoons, wooden sticks, paper clips, forks, etc. The islands had different types of food and/or different challenges. For example, one island had a ‘ring of fire’ (candles) and, to put it mildly, the wooden stick didn’t work well on that island. Each student was given a utensil and then visited different islands, counting the amount of food gained at each spot during a time trial. We made the leap that more food meant more reproductive success. The activity was very popular and it led to some great discussions on selection. The students understood the variation (different utensils) and several groups discussed different inheritance patterns. But time wasn’t usually discussed – I wonder if that is partly due to the young age of the participants? Anything more than a year is tough to grasp for teens.
[learn_more caption=”Interesting discussions with elite group”]During a summer camp with very keen kids, we got into longer discussions. They had some interesting ideas and wished that they could create a hybrids of some of the utensils because they wanted to see if there was a good combination to be inherited. Then they wondered if this combination could be maintained…
Another group argued that a paper clip was the most successful utensil because it could alter its shape at every island, mimicking the other shapes. It wasn’t the leader at individual islands but got the most food overall. This discussion got heated when others argued that the paper clip was ‘becoming’ these other utensils and if the host didn’t move from island to island would go through selection over generations to stay with the most effective utensil. What side are you on?[/learn_more]
One of the other common misconceptions is that humans came from chimps, apes, monkeys, etc. I partly blame the fun graphic showing human evolution, because it shows humans as the end of a progression. But I think it has to do with our great ego. We want to believe that we are the pinnacle of perfection, the top of the heap. But everything has been evolving at the same time. In my qualifying exam, I was asked to name the most evolved mammal. After realizing that I had no clue, I settled on mice because they have short generation times and therefore more chances to change. But I really don’t have an answer. The point of the question was for me to discuss this idea that some things are more evolved than others – they aren’t.
In common language, many equate ‘evolve’ to mean ‘progress’. That is fine but it implies that the last step is somehow less and it doesn’t have to be that way. If I’m a colony of bacteria thriving in a gut, why do I need to adapt to a new set of circumstances?
I found it tough to find good resources on how to teach evolution when we were getting started. There is a lot of information on why to teach evolution and it makes sense with the political struggles over this issue. I would love to meet the teacher in this NY Times article because he has tried some interesting approaches. I was impressed with the use of Mickey Mouse across time to discuss selection. CORRECTION: This idea first came from Stephen Jay Gould – thank you for pointing it out @jacabsolute. Mickey Mouse paper (provided by ebookpedia).
So, what do you think is the best way to help people comprehend evolution? It is such a mind-boggling concept, is there any way to make it easier to understand?
[learn_more caption=”Common ancestor: personal”]We tried a few things to explain the common ancestor idea. One trial was the comparison of me and a second cousin*. We had a common great-grandparent but it was hard to tell. He was 6’5″ and I’m 5’1″; he was a biker and I’m a science geek. Our speech was very different. This cousin helped out as a community service requirement to parole and I get nervous just pulled over at a seat belt check…
Students were floored when we explained that we shared an ancestor. (But you are so different!) The students found some similarities, particularly in cheekbones, etc. This led to great discussions on adaptations. My cousin thrived in his environment and me in mine but we couldn’t have switched. We were both successful but in different niches.
Unfortunately, my cousin was killed due to his involvement in the drug trade. Discussions that included this fact led students to state that he was unsuccessful. But he fathered at least 3 children and I have not yet had children. So he is more successful from a genetics point of view.
Do you think this is a valid way of discussing common ancestry? I stopped doing it because it felt a bit hokey – but it got the students talking. *Note: things have been changed to protect identities.[/learn_more]
Note: We were lucky because we worked with kids with an interest in genetics for the most part. I rarely discussed religion vs. science and if it came up in a classroom, I would have a private discussion instead of a public argument. As stated in the NY Times article, faith and science often have nothing to do with each other. If you have faith, scientific arguments aren’t guaranteed to change your mind. I have faith that if I keep jogging, I’ll become a world-class runner despite all evidence to the contrary.