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Richard Lewontin, Alexander Agassiz Research Professor, discusses how evolution should, ideally, be taught. (Staff photos Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)

Evolving ideas

Panel discusses developing topics in the teaching of evolution

By Bob Brustman
Harvard News Office

Is the problem with evolution A) people don't believe in it; B) people believe in it but don't understand it; or C) evolution comes packaged with troubling implications that we don't want to accept? According to speakers at a spirited Askwith Education Forum - "How Do We Teach Evolution" - on Feb. 22 at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the answer is "all of the above."

From the point of view of Richard Lewontin, Alexander Agassiz Research Professor, "The real issue is that large numbers of people don't believe that organisms evolve, and our first problem that we have to integrate into teaching about how they evolve is to begin by convincing doubters that organisms do evolve."

Lewontin suggested that the way to do this is "to begin with something that no one will disagree with and slowly develop from that universal belief a sequence from which one cannot escape." He then led listeners along a path that begins with atomic energy - something, he said, in which everyone can believe. If you believe in atomic energy, he said, then you believe in rates of decay. If you believe in rates of decay, then you believe in radiation dating. If you believe in radiation dating, then you believe that we can identify strata of rock from different times.

Those strata of rock contain fossil evidence of plants and animals. Different strata of rock contain different types of fossils, yet each fossilized plant or animal had parents. Therefore, at some point, a parent life form must have given birth to progeny that were different from the parent. If you accept all of this, then, voila! You believe in evolution.

Andrew Shtulman, teaching fellow in psychology, describes obstacles to the understanding of Darwin's theory even among undergraduates who endorse it.

Andrew Shtulman, teaching fellow in psychiatry, presented his research, performed with Harvard summer school students. His object was to discover whether students held accurate theories about evolution. He learned that a majority of the students believed in a transformational version of evolution, which is that evolution has to do with the essence of a species and that offspring are always improvements on the parents. This is in contrast to the Darwinian concept of natural selection, which is variational, emphasizing variation among members of the same species. With a variational evolutionary theory, offspring are not always improvements on their parents.

What is interesting about this, said Shtulman, is that the majority of students believed in a form of evolution that isn't taught. Among the implications, he said, was that the "evolution/creationism debate is far from over - because those who oppose teaching evolution in public schools likely misunderstand evolution and those who favor teaching evolution in public schools also likely misunderstand evolution."

By contrast, Richard Wrangham, Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology, contended that people found evolutionary theory fairly easy to understand. And he should know, he teaches evolution to Harvard undergraduates. It was important, he stressed, to teach people when they're young: "I think that as long as you get to people reasonably early and have an opportunity to expound evolutionary theory reasonably gently, you will find success," he said. "The case for evolution by natural selection is so strong that if you have people with open minds, it's easy."

Richard Wrangham stressed the importance of teaching evolution to students when they are young.

There are, however, potential inferences that can be made about evolutionary theory that trouble many people and can present barriers to acceptance of the theory. One, Wrangham said, was genetic determinism, the idea that our genes determine our behavior. This fits uncomfortably with our personal sense of freedom. The antidote Wrangham suggested was to talk about gene-culture interaction and the role of environment in making us who we are.

Wrangham also said that historical misuses of evolutionary theory can make people reluctant to accept the theory, noting that the theory has been used to support racism, sexism, and the eugenics policies of World War II Germany.

He warned against the "naturalistic fallacy," or the fallacy of thinking that that which is natural is good. This might be fine, he said, if you were talking about the consumption of raw foods as being natural and therefore good. It was not fine if one was talking about a biological justification for rape.

Finally, Wrangham admitted that religion and the teaching of evolution sometimes bumped heads. He said, "The reason so many people do not believe in evolution is surely because they had very strong religious beliefs first ... and if we are going to teach evolution successfully, we have to find a way to marry those two things."

Michael Ruse, Lucyle T. Werkmeister professor of philosophy at Florida State University, thinks that evolution has become a religion to some. "Evolutionism," as he has termed it, holds that humans, as highly advanced species, have moral obligations to look out for less advanced species. Believers in this "religion" would say that we ought to work to preserve biodiversity in the world and to save the rain forests.

Ruse believes that both evolution and evolutionism should be taught in schools; however, he believes that evolutionism "should come in comparative religion courses, along with Islam, Judaism, and other religions. Not as a truth ... but as a belief system."

During the Q&A, audience members wanted to know the advantages and disadvantages of believing in evolution. Ruse answered, "Whether you're a believer or not, the quest to understand this magnificent, frightening, exhilarating world that we live in is just as much a moral demand laid upon us as 'love your neighbor.' People who don't want to know the way the world is are spiritually dead."


Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College