Campus & Community

Evolving ideas

2 min read

Panel discusses developing topics in the teaching of evolution

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 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.