David Sloan Wilson has written some terrific articles on the topic of evolution. I recently ran across a 2005 article he wrote for PLoS Biology www.plosbiology.org titled “Evolution for Everyone: How to Increase Acceptance of, Interest in, and Knowledge about Evolution.” The article explains the method by which Binghamton University has successfully infused its undergraduate curriculum with real-life applications of evolutionary theory. The EvoS program began in 2002. Here’s the mission of EvoS:
The mission of EvoS is to advance the study of evolution in all its manifestations, including all aspects of humanity in addition to the biological sciences. Many organizations and websites promote the study of evolution, but EvoS is unique in two respects.
• EvoS is based on the realization that evolutionary theory will probably never be generally accepted–no matter how well supported by facts–unless its consequences for human affairs are fully addressed. Once evolution is seen as unthreatening, explanatory, and useful for solving life’s problems, then it becomes not just acceptable but irresistable to the average person (see the tutorial for more).
• EvoS makes a connection between evolutionary theory and the unification of knowledge, which has always been the goal of a liberal arts education and contemporary efforts to integrate across disciplines. The same kind of unification that took place in the biological sciences during the 20th century is now taking places for the human behavioral sciences and humanities–but is not yet reflected in the structure of higher education. EvoS is the first program to diagnose this problem and comprehensively provide a solution at a campus-wide scale.
David Sloan Wilson explains that the Binghamton program makes use of 50 faculty members representing 15 departments. The program was created based on the following assumption: “Evolution can be made acceptable, interesting, and powerfully relevant to just about anyone in the space of a single semester.” Consider the backgrounds of some of the faculty members teaching in this undergrad program:
Anthropology, art, biology, business, chemistry, cinema, computer science, creative writing, economics, education, engineering, English, history, human development, linguistics, management, mathematics, nursing, philosophy, physics, clinical science, and psychology.
The building blocks of evolution are simple. Therefore, there is no need to “boil down” the principles of the theory. What are those principles?
The principles of phenotypic variation, corresponding variation in fitness, and heritability are so simple and seemingly inevitable and their consequences that the main question is not “what are they?” or “Are they true?” but “Why should they be regarded as a big deal?
This course focuses on natural selection a basis for evolution, even though there are other bases for evolutions (gene frequencies also change due to “drift” and mutation), because natural selection allows common sense predictions, starting only with a basic knowledge of the organism and the environment.
David Sloan Wilson explains that before evolution, there were only two options to explain the properties of organisms: God and materialism. Natural selection offers an alternative to both of these options. Natural selection is obviously different than theology, but the difference from materialism is not so obvious. Here’s how David Sloan Wilson explains this important distinction:
To the extent that the material composition of organisms results inheritable variation, it becomes a kind of living clay that can be molded by environmental forces that influence survival and reproduction. The most interesting properties of a clay sculpture are caused by the molding action of the artist, not the physical properties of clay. In the same way, evolutionary biologists routinely make predictions about the properties of organisms (such as “many prey organisms match their background to avoid detection by predators”) without any reference to the physical materials of the organisms, including their genes.
Based on the results from teaching this course, the students have been terrific at making intuitive and common sense predictions regarding the application of evolution to many human features and behaviors. It turns out that evolution is a very good theory on many levels. What is it that a good theory should do: “First, it should explain the world as it has existed in the past and exists in the present. Second, it should provide ways to improve the world in the future.” Evolution gives biologists “a common language that can be spoken across so many domains of knowledge. [This] is an extraordinary fact and needs to be presented as such to students learning about evolution for the first time.”
One of the key aspects of the course is to essentially begin at the end; the instructors begin with the implications for the theory of evolution. Many of the students come to the course associating evolution with “immorality, determinism and social policies ranging from eugenics to genocide. It has also been used to justify racism and sexism. All of these negative associations must be first acknowledged and then challenged. It’s not as if the world was a nice place before Darwin and then became mean on the basis of his theory . . .] After taking the course, the students have been surveyed to see whether the course affected their views on evolution. Based upon these surveys, the course has been phenomenally successful, even for those students who identified themselves as conservative or religious at the beginning of the course.
An important lesson taught during the course is that humans can’t simplistically regard themselves as categorically different than other creatures. Do we have a special kind of behavioral flexibility, and the ability to socially transmit behaviors and accumulative fashion (culture” is not something entirely separate from our biology. “The importance of culture is not denied, but becomes part of the evolutionary framework rather than a vaguely articulated alternative.” That’s why so many fascinating topics lend themselves to an evolutionary analysis. Consider such things as infanticide, morality, illnesses such as pregnancy sickness, antimicrobial properties of spices, alcoholism, attractiveness, body piercing, depression, eating disorders, fashion, fear, hand dominance, homosexuality, marriage, play, sexual jealousy, sibling rivalry, social roles, suicide, video games and yawning (these are some of the independent study topics chosen by the students over the past two years).
On the topic of morality, the students are presented with three hypotheticals. What would happen if a moral individual and an immoral individual were forced to live together on a desert island? The students quickly conclude that the moral individual would be taken advantage of and maybe killed. What would happen if you put a group of moral individuals on one island in a group of immoral individuals on another island? The students conclude that the moral individuals would create a relative utopia compared to the dysfunctional immoral islanders. What happens when you mix the two? The answer is not clear, but the point is that the outcome of the evolutionary process is not necessarily a dog-eat-dog dysfunctional society. Natural selection is also consistent with what we often see in the real world: highly functional communities. When natural selection “is based on fitness differences within group’s, behaviors associated with immorality are the expected outcome. To the extent that natural selection is based on fitness differences among groups, behaviors associated with morality are the expected outcome.”
There are two “walls” of resistance to evolution, according to David Sloan Wilson. One of those walls denies the theory altogether. The other “wall” is the attitude that evolution is irrelevant to human biology or behavior. Many academics have failed to do their homework to recognize the ubiquitous relevance of evolutionary theory to their various disciplines. Perhaps this ignorance is because much of the critical research has only occurred within the last few decades. The EvoS curriculum is geared both to students and to teachers, then, and it has reportedly resulted in students and faculty members catching fire with evolutionary theory. How important is evolutionary theory when studying human beings? David Sloan Wilson sums it up:
Evolutionary theory is not the only common language, but it is a very good one that will eventually become part of the normal discourse for all subject areas relevant to human affairs and the natural world.
I found myself fully engaged with this article and this curriculum because of a personal experience. Until about ten years ago, I had never taken a course on evolution. As it turned out, I audited a three-hour multidisciplinary seminar on the topic of evolution at Washington University in St. Louis. I found myself repeatedly surprised and delighted at the numerous fruitful applications of evolutionary theory to human biology and behavior. Once you understand it deeply, you’ll never forget it. As Daniel Dennett explained in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, the theory of evolution by natural selection is indeed “universal acid.”
[Note: The EvoS website contains loads of resources, including this webpage full of links helpful to understanding evolution. ]
[Photo with permission of www.dreamstime.com]