Evolution and Its Uses in Education

 

Too long won’t read:
In my experience, evolutionary theory holds a weird pride of place as the litmus test of a good education in common conversation. When one is discovered to be religious, they are often asked, “but you believe in evolution…don’t you?” Darwinian theory and its modern permutations have their uses, but those uses are not practical for young people. On the other hand, learning basic home economics, learning about nutrition, gardening, andexercise in biology, how to read, basic civics, and logic.

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Actual thing:
When it comes to the theory of evolution by natural selection I find myself in a weird place. As far as the technical aspects of the theory goes, it explains things. On the other hand, it is a theory that is so reflexively considered to be the height of contemporary education that people go into conniption fits if somebody thinks it is false or claims to not understand it.

The problem I have with this is that the theory really is quite complicated and deals with such a high level of abstract reasoning about so many high non-abstract fields of empirical inquiry that it really is very difficult for almost anybody to understand who has not spent a tremendous amount of time in the field.

I say this based on conversations with biologist friends as well as based on email correspondence with a professor of evolutionary psychiatry. Some of these people have also pointed out to me the relative unimportance of evolutionary theory for the process of gathering and interpreting data about organisms and trends in ecosystems.

One microbiologist told me that most biologists he knows seem to misunderstand what evolution by natural selection actually entails. So, then, here’s my beef with the current state of play regarding the theory: a great deal of people graduate from high school without the ability to read proficiently. What’s the point of teaching an advanced scientific theory that is, by any metric, harder to understand than basic reading (seriously, read this post using basic game theory to explore the evolution of compassion)?

There is very little obsessive push, that I’m aware of as an educator make sure that misunderstandings about the ancient world or the Medieval and Renaissance are corrected. Yet, in high school I was taught that the ancients believed in a flat earth until the time of Columbus despite the fact that every cosmological discussion from that era (religious or not) assumed or explicitly required a round earth.

The point being that simply because something is true is not typically considered a good enough reason to demand that everybody knows it when they graduate. We don’t do that with Optics, Economics, the Canons of Rhetoric, how to use a soldering gun, exercise science, etc. Yet, when a highly technical meta-theory that requires input from game theory, physics, statistics, economics (of resources), chemistry, genetics, paleontology, cellular biology, and advanced skills in inductive and deductive logic comes along…that is just like totally necessary for people to learn.

Personal experience
The only time knowing about evolutionary theory and the authors who write about it and the finer points of the theory has every helped me is when people who found out I was a Christian wanted to make fun of me for believing the earth was 6000 years old (which I don’t). So the greatest benefit I’ve received is rhetorical one against a group of people who saw me as a place holder for an ideology with which they disagreed. In almost every case, btw, I’ve discovered that my reading about the topic is deeper and broader than the person (whom I’ve usually barely known) attempting to make fun of me when they find out I attend church Sunday morning. I suppose another benefit might be the rich experience of learning for learning’s sake.

I question the value of accruing facts for human flourishing. Evolutionary theory helps my biologist and agricultural engineer friends to do their work, but it is doubtful that having a hamfisted and outdated understanding of Darwinian theory does anything helpful for the average person outside of the intelligentsia (seriously, do we make people understand assembly language so that they can use computers?).

It seems like the better method is to say, “the state of play in biology when this text book came out was x, y, z because of evidence a, b, and c. As new evidence comes along or new ways of interpreting that evidence are produced, you can expect that our understanding will change. Now on to taxonomy, cellular processes, dissections, human anatomy, and applications to basic health and self-care.” The kind of help that a biology class could provide if basic data on human nutrition, exercise, and well-being were provided as well as tools for further research would be so useful. Learning what scientists said about Darwinian theory when an eight year old text book was being written is so much less useful.

 

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