Wednesday, April 20, 2011

AAAS Flunks Evolution!


As I noted yesterday, the AAAS document, Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education, defines five core concepts for biological literacy [Core Concepts: Evolution]. Evolution is the first core concept and this is a very good thing. Congratulations to the committee for a wise choice.

However, the way that the core concept is described was troubling. It suggested to me that the members of the committee may not understand evolution as well as they think they do. This worry is reinforced by the AAAS Project 2061 Science Assessment Website where a series of questions and responses about evolution indicates that AAAS flunks the test.

There's no mention of the standard definition of evolution as a change in the heritable characteristics of a population over time [What Is Evolution?]. This is important because a fundamental part of the core concept is the understanding that any mechanism of change counts as evolution—not just natural selection. Another fundamental part of evolution is understanding that it is populations that evolve and not individuals. The population genetics definition of evolution was developed in the 1930s and became a key part of the Modern Synthesis in the 1940s. The definition is almost 70 years old. Why don't the authors of the report know this?

There's no mention of random genetic drift. The assessment questions are all about natural selection. In fact, the key topic concept is called "Evolution and Natural Selection." How are students supposed to understand phylogenetic trees based on sequences if they don't understand the basic stochastic process that generates these trees? How are they supposed to understand genetic variation if they've never heard of neutral mutations and how they can be fixed by random genetic drift?

There's nothing about mutation. Don't students need to understand mutation in order to understand variation? Of course they do.

There's nothing about speciation. Understanding how new species arise is an important part of evolution.

The problem with the Vision and Change document is that it identifies five core concepts but it doesn't tell us what they are beyond giving them names. If you want to reform undergraduate teaching you have to not only identify what the core concepts are but also make sure they are accurate. If you don't understand the core concepts to begin with then you aren't going to teach them properly to your students. I don't think most professors understand evolution well enough to be able to teach it effectively as a core concept. (This also applies to the other core concepts as I will explain over the next few days.)

What we really need is a committee that examines how to teach PROFESSORS the core concepts of biology. Unfortunately, ignorance of the core concept of evolution is widespread and seems to include many of the professors who created the Vision and Change document.


15 comments :

  1. Unfortunately, teaching professors the core concepts of biology won't do anything to help those professors secure extramural funding. Not going to happen.

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  2. Look on the bright side, Larry. At least they said evolution 'AND' natural Selection, rather than simply equating the two terms..

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  3. Unfortunately, teaching professors the core concepts of biology won't do anything to help those professors secure extramural funding..

    That. Which is why they are not even interested in understanding core concepts to begin with.

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  4. Larry, do you think evolution theory is held in low repute by the majority of the population because for so many years it has been taught by professors who do not know what they are talking about?

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  5. anonymous asks,

    Larry, do you think evolution theory is held in low repute by the majority of the population because for so many years it has been taught by professors who do not know what they are talking about?

    No, I think we have to thank the creationists for that.

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  6. Do we have to thank the creationists for the fact that evolutionist professors do not know what they are talking about?

    If it rains when you do not want it to rain, do you blame creationists for that as well?

    We are all starting to see that your prejudice against religion taints everything you think and teach.

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  7. anonymous asks,

    Do we have to thank the creationists for the fact that evolutionist professors do not know what they are talking about?

    Nope.

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  8. Perhaps the reason that university profs are so confused about evolution is because those who have been challenging current evolution theory (including, but not limited to creationists) have shown that the theory is full of holes and the profs and researchers have no way to explain the inconsistencies and contradictions.

    This generally happens before a paradigm shift.

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  9. Perhaps the reason that university profs are so confused about evolution is because those who have been challenging current evolution theory (including, but not limited to creationists) have shown that the theory is full of holes and the profs and researchers have no way to explain the inconsistencies and contradictions.

    No. That is most definitely NOT the reason.

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  10. Anonymous writes:

    This generally happens before a paradigm shift.

    Perhaps you'll hold your breath waiting? ;-)

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  11. Well there must be some reason why these univ profs do not know what they are talking about.

    I suggest that the reason is that current evolution theory is so inconsistent and filled with just-so stories that it is inevitable that those who try to teach it are stumped.

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  12. Anonymous writes:

    Do we have to thank the creationists for the fact that evolutionist professors do not know what they are talking about?

    Perhaps the reason that university profs are so confused about evolution is because those who have been challenging current evolution theory (including, but not limited to creationists) have shown that the theory is full of holes and the profs and researchers have no way to explain the inconsistencies and contradictions.

    I suggest that the reason is that current evolution theory is so inconsistent and filled with just-so stories that it is inevitable that those who try to teach it are stumped.

    Thank goodness you repeated yourself three times or I might not have caught on to what you were trying to say.

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  13. Nobody here is disputing that these univ professors who teach evolution theory do not know what they are talking about. The report confirms this.

    The question is why do they not know what they are talking about.
    And the other question is why does anyone hold them in any esteem?

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  14. Actually what all this is about, is that the profs are not up on the latest just-so stories.
    That is what causes Moran to criticize them.

    Evolution theory is a moving target requiring new just-so stories, as each new piece of contradictory evidence comes to light.

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  15. Wikipedia defines genetic drift as follows: "Genetic drift or allelic drift is the change in the frequency of a gene variant (allele) in a population due to random sampling." Why not use this definition of sampling error? Using sampling error has the advantage in that it enables a biology instructor to relate the concept to "sampling error" used in probablity and statistics courses that many students take. It is obvious that sampling error increases as population (sample) size decreases. Larry Moran is right--students need to better understand the role that sampling error (approx equal genetic drift) can play in evolution.What definition of genetic drift does Larry Moran use? Biology professors as well as students also need a more comprehensive understanding of selection.
    My next post hopefully will deal with the ecological causes of natural(including sexual) selection and the four selective genetic effects that selection plays s(the?) major role in causing. Maybe Larry can post his defintion of selection as a process before I attempt to do it in one paragraph.---Carl Bajema, a retired biology professor who is a dinosaur trying to become a mammal with respect to the computer age.

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