Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Core Concepts: Evolution

The AAAS document, Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education, defines five core concepts for biological literacy. Evolution is at the top of the list, right where it belongs.

The diversity of life evolved over time by processes of mutation, selection, and genetic change. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was transformational in scientists’ understanding of the patterns, processes, and relationships that characterize the diversity of life. Because the theory is the fundamental organizing principle over the entire range of biological phenomena, it is difficult to imagine teaching biology of any kind without introducing Darwin’s profound ideas. Inheritance, change, and adaptation are recurring themes supported by evidence drawn from molecular genetics, developmental biology, biochemistry, zoology, agronomy, botany, systematics, ecology, and paleontology. A strong preparation in the theory of evolution remains essential to understanding biological systems at all levels.

Themes of adaptation and genetic variation provide rich opportunities for students to work with relevant data and practice quantitative analysis and dynamic modeling. Principles of evolution help promote an understanding of natural selection and genetic drift and their contribution to the diversity and history of life on Earth. These principles enable students to understand such processes as a microbial population’s ability to develop drug resistance and the relevance of artificial selection in generating the diversity of domesticated animals and food plants.
I would have written a different description—one that placed emphasis on Darwin's contribution but did not imply that his views represent modern evolutionary theory. I would also have mentioned genetics, especially population genetics, as the key to understanding modern evolution.

Nevertheless, one can't argue that evolution is the number one core concept in the biological sciences. Are we teaching it correctly in undergraduate courses. No, we are not. Are we teaching it enough in our undergraduate courses? No, again.

I think the main problem was completely ignored by the committee that drew up this document. The problem is that most professors don't understand evolution well enough to integrate this core concept into their courses. It's not enough for everyone to agree that evolution is a core concept. You also have to understand the core concept in order to teach it properly.

I see evidence in the description above suggesting that even the committee members were fuzzy on the core concept. What, for example, is "the theory of evolution"?


  1. Bruce couldn't be more correct with his idea of less is more for introductory courses. It should even apply to more advanced courses at the University of Toronto. I took a virology course last winter. It was pure memorization, what proteins are encoded by what viruses and they do to this or that...etc...etc...I've never regretted taking a course more, and I don't remember hardly any of it. In Contrast, I also took Biology of sleep. There were 3 lectures, the rest was reading papers, presenting papers, and formal debates about them. Not only did it present a more enjoyable learning environment, I remember alot of the controversies and still have fun at the pub educating friends/family that we still don't know why we sleep, and questioning their notion of what sleep is for (why did sleep evolve? what is sleeps purpose?).

    Moving more toward debates and presentations is the way forward, in my opinion

  2. I don't think sleep "evolved". Sleep was the ordinary "consciousness" once, as it maybe still is today for some primitive organisms.

    Awakeness and intelligence evolved. And this is quite far from consciousness itself. Consciousness can only diminish when we chose away possibilities. Consciousness is biggest in the vacuum field (unbroken)?

    A good blog :) I have laid it to my blog list. Thx.

  3. are you suggesting that primitive animals sleep or is it just the absence of wakefulness?

    How can you tell that a fruit fly is sleeping? There are plenty of times where I just sit somewhere not moving and I'm wide awake.

    If sleep was ordinary ''consciousness'' once, would it not have had to have evolved into sleep? Certainly sleep is different from consciousness today. So why is has it become different? What evolutionary advantage is there to spending 1/3rd of your life defenseless in a ball?