Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Understanding Evolution in New England Colleges and Universities

The March issue of Evolution: Education & Outreach contains an interesting article on "Educators of Prospective Teachers Hesitate to Embrace Evolution Due to Deficient Understanding of Science/Evolution and High Religiosity" (Paz-y-Miño-C and Espinosa, 2012). The authors surveyed three groups at 17 colleges and universities in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island in the USA (New England states). The three groups were (1) general faculty members, (2) faculty members who were involved with training prospective teachers (educators), and (3) undergraduates.

Most of the general faculty (82%) thought that evolution was definitely true but only 54% of the students agreed. Among the educators only 71% thought that evolution was definitely true. This is a general trend. Educators tend to be more religious and less certain of evolution than typical faculty members but less religious and more accepting of evolution than the average student.

This is not surprising. It suggests that simply exposing prospective teachers to a college/university education does not guarantee that they will learn the consensus opinion of typical faculty members. Educators tend to be less knowledgeable about evolution (and science?). This means that "teaching the teachers" may not be as easy as one images. (Keep in mind that this is New England, which tends to be much more liberal than other parts of the USA.)

I was most interested in the question about defining evolution since it comes up frequently in the blogosphere. There's one definition that I prefer above all others [What Is Evolution?].
Evolution is a process that results in heritable changes in a population spread over many generations.
Here's the question that Paz-y-Miño-C and Espinosa asked in their survey ...
Question 8: An acceptable definition of evolution. Indicate if each of the following definitions of evolution is either true or false:
a=gradual process by which the universe changes, it includes the origin of life, its diversification and the synergistic phenomena resulting from the interaction between life and the environment;

b=directional process by which unicellular organisms, like bacteria, turn into multi-cellular organisms, like sponges, which later turn into fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and ultimately humans, the pinnacle of evolution;

c=gradual process by which monkeys, such as chimpanzees, turn into humans;

d=random process by which life originates, changes, and ends accidentally in complex organisms such as humans;

e=gradual process by which organisms acquire traits during their lifetimes, such as longer necks, larger brains, resistance to parasites, and then pass on these traits to their descendants.
This is a horrible question because none of the choices are correct. If I were given such a question I couldn't bring myself to pick any of the options. Shame on Paz-y-Miño-C and Espinosa for asking such a question.

Here are the results.

Most of the respondents thought that option "a" was true. If we take this at face value, then evolution, by definition, involves change in the universe and the origin of life. That's ridiculous.

A majority of students selected option "e" as true. This is Lamarckian evolution, although I'm not sure if the people being surveyed realized that was what they were selecting. A remarkable 25% of the general faculty said this was true, suggesting to me that there was a lot of misunderstanding about this choice.

What this proves is that evolution educators have a lot of work to do. The fact that such a bad survey question could be published in a journal called Evolution: Outreach & Education is troubling.

Paz-y-Miño-C, G., and Espinosa, A. (2012) Educators of Prospective Teachers Hesitate to Embrace Evolution Due to Deficient Understanding of Science/Evolution and High Religiosity. Evolution: Education and Outreach 5:139-162. [doi: 10.1007/s12052-011-0383-9 (paywall)] [Author's Proof - free version]


  1. "Evolution is a process that results in heritable changes in a population spread over many generations."

    Er, wait. Some problems there:

    1) "Heritable changes" (as the term is used in biology) refers to phenotype, not genotype: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heritability
    Surely you don't mean to exclude silent changes at the molecular level?

    2) Does this definition work for macroevolution? It only refers to one population.

    3) Is it a definition at all? To be a definition, it has to unambiguously classify any process as either being evolution or not, i.e. you need to be claiming that evolution is the _only_ process with the listed property. Then are you prepared to include processes where the populations do not consist of organisms, e.g. evolution of (populations of) empires, ant colonies, cities, memes, etc? All of these have a notion of population and of generation, and support heritable change (in a non-genetic sense).

    4) Do you really mean to exclude strong purifying selection and balancing selection, either of which may result in an _absence_ of change over a long (but finite) period of time?

    1. 1. Heritable changes refers to any genetic changes that are inherited.

      2. No, this is a minimal definition as I explained in my post. Did you read it?

      3. What the heck are you talking about. Do you not understand the biological meaning of "population"?

      4. Negative selection and balancing selection are special cases that don't easily satisfy the definition.

      Feel free to offer a better definition. If you like, I could give you the names of half a dozen textbook authors you can contact when you come up with your definition.

    2. 1. Not if you ask a zoologist (which is what I did this morning).

      2. If what you are offering is a definition of microevolution, it is best referred to as a definition of microevolution. (Especially on a blog frequented by creationists.)

      3. If the definition only refers to populations of organisms, it should say so. This is an important distinction mainly because of the existence of memetics - to ignore it is to open a door for pseudoscience to enter evolutionary biology.

      As I understand, the most standard definition of microevolution is "change in allele frequencies over time". This avoids problems 1 and 3, but not problems 2 and 4.

      Personally, I would define biological evolution as "the time evolution of a set of genetic sequences", where "time evolution" is defined here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_evolution
      Of course, I do not expect this definition (or any other attempt at mathematical rigour) to be popular with the authors of biological text books, and I understand that such definitions are not useful for the purposes of most evolutionary biologists.

    3. Reading Prof. Moran's articles on the definition of Evolution, it seems to me that his point is that the definition of Evolution should describe Evolution as a phenomena, and not include a description of processes. If I'm interpreting him correctly, I agree. The processes (Natural Selection, Genetic Drift, etc) and their contributions to our view of how Evolution occurs are bound to change as new data and insight comes along. We should be describing what Evolution "is", not how it occurs (i.e. specific processes). In that sense, I don't see a problem with what prof. Moran used as a definition.

      My two cents.

    4. I agree that a definition should not include a description of processes (then it would be a description, not a definition). That's why neither of the definitions I mentioned above contain such a description.

  2. I have no idea who Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C. is (he teaches "Biology of Organisms" [???]), but his definition of evolution as a "cosmic" process is certainly highly idiosyncratic:

    Based on current scientific evidence, 100% of all people should accept the concept of evolution, which proposes naturalistic explanations about the origin of the universe (= cosmic evolution; Krauss 2010), its gradual processes of change including the origin of life, its diversification, and the synergistic phenomena resulting from the interaction between life and the environment (Paz-y-Miño-C. and Espinosa 2011a).


    Even if he means well, I daresay he's himself in need of some more education before he educates the public.

  3. Larry, Konrad is referring to the quantitative genetics definition of heritability, which is all about phenotypes. A more precise term for your definition of evolution would be "inherited".

  4. e) reminds me of that one about the scientist who tried cutting the tails off of rats to see a race of tail-less rats would develop

  5. Despite the total lack of well done creationist ideas being presented to these kids or teachers it still is healthy numbers for us.
    Truly a fair debate system on this would move our numbers up quite a lot.
    It shows also teachers are just confident in their fellow teachers and presume they are right.
    They know little about evolution in reality.
    It's just about who you trust.

    it comes down to the facts and making a case with those facts.
    After all this time and resources and lack of opposition in these places evolutionism should be true to 90% or so.
    something is wrong!

  6. It's really crazy that answer choice C, which is the only one amoung that choices that represents evolution, was chosen by the lowest number of people, of all groups! When I first read the choices I thought the rest were supposed to be 'obvious throw-aways': origin of the universe? origin of life? Acquired traits? Single cell directly to complex mutli-celled animals? All way way off, C was the best worst answer.

    1. Schenck, C cannot be the answer for several reasons. Firstly, chimpanzees are primates, but they are NOT monkeys. Secondly, humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor. Humans did NOT evolve from chimpanzees. It is essentially like saying that we descended from our third cousin. It makes no sense.