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Friday, October 09, 2009

I'm Starting an Evolution Revolution

The University of Toronto is in the process of reorganizing its introductory biology courses. The new proposal is to offer two half courses in first year and two in second year. The expectation is that all life science students will take all four courses.

To give you an idea of the numbers, the anticipated enrolment for the first year courses is 1920 students and for the second year courses about 1500 students. These are the courses that will make the biggest impact on our students when it comes to understanding basic biology.

Here they are ....

BIO120H: Adaptation and Biodiversity
BIO130H: Molecular and Cell Biology

BIO220H: From Genomes to Ecosystems in a Changing World
BIO230H: From Genes to Organisms

There's a lot that's wrong with this proposal but I'm focusing on the teaching of evolution. Everyone agrees that it's important to teach evolution and teach it correctly. I don't think a course entitled "Adaptation and Biodiversity" is going to do an adequate job, especially since the fossil record is completely ignored and there's no serious attempt to teach the history of life. Population genetics gets only a single lecture in the middle of the course.

I'm trying to start a revolution by convincing my colleagues to vote down these proposals on the grounds that we can do much better. At the very least, the decision should be postponed for a year so we can debate the issues. The proposals were first circulated last week and the recommendation of the Life Sciences Curriculum Committee is going to be decided today. If they recommend in favor of adopting the proposals, then it's highly unlikely that the recommendation will be overturned at the next level. That's no way to run a university.

Yesterday I bumped into my colleague, Paul Hamel, as I was on my way to Tim Hortons. He asked me what I was up to and I told him I was trying to start a revolution. His advice? "Don't quit your day job!"

(In order to appreciate this comment, you probably need to know that Paul is one of the most radical members of our faculty and he's been fighting to change the system, and our society, for several decades.)

I think most of you can see the problem with the BIO120H course title. The first sentence of the course description is, "Principles and concepts of evolution and ecology related to origins of adaptation and biodiversity." Since much of the biodiversity around us is not due to adaptation, it seems like a strange way to describe "principles and concepts."

That's not the only thing wrong with the courses but this isn't the place to go into more detail. The problem I face is that it is very difficult to convince my colleages that there's something wrong with the way we propose to teach evolution since very few of them understand evolution. In my case the problem is compounded by the fact that the course instructor, Spencer Barrett, is a highly respected evolutionary biologist with lots of publications in prestigious journals.

I'm not optimistic. Making changes at a big university is like trying to herd together a bunch of cats and get them to cooperate in turning a full loaded supertanker. It can be done but it's a lot of work.

Anyway, this is a long-winded introduction to the real reason for this posting. I want to highlight a posting by Ryan Gregory who explains why it's important to teach evolution and what level of detail is needed [How detailed an understanding of evolution do we need?]. Here's a teaser, get on over to Genomicron and read the whole thing.
If you mean “students enrolled in science programs,” either undergraduates or grad students (as in our study), then I would say that a good working knowledge of evolutionary theory, though not a full understanding of all its nuances, should be a major goal. Again, evolution is the unifying principle of biology, and without grasping how it works, one cannot make sense of the history and current diversity of life on this planet.

UPDATE: The committee met and the courses were approved without much debate.


  1. Are all life science students required to take an introductory English course? I hope so because then they would learn that there is no apostrophe in Tim Hortons and that "Principles and concepts of evolution and ecology related to origins of adaptation and biodiversity" is not a sentence; it lacks a verb. Taking an introductory English course would help prepare these students to be effective science writers.

  2. When I took BIO150, it was Spencer Barrett and Locke Rowe. If they are at all representative of the faculty, then you have your work cut out for you. Good luck

    Can you describe BIO220 and 230? It sounds like there would be a lot of overlap between "Genes to Organisms" and "Genomes to Ecosystems"

  3. I can see why you'd be concerned with the teaching of evolution, but I'm more puzzled by the fact that they want to either teach all of, or the first half of, BIO250 in first year. I'm not sure how this would work considering the course relied a lot on us being in BCH210/242.

    It seems like this entire plan is based less on teaching undergrads better and more on making the program seem impressive.

  4. I'm an undergraduate student studying Biomedical Science. I won't have the opportunity to study evolution formally during my course, but I have become convinced that I need to understand it. Can you recommend any resources that I can use to teach myself? I am reluctant to try choosing any for myself given what I have read about how even some textbooks get things wrong or take an unhelpful approach to teaching evolution.

  5. Anonymous asks,

    Can you recommend any resources that I can use to teach myself?

    Just reading the blogs is a pretty good way to start. Provided you read the "right" blogs. :-)

    If you want a popular version of evolution then Jerry Coyne's "Why Evolution Is True" is the best book to buy. It's not perfect but the mistakes aren't as bad as those in other popular books.

    If you want to spend more money then buy Douglas Futuyma's book "Evolution."

    I have a bunch of essays you can read. They're somewhere in the left sidebar. You might have to scroll down a bit.

    Maybe others can direct you to more resources on the web?

  6. BIO150 is the best way to turn people off of evolution, and this new course seems to butcher it some more. Good luck fighting that system, Larry. Wasn't hitting at the sciences when I was hitting at things but I'd have supported you unreservedly on this one.

  7. What would be good topics for these four half-courses? The goal is to maximize student exposure to the big picture and give the students the tools they need to interpret modern biological science and a solid foundation for further study.

    1) Molecules to Organisms (first year half course)
    How information in DNA goes to RNA, to protein, to cells. How differentiation changes gene expression to diversify cell types. Pattern establishment in development. epigenetic gene regulation.

    2) Interconnected Biodiversity (first year half course)
    The observed diversity of life, and how diversity combined with environmental constraints leads to ecosystems. Also going in reverse, how changing the environment impacts ecosystems and biodiversity.

    3) Biology Over Time (second year full course)
    How biology changes over time.
    i) molecular: mutation rates, genetic sequence drift, mechanisms of allele fixation (drift and drift influenced by selective effects). Homology and phylogenetic tree construction and interpretation based on genetic sequences.
    ii) organismal: fossil record, carbon dating and calibrating the rate of species change. population extinctions and population explosions. the integration of paleontology with phylogenetics.