why you should study evolution

I’ve just been talking with some of my students about evolution: fact, theory, process of, the whole lot. And why it’s important that people learn about it. I wish I had seen this piece by Olivia Judson  beforehand – I could have referred them to it there & then.

And because she says it so well…

… I’ve pasted parts of Olivia’s op-ed piece here.

One of the things I say first-up to my classes is that evolution underlies all of modern biology. It lets us organise ideas, see commonalities, understand the patterns that we see.

[It] provides a powerful framework for investigating the world we live in. Without evolution, biology is merely a collection of disconnected facts, a set of descriptions. The astonishing variety of nature, from the tree shrew that guzzles vast quantities of alcohol every night to the lichens that grow in the Antarctic wastes, cannot be probed and understood. Add evolution — and it becomes possible to make inferences and predictions and (sometimes) to do experiments to test those predictions. All of a sudden patterns emerge everywhere, and apparently trivial details become interesting.

And we are part of the evolutionary process – it’s not just that we have our own evolutionary history, but that we are influencing the evolution of other organisms. Probably you’re all familiar with the evolution of drug resistance in bacteria & viruses (look at how HIV populations have evolved resistance to the anti-viral drug HIV, for example.) But Olivia points out that our effect is much greater:

For instance, we are causing animals to evolve just by hunting them… Human trophy hunting for bighorn rams has caused the population to evolve into one of smaller-horn rams. ([Which], incidentally, is in line with evolutionary predictions.)

Another example of this is in elephants: tuskless elephants used to be extremely rare in Africa. These days the frequency of tuskless elephants in at least one population is much higher – at least in part because these animals are ignored by poachers & so are more likely to reproduce, spreading the ‘tuskless’ allele through the population. (Typically, that’s not the whole story, but I will write a separate post about that.)

Thus, a failure to consider the evolution of other species may result in a failure of our efforts to preserve them. And, perhaps, to preserve ourselves from diseases, pests and food shortages. In short, evolution is far from being a remote and abstract subject. A failure to teach it may leave us unprepared for the challenges ahead.

Her third reason (also one of mine) for the teaching of evolution has to do with attitudes to science. Learning about evolution can go a long way towards learning about the nature of science itself. Some US commentators fear that there’s a general tendency there to undervalue science & scientific ways of thinking. Attempts to replace the teaching of evolution with ‘alternatives’ such as intelligent design or more obvious forms of creationism (or even just to couple it with them) are a part of this. And we do see these attempts in New Zealand as well, just not (yet) so strongly. To me, this runs the serious risk of destroying the curiousity that drives all good science.

And so I love Olivia’s concluding statement:

But for me, the most important thing about studying evolution is something less tangible. It’s that the endeavor contains a profound optimism. It means that when we encounter something in nature that is complicated or mysterious, such as the flagellum of a bacteria or the light made by a firefly, we don’t have to shrug our shoulders in bewilderment.

Instead, we can ask how it got to be that way. And if at first it seems so complicated that the evolutionary steps are hard to work out, we have an invitation to imagine, to play, to experiment and explore. To my mind, this only enhances the wonder.

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