Understanding Evolution Makes You Smarter

Learning about evolution is foundational. Here's why.

Posted Aug 06, 2019

shell_ghostcage / Pixabay
Source: shell_ghostcage / Pixabay

About 15 years ago, an interdisciplinary program in evolutionary studies came on the scene at Binghamton University. My longtime collaborator, renowned evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, worked with several colleagues and students to develop this program, which was designed for any and all students on campus. Not just biology students. Not just earth science students who are interested in paleontology. Not just students interested in understanding DNA. 

The EvoS program at Binghamton is open to all students. And our program here at SUNY New Paltz follows this same approach.

When Charles Darwin discovered the insight of natural selection and other foundational evolutionary processes, his mind saw the implications for understanding the entirety of life.

Decades later, we now have scholars who utilize evolutionary principles to shed light on such varied phenomena as:

  • Mental health (see Nesse & Williams, 1995)
  • Physical health (see Cordain et al., 2005)
  • Human social behavior (see Buss, 2017)
  • Art (see Miller, 2000)
  • Marketing and business (see Saad, 2007)
  • Computer engineering (see Khalifa, 2019)

And more.

Guess what? Evolutionary principles are as powerful as are any ideas in the history of academia. Deal with it.

Unfortunately, resistance to incorporating evolutionary ideas into various academic areas has been intensive and palpable (see Geher & Rolon, 2019). As I see it, this is a real problem because this sustained and often coordinated resistance has the effect of standing in the way of our ability to understand who we are.

Darwin’s Roadmap to the Curriculum

Recently, David Wilson, Hadassah Mativetsky, Andrew Gallup, and I (2019) teamed up to produce an edited book, Darwin's Roadmap to the Curriculum, that highlights the many ways that evolutionary principles can shed light on any and all academic subjects. Across 20 chapters and nearly 500 pages, the various authors of this volume present many angles on the integration of evolution into academic curricula. 

Understanding Evolution Makes You Smarter

In a central chapter in Darwin’s Roadmap to the Curriculum, Kauffman, MacDonald, and Wilson (2019) provide strong and statistically significant evidence regarding the broad-reaching power of an evolution education. In their study, they examined the effects of a single cross-disciplinary evolution class ("Evolution for Everyone") on various markers of critical thinking skills in a sample of college students from a broad range of majors.

These critical thinking skills, such as the ability to effectively use evidence in drawing conclusions and the ability to use logical reasoning, are central outcomes that we shoot for in academia, regardless of what class you might be teaching.

The data that these researchers provided are unequivocal. Students were given several measures of critical thinking at the start of the class and near the end of the term. The data strongly support what the authors refer to as “the EvoS effect”—a strong effect speaking to improvement in critical thinking skills.

After taking this basic course on how evolution applies to the entirety of life, students showed specific increases in logical ability, the tendency to use a scientific approach in addressing questions, the ability to draw valid conclusions based on data, the ability to work effectively and objectively with evidence, and more. 

Learning about evolution and its impact on the entirety of the living world (including all facets of the human condition) makes people smarter. In fact, I’d argue that while Charles Darwin was certainly intelligent, it was really the evolutionary principles that he developed that allowed him to so easily understand so much about life. Once you have the evolutionary toolkit, you’re literally smarter as a result. Darwin was so smart because he understood the nature of evolutionary forces. And you can too. 

The Evolutionary Studies Summer Institute

One chapter in the book summarizes the effects of an intensive institute that we offered at SUNY New Paltz over two summers for the benefit of K-12 teachers in New York State (see Geher, Toback, & Wedberg, 2019). As is the case in higher education, it turns out that evolution education in public schools is sorely lacking. This institute, which included intensive modules on evolution applied to such areas as human health, genetics, art, and social behavior, provided motivated teachers (mostly science and social studies teachers from throughout New York) to see how broadly evolution can be applied. 

Feedback from the teachers was overwhelmingly positive, including anonymously collected comments to the effect of:

  • Enhanced my understanding of misconceptions around evolution
  • Really opened my mind to numerous approaches to evolution
  • Interesting to have academics in all areas addressing central unifying topic
  • Loved seeing evolution in a biological sense carried over to other disciplines in a meaningful, comprehensive manner
  • I seriously left every day with a smile and positive, exciting ideas floating around in my head 

It Is Time to Evolutionize Education

My collaborators and I are not the only ones who think that evolution is important in education. The recently developed Next Generation Science Standards, which are designed to influence public education at a national level, focus on infusing concepts related to biological evolution as “early as kindergarten” (Geher, Toback, & Wedberg, 2019, p. 457). Now that’s what I’m talking about!

Since the 1800s, fear and politics have impeded our ability to truly reap the benefits of Darwin’s ideas in helping us understand who we are. Across 20 chapters written by experts on various facets of the evolution/education interface, Darwin’s Roadmap to the Curriculum provides guidance on (a) why it is important to integrate evolution into curricula on various topics, (b) what evolution applied to a broad range of content areas looks like, and (c) specific actions that educators and educational leaders can design and implement to help bring Darwin’s ideas into the curriculum on all topics at all levels. 

If we really want to understand the world and our place in it, the time to evolutionize education is now.

References

Buss, D. M. (2017). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating (Revised edition). New York: Basic Books.

Cordain L, Eaton SB, Sebastian A, Mann N, Lindeberg S, Watkins BA, et al. Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nutr (American Society for Nutrition). 2005a;81(2):341–54

Geher, G., & Rolon, V. (2019). Controversies Surrounding Evolutionary Psychology. In D. Wilson, G. Geher, H. Mativetsky, & A. Gallup (Eds.), Darwin’s Roadmap to the Curriculum: Evolutionary Studies in Higher Education. New York: Oxford University Press.

Geher, G., Toback, A., & Wedberg, N. (2019). The Evolutionary Studies Summer Institute at New Paltz: A High-Impact, Condensed Interdisciplinary Educational Experience for Teachers. In D. Wilson, G. Geher, H. Mativetsky, & A. Gallup (Eds.), Darwin’s Roadmap to the Curriculum: Evolutionary Studies in Higher Education. New York: Oxford University Press.

Khalifa, Y. (2019). From genetic evolution to engineering optimization. In D. Wilson, G. Geher, H. Mativetsky, & A. Gallup (Eds.), Darwin’s Roadmap to the Curriculum: Evolutionary Studies in Higher Education. New York: Oxford University Press.

Miller G. F. (2000). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature, London, Heineman.

Nesse RM, Williams GC: Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine, Times Books, New York, 1995.

Saad, G. (2007). The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Wilson, D. S. (2019). This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. Pantheon: New York. 

Wilson, D. S., Geher, G., Mativetsky, H., & Gallup, A. (2019). Darwin’s Roadmap to the Curriculum: Evolutionary Studies in Higher Education. New York: Oxford University Press.