Darwin's Big Idea

Evolution as a cross-cutting construct.

Posted Nov 05, 2015

pixabay / CCO Public Domain
Source: pixabay / CCO Public Domain

A few years ago, in collaboration with David Sloan Wilson, Jennifer Waldo, and Rosemarie Sokol-Chang, and the help of a large NSF grant, we created the international Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) Consortium — designed to expand evolutionary studies in higher education. The Consortium now exists largely as a diverse website that includes a series of evolution-relevant blogs, the peer-reviewed EvoS Journal, and the world's largest free-and-streaming database of evolution-related videos.

Recently Aron Wiegand, webmaster for evostudies.org, posted the following question to the EvoS bloggers:

“From the selective breeding of plants to animal husbandry, conservation, and drug development, what do you consider to be the most prominent example of the practical application of evolutionary knowledge in human society?”

Here is my response:

Aron, this is a hard question to answer! When the world celebrated what would have been Darwin’s 200th birthday on in the February of 2009, such major media outlets as Time, The Atlantic, and Newsweek underscored the fact that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were actually born on the same day — and much discussion ensued about which historical figure had a stronger influence on the modern world. Being compared to Abraham Lincoln in terms of influence? Not too shabby. Darwin’s influence has been simply enormous on modern thought.

My money goes to the field of education itself. The ideas of evolution have the capacity to serve as an intellectual infrastructure for connecting ideas across all areas of academia. This basic idea, which we refer to as the EvoS (Evolutionary Studies) model of education (thanks to David Sloan Wilson for spearheading this movement!), allows students to (a) learn about the basic principles of evolution and then (b) see how these principles are applicable to such seemingly diverse areas as genetics in fruit flies, Neanderthal social structures, the nature of art, reactions to infidelity in modern humans, the nature of human religion, and more. Way more.

What is particularly special about the EvoS model of evolution education is that it provides a new way to think about interdisciplinary education. Interdisciplinary education pertains to any form of education that draws on content across multiple traditional academic areas (e.g., biology and geology). Most interdisciplinary programs at colleges and universities, such as programs in gender studies, focus on a shared content area (in this case, gender, for example). Such a program would include courses in such fields as history, sociology, and political science as they relate to the content area of gender. Such a curriculum is connected by content.

EvoS is different — and it provides a novel way to think about interdisciplinary education. Instead of connecting classes based on shared content, EvoS connects classes based on the shared set of principles of evolution. Thus, our EvoS curriculum at New Paltz includes a course in historical geology, which focuses on the fossil record and how evolution helps us make sense of the fossil record, and it also includes a course in social psychology, as this course will typically include some content related to how human social behavior can be understood as the product of evolutionary forces. And that’s not all. Students in our EvoS program at New Paltz (and in similar programs at other schools around the country) take courses from a bunch of different departments — courses that vary considerably in terms of content, but that share the common pedagogical tool of evolutionary principles.

For a great introduction to the EvoS concept, check out the many free-and-streaming videos of the past speakers in our annual EvoS Seminar Series.

Darwin’s Influence on Education as Only Partly Realized

So to answer your question, Aron, I think that Darwin’s influence in the field of education is huge. But get this. I also think that the potential that Darwin’s ideas have to inform how we educate people has only been partly realized. EvoS programs such as our program at New Paltz are still only found at a handful of colleges and universities. As a result, it’s still the case that most colleges and universities offer evolution education only in compartmentalized areas — such as biology and geology departments. This is a shame, as Darwin’s ideas have the capacity to improve our understanding of such issues as:

We neglect Darwin’s ideas within academic circles to our detriment. In the future, based partly on the efforts of the EvoS Consortium that hosts this blog, I see a time when Darwin’s ideas are fully applied across academic areas, and a unified and coherent educational framework connected with evolution helps turn on the light for generations of students in years to come.

Hey, a guy can dream, right?

This blog is cross-posted for my blog, Building Darwin's Bridges, found at evostudies.org.