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Teaching Evolution Successfully

i-710d005c8660d36282911838843a792d-ClockWeb logo2.JPGFirst posted on December 12, 2005 on Science And Politics, then re-posted on January 16, 2006 on The Magic School Bus and most definitely worth reposting again here…

The new article on PLoS, Evolution for Everyone: How to Increase Acceptance of, Interest in, and Knowledge about Evolution by David Sloan Wilson, describes a successful experiment of teaching evolution to a broad segment of the student population at Bighampton College (the paper looks nicer in PDF format).

Here are just a couple of snippets:

The main problem with accepting evolution involves implications, not facts. Threatening ideas are like other threats–the first impulse is to run away or attack them. Make the same ideas alluring, and our first impulse is to embrace them and make them our own. Neither impulse is very respectable scientifically. After all, scientists are supposed to accept ideas when they are true, regardless of their consequences. Nevertheless, the key to making evolution a subject that anyone can understand and everyone should want to understand is to focus first on the implications.


It might seem that boldly discussing subjects such as human infanticide (which the students quickly connect to the contemporary issue of abortion), along with other topics such as sex differences and homosexuality later in the course, is the ultimate in political incorrectness. However, I have taught this material for many years in prior courses without a single complaint, and the assessment of “Evolution for Everyone” demonstrates an overwhelmingly positive response across the religious and political spectrum.


The important point is that evolutionary theory can potentially explain the evolution of behaviors associated with morality and immorality. This is vastly different than the usual portrayal of evolution as a theory that explains immorality but leaves morality unaccounted for. The average student is well aware that immoral behaviors usually benefit the actor, that human groups have a disturbing tendency to confine moral conduct to their own members, and so on. When evolutionary theory is presented as a framework for understanding these patterns in all their complexity, including the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly, it is perceived as a tool for understanding that can be used for positive ends, rather than as a threat.

You reaaly should read the whole thing, as it is informative, thought-provoking and almost exhilarating. No matter what prior education, strength of religious belief or political ideology the students (from a wide variety of majors) had prior to the course, they all had a positive experience, learned a lot, and understood both evolution in particular and scientific method in general much better than they did before the course.

Also, check out the course website for more information. One of the undergraduate students in the program finished his course project by having it published in Quarterly Review of Biology (pdf)!

I will definitely print this out and study it in detail in order to try to replicate it in the future.


  1. #1 Winawer
    September 28, 2006

    David Sloan Wilson…

    I caught his talk at the Animal Behavior conference recently. He sseems like a fairly bright guy, even if the methodology of the study he was talking about seemed a little dodgy.

    On the other hand, he did get the nickname of “Doctor Asshole” around the campfire for his savage attack on Tim Clutton-Brock during the Q&A after the latter’s keynote address, in which D.S.W. beat Clutton-Brock over the head with group selection.

  2. #2 coturnix
    September 28, 2006

    Clutton-Brock is the most unpleasant and most dogmatic scientist I have ever met in person. Sloan Wilson is one of the nicest and smartest scientists I have ever met. If David was called “Dr. Asshole”, I’d say the attribute should have gone to Tim instead.

  3. #3 CCP
    September 28, 2006

    pedantry: no such place as Bighampton College. DSW teaches at Binghampton University (formerly SUNY Binghampton).
    I took an Evolution course from him and Guy Bush at Michigan State back in the day…a group selectionist and a sympatric speciationist, and this was 1982!

  4. #4 Winawer
    September 28, 2006

    Re: Clutton-Brock. Wow, stranage difference in perception. When I spoke with him in person, I was quite impressed by how nice he was, and how he went out of his way to talk with everyone who wanted to speak with him. Didn’t get a dogmatic feeling at all.

    Re: Sloan Wilson. I’m just repeating what I heard, not what I believe, since I didn’t talk to him in person. I will say that his attack on Clutton-Brock was … a little out of line, though, whatever their respective personalities may actually be. He could have made that point in a different way, or in a different venue.

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