Evolution is the key to understanding biology
"Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution" by Theodosius Dobzhansky, is my favourite science quote as it sums up perfectly how important evolution is to our understanding of biology. Unfortunately in Ontario schools evolution is not required to be taught until grade 11 biology, and that is to only to the tiny proportion of students who take biology. This late teaching of such an important topic is a major issue as it can lead to misunderstanding about what evolution is (and is not) and a decrease is science literacy for many Ontario students. Parts of the theory are introduced in earlier grades, like diversity of species, but the theory and concept as whole is not taught till much later. So why is teaching evolution so important?
1. Evolution is the backbone to how we understand the rest of biology
Without evolution we can’t understand how this amazing diversity of species we see on our earth came to be. It is through natural selection (the mechanism of how evolution works) that we have birds with different beaks for obtaining different food sources, giraffes with long necks to access food other animals in the savanna cannot and so on and so on. Evolution also teaches us why we see similar traits in vastly different animals ( like wings in bats and birds). Evolution explains how speciation (the creation of a new species) occurs. If you are little rusty or need a primer on evolution check out this list of my 7 favourite books on evolution to learn more.
2. Evolution helps us understand our origins
From an early age we wonder where we came from, evolution explains that for us. From the amazing array of fossils that have been found in Africa, Asia and Europe we can piece together our evolutionary past from Australopithecus to Homo sapiens and all the different species in-between. We study primates (check out my post on primates to learn more about them) because we evolved from a common ancestor with themIt was my love of primates that brought me into this field and made me so interested and passionate about it. By studying the fossil record we can understand when our bipedal stance (standing on two legs) came about and all the changes the resulted from this huge morphological difference between us and the other great apes ( our wide pelvis, our big toes inline with the rest of our feet, shorter arms). We can see when our brain size increased (when homo erectus came about) and from then on we see a huge change in our technology and as they say the rest is history.
3. Studying evolution helps students understand the scientific method
By using evolution as an example teachers can guide their science students through the steps of creating a hypothesis, testing it with an experiment, analyzing the data and coming up with a conclusion. Being literate in science is key for students ability to pursue STEM and science related careers, like these 5 interesting biology related careers, later in life. It is so important that students receive a comprehensive science education, and that included learning about evolution.
4. We see evolution happening everyday.
Viruses and bacteria evolve to overcome our medical advances that stop them from harming us. We can see this from bacteria that are no longer resistant to antibiotics, creating super bugs that are harder and harder for us to fight. Viruses like Zika are new and are wrecking havoc in South American countries. Understanding how viruses and bacterial evolve is key to helping defeat and deal with them and that starts with understanding how they evolve and change.
5. Evolution is a great gateway to get students excited about science
Not all students may think of themselves as science students. Maybe they struggle with math or chemistry but they connect with the biological ideas within evolution and want to explore this field. I never thought of myself as a scientist, until I went to the Galapagos and saw first hand where Darwin figured out his theory, from there I was hooked and can’t imagine doing anything else. Evolution has the amazing way of capturing our imagination and wonder about where we come from and understanding our past. I still am in awe when I think about how there were all these different human like species living at the same time in Africa, Europe and Asia what must it have been like to encounter an individual that was like you but not. This awe and wonder can be captured and pushed ahead by students that were just like myself and we can have a whole new generation of passionate biologists, who could go on to become the next Darwin or Newton, like Dan Riskin, from Daily Planet, talked about at the ROM Darwin Day Lecture I attended.
I hope this post has illustrated just a few of the reasons why teaching evolution is so important. If you are interested in incorporating more information about evolution you can check out my top 5 biology lesson ideas. They are targeted for grade 11 biology but can be used with any grade level if tweaked for their understanding level. One of the main reasons Primate Tales was started was to increase science literacy about evolution. We hope through our outreach programs we are able to engage and excited students in the Toronto and GTA about evolution and science.
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