Why we must teach our students human evolution

The important information left out of Ontario science curriculum

Theodosius Dobzhansky’s “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” is my favourite science quote, as it sums up perfectly how important evolution is to our understanding of biology.

The Ontario science curriculum has evolution taught in grade 11 biology, but having it taught at this late stage in students education, and only to the ones that elect to take higher level biology, I fear that many students are missing out in understanding this key biological concept.  Human evolution in particular is not specifically mentioned in the curriculum and unless biology teachers make an effort to add in this important aspect of evolution than students are missing out about learning about our biological origins.    There are many reasons why human evolution may not be part of the formal curriculum. The “controversy” surrounding our origins and fear of push back from parents due to religious concerns is certainly among them.


To skip or minimize discussion of human evolution due to this “controversy" is to miss an opportunity to engage students. From an early age we wonder where we come 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 lineage from Australopithecus to early Homo sapiens and explore the different species that branched off in between. By studying the fossil record we can understand when we began walking upright, by noting all the huge morphological changes that distinguish us from other great apes, such as our wide bowl-shaped pelvis, big toes in line with the rest of our feet.  We can see when our brain size increased (when Homo erectus came about) and the subsequent huge change in our technology. As they say, the rest is history.

Tapping into our inherent curiosity about our history and origins is a great way to get students excited about science. Who does not want to know why we do the things we do and look the way we do? Learning about our own evolution helps students feel connected to science. It can be cool to watch chemistry experiments but they may not relate directly to our own lives. Many students would never picture themselves as a “typical” scientist who wears a white lab coat and works in a lab all day. But human evolution is instantly relatable, and shows students who are interested in science but don’t realize that spending your days out in the field digging up fossils or observing our primate relatives in the wild are examples of “doing science.” 


Learning about human evolution is a lens through which students, and people in general, can see how we are connected to the world. We are primates, just like the living animals we call apes and monkeys, though our own evolutionary path rewarded walking on two legs and having a really big brain. Evolution is not directional; it is not striving for better.  Evolution is not a ladder with us at the top but rather a web, showing how different species are connected to each other.

Animals who are the best adapted to their environment survive long enough to reproduce and pass those genes onto their offspring. Our unique human-defining traits do not make us better than our other primate relatives—just different. Chimpanzees are well adapted to their environments where they live and thrive; they are in no way “less evolved” than we are. It is true that , we humans have dominated and altered the world around us, but if we understand our evolutionary place in the world, it becomes harder to justify the idea that we are better than the organisms we share the planet with. In this way, studying human evolution is humbling, and in this day and age, we all need a little humility.

At this moment we are dealing with climate change on an unprecedented scale because of our actions, putting Earth at risk for us and all the other plants and animals that live here. We need to start using these big brains of ours for good to stop the changes that could spell the end of our run on this planet. There were early hominid species, like Australopithecus afarensis, that lived for about 900,000 years, almost four times as long as we have been around, but they eventually went extinct. Such examples show students that our species is not the be-all and end-all of human evolution. We are not immune to the forces that can cause extinction. We can see now how vulnerable we are to disease epidemics like Ebola, HIV, and even the common flu. Natural disasters—on the rise due to climate change—can render us defenseless and vulnerable. Technology can help us, but we can’t assume it will save us.

We have a duty to teach the next generation where they come from, evolutionarily speaking, and to push against the idea that we are somehow invincible and almighty. Students should understand our biological place in the world. Teaching human evolution is too important to avoid for fear of the controversy surrounding it. I have seen the moment in which a student begins to comprehend the bigger picture of where we come from, and it is amazing to behold. We need to give students more opportunities for moments like this that can shift their perspective and open up a whole new way of thinking. It is only when that happens that this generation will see how precarious our place in this world is and be inspired to do all that they can to stop climate change from wreaking havoc on the only place we and all the rest of life on Earth call home.

I hope that Ontario curriculum standards change and include human evolution in the general discussion of evolution in grade 11 biology.  Even better I would love to see evolution be incorporated earlier in students science classes which easily could be done within the current curriculum, like in grade 6 where students are taught diversity of species.  I am sure lots of teachers already do this but it would be great if it could be formalized in the curriculum to introduce evolution and its basic ideas in the elementary science curriculum.  This has been done in Quebec in 2004, where they rolled out a new science curriculum that includes evolution among key concepts in elementary school science classes and mandates a full unit of evolution in a compulsory Grade 7 or 8 science class.  Till that time comes in Ontario I hope that Primate Tales can help fill that gap.  I started Primate Tales to get kids excited about science and biology by learning about our evolutionary origins and our closest living biological relatives,  primates.  Kids go wild, excuse the pun, for monkeys, apes and lemurs. They can see the traits we share with them and they of course there is the cuteness factor.  By introducing students to primates and their relationships to us, as we are primates ourselves, we can help all students understand what evolution is all about and how it connects all of us to this planet we call home.  


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