Efforts to educate children and the general public about biological evolution have long suffered a severe crisis of relevancy independent of religious influences, and this crisis continues unabated. Even for those who accept its veracity in this country and others, evolution is generally (and mistakenly) envisioned as a process of the past, encompassed by abstract concepts that have little bearing on humans, let alone the future of Earth's diversity. This failure of education, while complicated by a number of factors, is due in large part to a lengthy history of fragmentation and compartmentalization within academia that has left us with a void between two fundamental ideas: ecology and evolution.

THE REAL CRISIS IN EVOLUTION TEACHING [9.29.05]
By Scott D. Sampson

SCOTT D. SAMPSON is a Canadian paleontologist who has a dual position at the University of Utah as Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Utah Museum of Natural History and Associate Professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics. He is the host of "Dinosaur Planet," a series of four animated television shows on the Discovery Channel.

Scott Sampson 's Edge Bio Page


THE REAL CRISIS IN EVOLUTION TEACHING

[SCOTT D. SAMPSON:] Darwinian evolution is one of the cornerstones of modern science, resoundingly accepted by the scientific community for almost one and half centuries. Yet, amazingly, considerably less than half of the United States population believes that the theory of evolution is supported by the evidence, and 42% of respondents in recent poll agreed that "living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time." What lies behind this profound disconnect between scientists and the general public? Currently, there is a strong tendency among school teachers and professional academics alike to blame this educational disaster on the religious right. This view has certain merit. For example, most recently, the Intelligent Design movement has been able to gain considerable ground through its "teach the controversy" campaign, appealing to Americans' sense of fairness. Yet placement of blame on right-wing fundamentalism is severely misplaced; it also misses the point.

Efforts to educate children and the general public about biological evolution have long suffered a severe crisis of relevancy independent of religious influences, and this crisis continues unabated. Even for those who accept its veracity in this country and others, evolution is generally (and mistakenly) envisioned as a process of the past, encompassed by abstract concepts that have little bearing on humans, let alone the future of Earth's diversity. This failure of education, while complicated by a number of factors, is due in large part to a lengthy history of fragmentation and compartmentalization within academia that has left us with a void between two fundamental ideas: ecology and evolution.

To date, professional ecologists have focused overwhelmingly on processes operating on timescales too brief for evolution to be easily perceived. Conversely, evolutionary biologists are typically interested in short-term lab-based activities aimed at cells or genes, equally short-term effects of genetic change within populations, or processes involving turnover of species through geologic time. Within these distinct research programs, a synthesis of evolutionary and ecological theory has generally seemed unnecessary. Is it really surprising, then, that students rare develop a deep understanding of, let alone any sense of affinity with, these key concepts?

The web of life is composed of two distinctly different kinds of threads‹those that link organisms at any given moment in time through the flow of energy (ecology), and those that link all lifeforms through deep time via genetic information and shared common ancestry (evolution). Seen from this dual and complementary perspective, the two themes are inseparable. Without evolution, our vision is severely limited to the present day and we cannot begin to fathom the blossoming of life's diversity from single-celled forebears. Without ecology, the intricate interconnections we share with the current panoply of lifeforms cannot truly be envisioned. United in a single theme, evolution and ecology provide a powerful lens through which to view life's web, forming the foundation of an integrated and underutilized perspective on nature. In short, we need dramatic increases in levels of both ecological literacy, or "ecoliteracy," and evolutionary literacy, or "evoliteracy," with this dynamic pair of concepts reinforcing each other.

I propose, then, that it is the links with ecology that make evolution relevant to our daily lives. As educators, we must demonstrate that the marvelous, interwoven complexity that characterizes every ecosystem, ancient and modern, is the result of a co-evolutionary dance that has required millions upon millions of years. Such recognition simply will not happen without a complete overhaul in our thinking about science education, and indeed the role of education generally.

Fortunately, there is movement afoot within both science and science education to bridge the eco-evolutionary gap. Increasingly, scientists are seeking out cross-disciplinary collaborations. Ecologists are expanding their scope to embrace regional and deep time effects on ecosystems, while evolutionists increasingly are considering the role of ecosystem dynamics on evolutionary patterns and processes. Research on topics such as complex adaptive systems is uniting once disparate disciplines in a search for common explanations and even natural laws. In parallel fashion, radical new approaches to education are challenging traditional notions of learning. For example, the ecoliteracy movement has argued persuasively that designing curricula around key ecological concepts and outdoor activities has great potential to connect children with the natural world and foster the growth of a more informed citizenry. But this is just the beginning.

How, then, might we communicate a synthesis of ecology and evolution to a broad audience, given that both concepts are admittedly complex? Environmental educator David Orr has advocated that, rather than fragmenting the natural world into semi-arbitrary disciplines that are largely human constructs, we should instead organize education around the categories suggested by Nature itself: for example, seashores, forests, and rivers. In such endeavors, narrative has continually demonstrated its effectiveness in communicating science to a broad audience. Most importantly, we need to tell stories of place, stories in which all lifeforms (including humans) are intimately connected to one another by energy flow (ecology) and kinship (evolution). In many cases, effective communication will take the form of multiple, layered stories. The layered-story approach allows educators to weave together several narratives and make non-intuitive connections about the workings of natural systems, as well as the role of humans within them.

Of course virtually all stories are mere snippets of much larger and encompassing sagas. Hence, manifestations of the eco-evolutionary tale could be told from the perspective of a single organism or an entire community; they could focus on a single modern habitat or a continent from the distant past. The narrative would include not only the flow of biological change but, equally important, changes in the physical environment, from landscapes to climates. The strands of life's web extend beyond the biological to encompass the physical world, with the two realms continually feeding back upon each other. So these educational narratives must explore, and ultimately unite, Earth and life.

To my mind (and many others), the single greatest challenge currently facing our species is reconnecting people with nature. From the standpoint of education, ecology and evolution together provide a robust scientific foundation for telling the big story, the story of ages‹that of who we are, how we got here, and our intimate links with nature. We must take up the challenge of unifying and de-mystifying these fundamental concepts. These efforts will contribute directly to reconnecting people with nature, and allow them to foster a renewed sense of place. Particularly if this eco-evolutionary education incorporates outdoor, "natural" laboratories, it will also help to instill that all-important‹indeed essential‹sense of wonder and passion for the non-human world.

In making this argument, I do not mean to denigrate in any way the efforts of those who work to keep evolution in the Nation's science classrooms, and religion out. Indeed I am a member of these ranks, and regard such efforts as essential for maintaining the integrity of our school system, let alone effective teaching. Importantly, better informed children with developed analytical skills will grow into adults better able to see through the pseudoscience of IDers and their ilk.

So let's continue to fight the good fight. But let's also stop blaming religious fundamentalism for the failure of evolution education, and instead focus on innovative ways to communicate these key concepts to the next generation. Ultimately, an encompassing, inspirational eco-evolutionary story has tremendous potential to fundamentally alter worldviews at a time when the sustainability of global ecosystems, and perhaps our own species, is seriously imperiled.