Friday, 18 April 2008

How to sell evolution

Darwin probably had the best idea any one has ever had. His main theory is so elegant, explaining so much with so little. (His other theory, sexual selection, is also pretty hot stuff.)

I'm not getting into the evolution/creationist debate because a debate needs two sides, and, in purely scientific terms, this 'debate' doesn't have that.

Worryingly, despite the vast importance of this account of life there is a staggering level of ignorance about it.

In my experience with children, teenagers, undergrads and adults:
  • some know nothing about it;
  • some hold a Lamarckian view (the idea that acquired characteristics can be passed on);
  • some have a really weird version where frequency of use begets a trait (my favorite example is that smokers' children will be born with their index and middle finger as one uber-finger with a hole in it for the cigarette);
  • lots think in terms of the Great Chain of Being, where there is a linear progression from things like amoeba up to us, stopping off at monkeys along the way. This idea is probably given legs because of Rudy Zallinger's much parodied "The March of Progress" in paleoanthropologist F. Clark Howell's book, Early Man.

    This is wrong because, as Pinker says, "evolution did not make a ladder; it made a bush" [p. 343]. That is, we did not evolve from chimpanzees: chimpanzees and humans both evolved from a common ancestor.
I was never taught about evolution at school. I taught myself at University. This is the biggest betrayal of my education. Now, I don't know about how it's being done in schools now but if the children I know are representative, it's not being done well.

One thing that might be really, really useful is computational modelling of evolution (like Paegel, B.M. & Joyce, G.F. (2008). Darwinian evolution on a chip. PLoS Biol.) This brings natural selection to life, in a way that when made a wee bit simpler should wipe away all the misconception in a lovely interactive, tamagotchi-like way.

Evolution - and all complex scientific ideas - should be sold in the digital space. It's where children can interact with, test and better understand such ideas. Given a choice between a dull classroom lecture by a teacher, who will likely be worse than the top teachers used to develop a videogame, and such a videogame, the choice is obvious.

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