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How Is Evolution Taught?

How Is Evolution Taught?


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In Science Academy biological science classes (life science, biology, advanced biology, genetics, human anatomy & physiology, ecology), evolution by natural selection is an important and necessary topic to be learned and understood by all students. Realizing that students come from many backgrounds, having many beliefs, I strive to emphasize what is known (observable and testable). As a result, microevolution (small changes within species) is given much more emphasis than macroevolution (the production of a whole new type of organism), simply because the former has been observed while the second has not. What does this mean regarding what it taught and what isn't?

What Is Taught

  • Natural Selection. Variability among individuals in a population results in differences in survivability. Natural selection causes individuals with adaptive traits to survive and pass their genes on to the next generation ("selection for"), while nonadaptive traits result in decreased reproduction and eventual disappearance of the gene from the species' gene pool ("selection against").
  • Evidence of Evolution. Fossil record (including gaps), geographic distribution, homologous structures, vestigial structures, embryological development.
  • History of Earth. Early development of the earth, billions of years ago.

What Is Not Taught

  • Speciation / Macroevolution. While students will read that natural selection can result in new species given the right circumstances, because the actual process behind macroevolution is still unknown, students are taught that this is merely one hypothesis about how new species might have formed.
  • Origin of Life. While students will read that complex, organic molecules formed by random interactions of chemicals in the early oceans, students are not required to believe that these interactions were random.
In addition, at the middle-school level (life science), students are not tested on the evolution unit but complete a project about natural selection instead.

One of my main goals in teaching evolution is that students learn the facts about what evolution does and does not teach -- as a matter of general scientific literacy if nothing else -- and learn that science, which strives to explain how, does not have to be at odds with religion, which strives to explain why.

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by Lisa Swieson
2014 SCIENCE Resources

Last modified: 7 July 2014