Evolution for Everyone

Released: 31-Oct-2005 8:40 AM EST
Source Newsroom: Binghamton University, State University of New York
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Citations Public Library of Science (PLoS) Biology (forthcoming)

Newswise — School boards may try to strike the very word from the public school curriculum, but at Binghamton University, State University of New York, evolution is for everyone.

"Evolution for Everyone" is also the title of a popular course that serves as the introduction to an evolutionary studies program called EvoS (http://bingweb.binghamton.edu/~evos/).

"The course teaches the basic principles of evolution and how they can be used to study the length and breadth of creation—including our own species," says David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist who initiated and directs EvoS. "The program enables all students on campus to develop their evolutionary interests throughout their college career." An article by Wilson describing the course and program will be published later this year in the open access journal "Public Library of Science (PLoS) Biology" (http://www.plos.org)/.

EvoS is popular among faculty, too. Starting with core faculty in the biology, anthropology, and psychology departments, the program now includes over 50 faculty participants from virtually all departments, including the humanities.

Wilson's research exemplifies the same multi-disciplinary approach. He studies humans along with other species and holds a joint appointment in the Biology and Anthropology Departments. His recent book, "Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, And The Nature of Society" (University of Chicago Press 2002) attempts to bridge the ultimate gap between evolutionary theory and religion. "Darwin's Cathedral" placed Wilson at the center of the modern movement to understand the relationship between science, religion, and spirituality in a positive sense. "Unlike the futile controversy over creationism and intelligent design, my dialogue with religious believers and scholars is cordial and productive," Wilson reports.

"Evolution education will remain ineffective until the implications of the theory are examined along with its factual content," Wilson continues. "When evolution is presented as unthreatening, explanatory, and useful, it can be easily grasped and appreciated by most people in the space of a single semester, regardless of their religious or political beliefs, science background, or prior knowledge of evolution."

In addition to courses, EvoS includes a campus-wide seminar series that illustrates how many subjects are being approached from an evolutionary perspective. During the spring 2005 semester alone, distinguished scientists and scholars from other institutions spoke on topics as diverse as individual differences in taste perception, vocal mimicry in wild parrots, the cultural evolution of agriculture, agent-based computer simulation models of evolution, the psychological dynamics of happiness, ecosystem genetics, moral emotions and concepts, the evolutionary ecology of Lyme disease, and how literature can be approached from an evolutionary perspective.

According to Wilson, "The fact that all of these topics can be understood and enjoyed by a single audience of undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty is proof that evolutionary theory provides a common language that can be spoken across disciplines."

Wilson's enthusiasm is shared by others, from the administration to the students. According to Binghamton University Vice Provost Stephen Straight, "As a professor of linguistics and of anthropology, I found EvoS immediately attractive as a way of getting people to look scientifically and systematically at many topics through the "lens" of evolution. And as overseer of the university's undergraduate curriculum, I saw EvoS as a stellar example of the integrative, interdisciplinary directions in which our curriculum should properly move."

For Matt Gervais, a junior pursuing a psychobiology/philosophy double major with a minor in anthropology, EvoS offers a vision of unified knowledge. "EvoS provides a stimulating atmosphere within which biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers, social scientists, and even those in the arts can transcend traditional academic boundaries and collaborate in addressing mutually interesting questions. It creates a think-tank atmosphere of sorts, and it's a beautiful thing!"

Gervais became interested in the seemingly esoteric subject of laughter from an evolutionary perspective while taking the introductory course and developed his interest through the program. Not only was he awarded a prestigious Barry M. Goldwater scholarship on the basis of his research, but he also had a major review article accepted by the journal "Quarterly Review of Biology." The significance of the article is indicated by one of the reviewers, who stated that it will be "highly influential in the years to come."

According to Wilson, "The fact that an undergraduate student can make such a contribution to knowledge is a testimony not only to the student but to the integrative power of evolutionary theory and a program such as EvoS that teaches the basic principles early and facilitates intellectual development throughout one's college career."

Another student who profited from EvoS is Dan Eisenberg, a recent graduate, who was able to conduct research in Alaska with one of the EvoS seminar speakers. "Evolution, as taught to me in school before EvoS, was just another scientific idea to memorize. Through EvoS, it has become a paradigm with which to explain not only traditional biology, but also culture and other self-propagating processes. I find myself using evolutionary explanations to explain my and others behavior in a more parsimonious and factual manner than I used to. If higher education's goal is to enlighten students, to show them the scientifically derived truth, and how to understand art and the humanities, evolution is key."

EvoS has begun to attract the attention of other colleges and universities. SUNY New Paltz, another college in the New York State system, will initiate a version of EvoS in 2006 and Wilson is consulting with colleagues at the University of Georgia.

Wilson is currently trying to accomplish in book form what he has already accomplished in the classroom. His next book titled "How To Be A Good Evolutionist" is scheduled for publication by Bantam Books in fall 2006. As Wilson likes to put it, when it comes to evolution and teaching evolution, the future can be different than the past.

For more information on Wilson, visit his website at http://biology.binghamton.edu/dwilson/

Binghamton University is one of the four university centers of the State University of New York. Known for the excellence of its students, faculty, staff and programs, Binghamton enrolls about 14,000 students in programs leading to bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees. Its curriculum, founded in the liberal arts, has expanded to include selected professional and graduate programs.


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