Friday, September 24, 2010

Around the web: evolution!

The "Around the Web" series highlights informative websites, and also targeted blog posts and news articles, relevant to the courses I teach. This semester I teach Anth 143: Biology of Human Behavior, an introductory-level course that covers the basics of evolution, behavioral biology, and the interaction of biology and culture. My hope is that these posts are useful not only for my current students, but other people hoping to gain background or insight into these topics.

This is a good week for Around the Web. There are myriad resources on the internet, as well as just some great writing, regarding evolutionary theory and the forces of evolution. I have a few more lectures for you, a few websites that provide good primers on science and evolution, some interesting blog posts... even a web comic. So here we go.

Resources on evolution

Professor Stephen Stearns never disappoints with his online lectures at Academic Earth. Check out these on the nature of evolution, natural selection, genetic drift, and how selection changes the genetic makeup of a population.

Another wonderful video resource comes from a Discover Magazine contest on how to explain evolution in two minutes or less. Greg Laden posts the winner and runner up here. Short and sweet!

But perhaps you prefer to read to learn, rather than watch. Here is a great set of lecture notes by Bora Zivkovic for his BIO101 class that teaches evolution, from genes to species.

Maybe you want to forego watching videos or reading anything, and would rather look at a single web comic. Well then, here is one often-misunderstood aspect of evolution, very clearly demystified!

Edited to add: Robert Luhn at NCSE emailed to kindly point out I left out two great resources... one being, of course NCSE, and the other being Understanding Evolution, at Berkeley. Thanks Robert!

Blog posts on evolution, the media and scientific literacy

While I have tons of posts on evolution, I thought it would be interesting this time to highlight some recent ones that discuss how the media talks about Darwin and evolution.

At The Guardian, Adam Rutherford wrote an article entitled "Beyond a 'Darwin was wrong' headline: The media love to give undue coverage to flimsy attacks on evolutionary science. And leave others to clean up the mess." In it, he writes about why heavy coverage of a rather problematic book by non-evolutionary biologists Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini entitled "What Darwin Got Wrong" is problematic.

Rutherford quickly clears up two issues for his readers:
Of course, there are plenty of things that Darwin got wrong. That is the nature of science, and indeed good scientists love to be wrong. It means that the theory will subsequently be refined to be more right. Darwin knew, as does every subsequent evolutionary biologist, that natural selection is the major, but not the only contributing factor to evolution.

Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini seem oblivious to this. They base their whole argument on either misunderstanding what real evolutionary biologists think, or by simply ignoring it. They describe processes in evolution that are easy to understand and are part of evolutionary theory, and quote them as a means to knock down that exact same theory. Repeating and enhancing these brainwrongs so elegantly, as Burkeman does [a journalist Rutherford criticizes for giving attention to the book with the Darwin was wrong headline], simply makes matters worse.

First: in science, we expect people to be wrong all the time, and for lots of things that we once believed to turn out to not be true. Evolutionary theory doesn't fall into this category because it has been so robustly supported in so many studies, over so many decades, that even we skeptical scientists are now quite happy with it. Second, a critical reading of this book is necessary by those who seek to cover it.

Ed Yong weighed in on a similar issue when he covered a journal article on phylogeny in his post Do new discoveries rewrite evolutionary history? There, Yong discussed the phenomena of scientists and the media shouting from the rooftops that the history of some lineage has been rewritten because of a new phylogenetic analysis or new fossil finding. He reviews an article by Tarver et al in the Proceedings of the Royal Society: Series B that looked at claims of "rewriting" evolutionary history in the reconfiguration of catarrhine (apes and old world monkeys) and dinosaur phylogenies when new discoveries are made. Go have a look, it's very interesting!

Finally, this post isn't directly about evolution but I think describes the problems in how we define scientific literacy very nicely. Alice Bell wrote this lovely post The Myth of Scientific Literacy, and to me, this post links to those about how to communicate science, particularly evolution, because of what we think our students know, and what they actually know and believe, when they arrive in college classrooms.


  1. Hi, Kate, nice post! I am curious, do you invite your students to read your blog? I teach graduate students, and I am just not sure of the etiquette of inviting them to read my stuff, even though most of what I post has relevance to what I teach. Your thoughts (and those of others) are appreciated.

  2. Hi Marya, thanks! Yes, I do invite my students to read. They comment very rarely, and from what I can tell of my stats at least some of them are reading. I would love to figure out how to use blogging to involve them more in the excitement of reading about science online.

    I teach a lot of gen ed material, so am teaching mostly non-majors when I teach undergrads. In the fall I teach undergrads only, but in the spring I teach both. I imagine getting grad students involved will probably be easier, but who knows? They might perceive themselves as more busy, and therefore not want to engage in the material in this way.

  3. Colin Purrington has a fun blog and will send you Darwin tattoos!