Subject Filter

A scientist's take on the Game of Kings
| Chess Puzzles | Book Reviews | | Annotated Games | Opening Analysis | Science | First Time Here?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Evolutionary Biology and Education

The internet is perennially abound with discussion over evolutionary biology. It is a topic that surfaces repeatedly in the news, either in the form scientific dispatch describing a new species or in political news concerning the friction between science and religion. The latest iteration of the latter debate concerns recent remarks by Florida Senator Marco Rubio when answering a question about the age of the earth. The Senators somewhat ambiguous and confused (but understandable and unsurprising) answer has found both critics and apologists. He eventually qualified his answer, and I think made a good point that I will echo later in the post: the age of the earth has nothing to do with his tasks in the Senate. Even this point has been criticized, but I think it rings true in a subtle way).  Many of these debates, however, usually filter back to the opposition between creationism and evolution (as well as geology, embryology, or any other science that touches on the same points).

(Taken from Joyfully Battle Worn's blog without permission. Interesting post, you should definitely check it out. Echos some of the sentiments I expound here, although approached from a more religious perspective.)

The astute reader may be queuing up their groans and moans (or cheers, if they are into this debate). "Will this blog also devolve into a debate over evolution?" While I thought it would be appropriate to weigh in on the subject (after all, this blog is partly devoted to science, and biology in particular), you need not fear that these pages will transform into another blog taking on evolutionary biology. After all, there are many fine sites that primarily focus on this topic. I am especially familiar (and fond of) some of the more popular ones maintained by other scientists, such as PZ Meyer's Pharyngula. There is even a blog, aptly named EvolutionBlog, that focuses on both evolution and chess!

What then, does Science on the Squares have to offer to the evolution blogosphere? I am trained in molecular biology, not evolutionary biology (although I am well-read on the subject), and thus I will leave the discussion of the finer points of this science to others. However, I would like to add a voice to the debate over the proper placement of evolution in the classroom.

I've beaten about the bush long enough; my point is that neither creationist science, intelligent design, or evolutionary biology (as I understand it to be currently taught) belongs in the science classroom. No, you don't need to adjust your screen or check your glasses: I did indeed call for the partial removal or reform of evolutionary biology from the Science curriculum. 

Now that I have your interest, please select 'Read More' to read this article in its entirety. I'll give you a preview: the evolutionary explanation of the origin of species is more history than it is predictive science, and thus is not critical to the education (or future competitiveness) of our youth.

The position I've taken is one that is sure to stir up controversy, and will probably have the somewhat unique distinction of angering proponents of both evolution and creationism. Please feel free to add to the discussion by leaving a comment below, but try to keep it civil!

Don't teach the controversy, but teach what is most important

The opposition between creationism and evolution, between faith and science, is fought in a number of different formats: internet forums, formalized debates, competing blog posts, and political campaigns. Perhaps the focal point of all of these fights is the political struggles over which camp gets to set education standards in the science classroom. The religious (or those seeking the vote of the religious) have pushed for either removal of evolutionary biology from the lesson plan, some form of discrediting of the science (i.e. teach the controversy), or equivalent with their own beliefs. Most evolutionary biologists oppose these plans, and want to preserve the current curriculum. This struggle proceeds in a see-saw fashion and continues to produce news.

I am here to claim that both sides have missed the larger point, and that neither's ideal should be taught to students.

Often, proponents of evolution will claim that the efforts of creationists will undermine the education, and thus the future competitiveness, of the students in a science class. This clarion call against creationism is a point that strikes at the heart of the matter. A student's education in the science classroom should prepare them to do science well, in ways that would benefit themselves and society. A science education should be delivered with greater aims than just personal development or intellectual curiosity (although those are components). Students should be taught how science works, and what benefits and utility the scientific method has for society.

Evolutionary biology is an important branch of science, and in fact underpins a lot of other life sciences. I would at least partially agree with the sentiment that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. Therefore, a science education must include evolution. This requirement, however, does not necessitate that the science curriculum includes an evolutionary explanation for the origin of life. Rather, the lesson should focus more heavily on how the theory and conceptual framework of evolution is applied to modern scientific and everyday problems. The evolution of antibiotic resistance is a particularly topical and important problem, and evolution on this scale should take a much more prominent role in the teaching of the evolutionary biology.

A criticism of evolution is that I have heard before is that this branch of biology is more of a tautology and less of a hypothesis driven science. Especially on the scale of speciation and geological time scales, some question what hypothesis can be generated. This criticism is valid in spirit (it is a good question to ask of any science) but refuted in this particular case. Depending on what question in biology it is applied to, evolution does indeed generate hypothesis. This can include a hypothesis about what will happen to a bacterial culture that is passed through bottlenecks, subjected to mutagens and increasing selective pressure from chemical agents. It can also include a hypothesis about what type of fossils will be observed in rocks of a particular date. Although evolution can make predictions about both of these, I believe that there are important differences between the two questions that necessitates a shift in the way evolutionary biology is taught.

Part of my opinion on the matter is informed on my view of science in general, as a foot solider on the front lines that refuses to romanticize my profession (as I suspect many of my colleagues do). I may return to this larger subject in future posts, but it is sufficient to say that I view science as a servant of technology first, and as the primary quencher of human curiosity second.

For any of my scientific colleagues that are starting to foam at the mouth, may I remind them that our trade is based largely on inductive reasoning, which relies on assumptions about the uniformity of nature through time and space. Why bother to use larger assumptions (going through geological time, for example) if it does not give any practical benefit. If the sole purpose of the theories are to satisfy some intellectual curiosity (i.e. no or very little utility), the assumptions these theories carry with them require just as much faith as does any religious belief. This view is reflected in the following graph:

In the above, I have placed several different claims/hypotheses/beliefs upon an axis of the amount of supporting evidence (with scientific evidence taking more weight) against the utility and power of the predictions that follow from it. There is also a dotted red line to separate a red zone of either low predictive power or utility, or low supporting evidence. The other zone, shown in White, represents (in increasing order) knowledge and beliefs that are more important, more useful, with sufficient supporting evidence. I would argue that only evolutionary biology which has crossed this threshold should be taught in the classroom.

As a few examples, I have placed two competing theories about the origin of life as we know it on the graph. You can notice that I hold both to have very low useful predictive power. Even though evolutionary biology has more acceptable evidence, I believe, than creationism, neither explanation seems to offer predictions that are pertinent to modern day problems in science or technology. I have also included other uses or examples of scientific and religious beliefs/claims on the graph for perspective. Evolutionary biology scores high on the graph when it is used to explain antibiotic resistance in bacteria, since there is ample scientific evidence describing this phenomenon, and the application of these ideas make predictions which can be readily observed and have important consequences. This type of science has immediate connections to modern day problems in biology and medicine.

Two other points on the graph, evolutionary psychology and religious morality are provided for additional perspective. My placement of these is just a rough estimate, and is likely to be subject to debate. I included them primarily to make the point that just because a belief is religious in nature, does not mean it has no predictive or useful value. For example, the stories of the Bible paint a particular picture of human nature, which may overlap with but also be distinct from our nature as described by evolutionary psychology. Both have some value in predicting human behavior, as well as informing us as to become masters of our own impulses.

Why not teach both or all aspects of evolutionary biology? Well, in an ideal world, or with infinite time in the classroom, that certainly can be an option. One might make the case that evolutionary biology over geological time, as an explanation for the origin of all species, should still be taught. In the interest of the education of our students, however, I will argue that this aspect of evolution should be minimized in the classroom. At the very least, more examples of practical uses of the theory of evolution must be given a higher priority when teaching this subject. I make this case primarily because of the controversy that surrounds an evolutionary explanation for speciation over geological time. If we are really concerned about the education students are receiving, and hope to endow them with knowledge to make them more competitive in the future (which is usually the reasons given for a strictly science-based curriculum), then it doesn't make sense to carry the baggage of the controversial aspects of evolution. As I have tried to point out here, the most controversial aspects of this theory are likely the least useful to a student and their future careers.

A Chess Analogy

To keep in the spirit of this blog, and to better illustrate my point, consider the following analogy. Suppose there are two competing ideas about which Chess piece, the Knight or the Bishop, is more valuable. The proponents of the Knight base their beliefs on a chess book written by Chigorin (they are equivalent to the religious proponents of creationism). The players that favor the Bishop came to this conclusion through careful examination and evaluation of many different master games. From analyzing a large set of positions, they have concluded that the Bishop has superior mobility and is worth more than a Knight. (Call it a theory of the Bishop; the hypothesis is that the Bishop is the more valuable piece and the trade imbalance can constitute a decisive material imbalance.)

Players that fall in with one or the other camp frequently debate the merits of their approach, and argue what should be taught by chess coaches to budding players. Questions are raised about the education the students receive. Those that value the Bishop greater argue for the superiority of the method by which they arrived at that conclusion; the Knight-loving players try to fight fire with fire by cherry picking example games or by arguing that both positions should be taught (teach the controversy).

What is the chess player, faced with a decision to make at the board, to make of this debate? Which is better, the Knight, or the Bishop? Which method (faithful adherence to a belief or conclusions based on evidence) is the correct approach. Which method and piece valuation should be taught to children in after-school chess programs?

In Chess, decisions about what ideas and concepts to adopt can be judged against the result they produce at the board. In fact, the question of the value of Knight versus Bishop may not turn out to be a relevant debate to helping a Chess player decide among different moves in a particular position. For example, in the main line of the Sveshnikov Sicilian, the following position is reached (by 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 e5 6.Nbd5 d6 7.Bg5 a6 8.Na3 b5)

Somebody that subscribes to the Bishop theory may reject a move like 9.Bxf6, since they would evaluate that as a material loss. Likewise, if Black had played 6…a6 instead, a believer in the Knights would probably decline to play 7.Nd6+. In both cases, the valuation of Knight versus Bishop does not fully capture the rich strategic struggle that is occurring on the chess board. The abstract debate over these two pieces becomes less meaningful when you consider the importance of the light squares and the hole on d5 in the main line (which is the motivation behind 9.Bxf6, since the dark-squared Bishop cannot otherwise fight for this square). In the 6…a6 sideline, the Nd6 move is indicated because it allows White to weaken Black's dark square control and bottle up their development (at least temporarily. In this case, the value of the Bishop pair is also considered to swing the position in White's favor).

Therefore, either theory, claim, or belief is only as valuable as it contributes to the understanding of a particular position. A debate can rage on about which theory is more correct, or has more evidence (games), but such debates are meaningless if they are abstract. Instead, the debate should only be focused upon these beliefs in so far as they can assist the chess player or student make better choices, obtain better positions and win more games.


I can summarize my argument in several points, which follow a rough logical order:

1) All inductive science requires assumptions about the uniformity of nature across space and time. Thus, they do not necessarily have an advantage over religious explanations in satisfying intellectual curiosity. Scientific explanations usually do have a marked advantage over religious or metaphysical beliefs and reasoning when it comes to generating new technological improvements (whiter it be devices, procedures, drugs, etc).

2) Evolutionary biology, and indeed all science, should be taught in a way that uses examples that reflect the first point; the emphasis when teaching science should be on ways in which the theories are translated into practical utility or in ways in which modern questions in biology are answered by evolution.

3) Giving children an explanation (either religious or scientific) for how species originated over a geological time scale doesn't belong in the science classroom. If anything, it should be taught in history class, although even then it is misplaced (since it is not really recorded history or even human history for that matter). To best prepare the maximum number of students for future careers in science, this part of the evolutionary biology module should be minimized or reduced to a historical footnote.

4) Evolution is a theory or conceptual framework that encompasses a large amount of biology. These same forces which are thought to be behind the origin of all life are observed in modern day phenomenon, with the evolution of antibiotic resistance by bacteria being a particularly topical and medically important example. If the same theory underlies both, then important modern day examples should be used to teach the theory.

What do you think? Am I off base, or should science education be framed in ways that highlight the contributions of science and technology to human society, while at the same time laying bare its limitations. Is this the most brilliant piece you've ever read, or does any of this dribble really belong on the internet? Please feel free to share your comments below!

No comments:

Post a Comment