A famous scientific saying is that “nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution“. Well, now it’s not just a saying. A recent study has confirmed that you really need evolution to understand biology.
Researchers examined how undergraduate students dealt with biological “dilemmas.” Like whether or not infertile people should be able to clone themselves. The students’ answers almost always involved some biology. Like pointing out that one partners’ genes wouldn’t be present in the clone.
However, students who didn’t fully support and/or understand evolution tended to invoke fewer biological concepts. They also demonstrated a shallower understanding of the science involved.
A biology test about ethics
The researchers set out to examine how evolution impacted peoples’ ability to understand biology and apply that understanding to real world scenarios. This would help show whether evolution was key in developing a scientifically literate population. Something we really need.
So they asked them some questions that would require them to apply biology to real world scenarios. These so-called “socio-scientific issues” (SSI) explored where reality, science, and ethics cross paths. Three of them (along with a brief introduction to the topics) were given to undergraduates at an American university:
- Should individuals who want to carry and have their own children be able to choose cloning as a reproductive option?
- If science were able to isolate a gene that significantly contributed to a person’s intelligence, should that gene be used for gene therapy to increase the intelligence of potential offspring?
- Should antibiotics continue to be used as a preventative measure?
There answers were documented. Additionally, several follow-up questions were asked to get them to elaborate on their position. These were fairly basic prompts like “why might people object to your position”.
The number of scientific concepts referenced in these answers, along with their accuracy and depth of understanding, were then compared to the students’ acceptance of evolution (their understanding and acceptance of the theory had been studied in a previous questionnaire).
You need to accept evolution
As you might expect, there was a strong correlation between how well someone understood and accepted evolution and the skill with which they used science to deal with these SSIs.
Generally speaking, those who better understood evolution invoked more scientific concepts and explored them in greater depth. Unsurprisingly, they were also much more likely to bring up concepts critically linked to evolution (like mutation) and understood them better. All in all, the students who understood and accepted evolution the best did 45% better than those who had the worst understanding.
Crucially, they had to understand and accept evolution. If there were two students who understood evolution to the same extent, the one who accepted it more would score higher on this test. The difference caused by acceptance was most pronounced when understanding of evolution was high. If two undergrads got top score on the evolution test then the one who accepted it more would tend to do much better in dealing with the SSIs.
Notably, nobody surveyed really rejected evolution fully. Most of the participants were towards the end of of a biology-related degree; so everyone had some level of acceptance and understanding. It’s simply that those who understood the theory better seemed to do better in when dealing with these other areas of biology.
Now, the results of this study might seem like a no-brainer (although it’s always good to have scientific backup for no-brainers). A relationship anyone (with an understanding of evolution) could have guessed.
But I still think these results are very important.
For some, that might be because it’s another point against creationists. They repeatedly harp on about how you don’t need evolution to understand biology. This paper (combined with a basic understanding of science) shows just how wrong they really are. And really reinforces why creationism is a problem that needs to be dealt with. It should be a priority for science communicators because it’s actively making pupils worse at science.
However, I think it highlights a more important issue. It really hammers home how evolution is the foundation on which biology is built. Yet in many textbooks, school courses, and museums it’s treated like just another component of biology. When I was at secondary school I spent more time learning about plants than Australopithecus.
Clearly the way biology is taught/presented/displayed needs to be reworked. It needs to revolve around the theory of evolution as that’s what ties it all together. This research into SSIs closes with what I think is a rather apt quote:
‘it is impossible to have a scientifically literate public without a widespread understanding of evolutionary principles that allow us to make sense of all facets of the natural world’
Accepting and understanding evolution made undergraduate students better at understanding and applying biology to the real world.
Fowler, S.R. and Zeidler, D.L., 2016. Lack of Evolution Acceptance Inhibits Students’ Negotiation of Biology-based Socioscientific Issues. Journal of Biological Education, pp.1-18.