Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Humans Teaching Humans about Human Evolution

On Friday I spoke at a conference for current and future K-12 science teachers hosted by Kean University in New Jersey.

My host was Professor Brian Regal of Kean University - a historian of science who specializes in, among other fascinating subjects, human evolution, monsters and Darwin, so he’s great fun for sharing stories and enthusiasm about fossils.

I did my usual spastic song and dance about human evolution... something I can never seem to get unexcited about. I titled my talk "Humans Teaching Humans about Human Evolution" because it's pretty strange that we teach at all. Plus, when we teach each other about our own evolution, even people who accept evolution can get all bent out of shape.

But before me, Ross Nehm gave an excellent presentation on the research he does on the cognitive basis of learning science, particularly the principles of evolution and the theory of natural selection.

He has compared answers from college students to those provided by professors for the following questions:
1. How do bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics?
2. Why do cheetahs run so fast?
3. How could the blind cave salamander have gotten that way?

The professors routinely respond with, "why are you asking me all the same question in three different ways?" However, students routinely come up with three different (and incorrect) answers to these questions and they often include statements like “the bacteria need to change or else they’ll get killed by the antibiotic.”

Nehm showed data on what he called “liabilities” that students bring to the classroom. This component of their knowledge is prior, erroneous knowledge that they then have to overcome to learn the correct stuff. Some students have so much liability, or debt, that even though they may learn more than their peers in a course, and they may get the highest grades on the exams, they don’t necessarily learn enough to overcome it. This is why he advocates that teachers actively battle the liabilities that students bring to the classroom by assessing first what the liabilities are and then addressing them in our curriculum.

Then Nehm introduced the concept of “p-prims” which can inhibit our ability to learn evolution properly. P-prims are the common sense stories we use to explain the world around us. They’re right in life but they can be completely wrong in science. Click here for examples.

Because I don’t know much about p-prims, and because I’m an anthropologist, I saw something else. A lot of the evolution-education troubles that Nehm found were, to me, rooted in the human habit of anthropomorphizing species or individual bacteria, for example, in some epic tale of a "Majestic Quest to Evolve" (meant to be read with that deep grizzled movie trailer voice).

And this made me realize that it’s not just the learner who’s falling victim to this narrative quicksand, it’s the teachers too. We anthropomorphize and spin narratives like crazy when we’re teaching evolution. Maybe you don’t, but you’re probably boring.

(That was said with tongue-in-cheek, but with a grain of truth on the taste buds.)

Those of us who are trying to make evolution interesting for sleepy college students may be making everything a lot worse. On the other hand, evolutionary principles take longer than one semester to sink-in for the vast majority of people (Think about that teachers! Didn't it take you longer than a semester for the light bulb to shine on?), so maybe we shouldn’t worry if the initial take on evolution isn’t quite right as long as there is some sort of uptake in the first place.

Many science writers are guilty of anthropomorphizing the players in the game of evolution too. Giving motive to jellyfish is unscientific, but it’s one of the only means for describing behavior, using only words on a page, to someone who’s not witnessing it for themselves. It’s also a great ploy to keep up readership: Nobody wants to open the New York Times Science page and read a Jellyfish Instruction Manual. We want drama. And we get it. Along with a complete misunderstanding of evolution… the kind that leads people to erroneously apply its principles to government social policy, or, worse, to worry and to stir up fear about others who may do so.

Which naturally brings me to the final event at the conference. After a wonderful day of discussing evolution with really cool NJ teachers including a good hour dedicated to the new Ardi discovery, I was handed a goodie bag that all the participants received which included some helpful NSTA materials.

But my bag had something extra - a little package addressed to me with a printed label. Ross Nehm got one too. I figured it was just paperwork for the guest speakers since it was in a Kean University yellow envelope. I opened it in the airport while waiting for my flight. Inside was anti-evolution/ pro-Bible (is there any other kind?) propaganda in the form of a pamphlet, glossy color book and DVD from the Jehovah’s Witness group Watchtower. Someone had hijacked university letterhead on their crusade against evolution.

With uplifting information like this on their website, it’s a wonder the group manages to keep so many members: “Evolution presents modern man as an improving animal. The Bible presents modern man as the degenerating descendant of a perfect man.”

Celebrating my inner ape, my inner fish, and, most importantly, my inner degenerate happens to be some of the most glorious things about life. It’s a shame that something like this will never inspire awe and love in so many.


Arjun said...

Thanks to Dr. Buchanan's suggestion I was able to paste the quote from Lem's _Solaris_ that I'd mentioned in my comment in "On Stepping Back," one which I find more relevant to the discussion at hand. The following dialogue is a conversation between two researchers of the titular planet, the first having had prior experience with 'Solaris' and the second being the book's protagonist, characterized as an overly rational psychologist.


"We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all sham. We don't want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. For us, such and such planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin. We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don't want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don't know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can't accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, of a civilization superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past. At the same time, there is something inside us which we don't like to face up to, from which we try to protect ourselves, but which nevertheless remains, since we don't leave Earth in a state of primal innocence. We arrive here as we are in reality, and when the page is turned and that reality is revealed to us--that part of our reality which we would prefer to pass over in silence--then we don't like it any more."

I had listened to him patiently. "But what on earth are you talking about?"


I restate (with added emphasis) our protagonist's response:

"But what on EARTH are you talking about?"

EllenQ said...

This idea about p-prims comes at an opportune time. I have twice in the last 24 hours been frustrated with students reviewing for an exam who, in response to me explaining a concept, said "well, I understand it as..." and giving a completely wrong explanation of an evolutionary phenomenon. The challenge of teaching anthropology really is that even if the students have never studied it before, they already know (or think they know) more about humans than any chemical they would ever encounter in chemistry or cell they would ever look at in a biology class.

When they are telling me how they are (mis)understanding the material, they are really showing me the pre-existing ideas they came to class with. I wish I knew a better way of finding these things out in advance. Any ideas from your conference Dr. Dunsworth?

Holly Dunsworth said...

I believe that Ross Nehm's work and future/in prep/press work will help a lot.

Also there's this:

A pdf of which I am emailing to you right now.

But this means that we have to take more time to assess at the beginning and the end of semesters in order to better or teaching effectiveness. Oi! ;)

Holly Dunsworth said...

*our* not or

Andrew Lehman said...

Evolution and art may be connected. See