Evolution for Everyone

Evolution is famously controversial, despite being an established scientific theory. Many who accept the theory of evolution don’t relate it to matters of importance in their own lives.

There appears to be two walls of resistance, one denying the theory altogether and the other denying its relevance to human affairs. But according to David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University in New York, everyone can be a good evolutionist — at least if you take Wilson’s interdisciplinary classes in evolution.

Wilson initiated, developed and directs the university’s new Evolutionary Studies track, or “EvoS” for short, which seeks to explore all of creation with the basic principles of evolution. According to Wilson, it is “perhaps the first program that attempts to make evolution a common language for the study of all human-related subjects, in addition to the natural world, at a campuswide scale.”  EvoS, which began in 2002, includes more than 50 faculty members representing 15 departments. Wilson hopes that the program becomes a model for evolution education that can be copied at other colleges and universities.

Wilson, who is jointly appointed in the biology and anthropology departments at Binghamton, describes himself as “an evolutionary biologist who studies humans as part of the rest of life.” He designed his program based upon the discussions and publications of his fellow evolutionary-minded colleagues. He hopes to teach students the basics and implications of evolution so that they can continue to develop their interests throughout their college career. In doing so, students will learn how to study every subject, no matter their major or profession, “through the lens of evolution,” he said.

The program:

Students are introduced to EvoS through the introductory course, “Evolution for Everyone” — those who enroll come from majors as diverse as art, business, chemistry, cinema, computer , creative writing, economics, education, engineering, English, history, human development, linguistics, management, mathematics, nursing, philosophy, physics,  political   science  and psychology.

Students, faculty and administrators share great support and enthusiasm for EvoS. Although it might be expected that politically conservative students would embrace the course material less enthusiastically than liberals, this was not the case, said Wilson, who added the course was equally effective across the  political  spectrum.

According to Wilson, the typical student attending the “Evolution for Everyone” class was moderately religious, with others ranging from committed atheists to committed believers. Numerous students wrote at length about their religious upbringing and values in their first assigned  essay  on the  topic , “What I know about evolution and its relevance to human affairs.”

The final requirement of “Evolution for Everyone” was to have the students choose their own topic to explore from an evolutionary perspective, culminating in a poster session that emulated a scientific conference at the end of the semester. Many students become very motivated to study “their” topic from an evolutionary perspective and address such topics as adoption, alcoholism, attractiveness, body piercing, depression, eating disorders, fashion, fear, hand dominance, homosexuality, marriage, play, sexual jealousy, sibling rivalry, social roles, suicide, video games and yawning. The topics are posted on the course Web site. Students visit each other’s posters during the session, providing yet another demonstration of how evolutionary theory can be used to approach a diversity of subjects.

After completing the class, students may select other program courses or enroll in the program as part of their major. Those who formally enroll in the program are assigned a faculty adviser to help them tailor a curriculum. 

EvoS also provides a campuswide seminar series held on a biweekly basis, featuring a variety of topics from an evolutionary perspective. Recent seminar topics have included the vocal mimicry of wild parrots, the cultural evolution of agriculture and computer simulation models for evolution. “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 explained.

Students, faculty and administrators, share great support and enthusiasm for EvoS. “Most faculty in human-related subjects did not receive evolutionary training during their own higher education,” Wilson said. Binghamton University Vice Provost Stephen Straight added, “As overseer of the university’s curriculum, I saw EvoS as a stellar example of the integrative, interdisciplinary directions in which our curriculum should properly move.”

A number of students attest to have significantly profitted from EvoS. Matt Gervais is a junior majoring in psychobiology and philosophy with a minor in anthropology. Throughout the program, he pursued the study of laughter from an evolutionary perspective — an interest sparked by the introductory course in the program. Based upon his research, he has received a scholarship and written a review article accepted by the journal Quarterly Review of Biology.

“Evolution education will remain ineffective until the implications of the theory are examined along with its factual content,” said Wilson. “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.”  

Required Reading:

In his last book, Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society, Wilson attempted to cultivate a positive connection between science, religion and spirituality. He uses this book to teach the more specialized EvoS course, “Evolution and Religion.”

The book form of his introductory course, “Evolution for Everyone” is scheduled for publication later this year with the working title, How to be a Good Evolutionist.

 
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