As I’ve written in several of my publications, evolution is under attack. But not only by religious fundamentalists, who may reject evolution outright due to conflicts regarding the origins of life. This particular rejection is sort of the high-profile rejection of evolution that tends to make the media.
From my vantage point, rejection of evolution (or, more specifically, rejection of certain applications of evolution) from academics in a broad sense – which is just as strong as rejection from religious fundamentalists – may well be the primary obstacle to the advancement of furthering knowledge – particularly when it comes to understanding humans (see Geher, 2006a; Geher, 2006b; Geher & Gambacorta, 2010).
In short, academics in many fields reject applications of evolution in regard to what it means to be human – often taking the stance that evolutionary accounts of human behavior are “deterministic” and perhaps politically driven to maintain existing social inequities. In short, many academics see evolutionary applications to human affairs as part of a right-wing conservative conspiracy.
Of course, from where I stand, nothing could be further from truth. Like any set of intellectual ideas, evolution can be used for all kinds of purposes. As the single most powerful set of ideas in the life sciences, individuals who are interested in improving society and helping improve the human condition writ large would be foolish to ignore this perspective. Ignoring evolution in attempts to understand human behavior would be akin to ignoring a road map (or GPS?) when trying to drive from Washington, DC to upstate New York. And several scholars have shown that evolutionary applications to human affairs can help us improve so many things about human life, from the quality of neighborhoods in cities (see Wilson, 2011) to diet and exercise regimens that improve all facets of physical and mental health (see Platek, Geher, Heywood, Stapell, Waters, & Porter, 2011).
An additional factor to consider pertains to the immense popularity of evolutionary psychology (i.e., evolution applied to human behavior). As chair of the psychology department at SUNY New Paltz, I can say confidently that courses in evolutionary psychology fill up quickly and that students consistently want more of it. And evolutionary psychology has become something of a media darling – becoming disproportionately represented in media outlets of all shapes and sizes (see Fisher, Kruger, & Garcia, 2011).
So there’s the “Evolution Paradox in Higher Education” in a nutshell. Most academics are highly resistant to evolution applied to our own species. Meanwhile, students eat this stuff up and yearn for more – and the media (and the lay population generally) can’t seem to get enough of it either!
Which leads me to an existential question that underlies higher education in a broad manner. Should institutions of higher education be obliged to offer curricular experiences that match student interest? If students want to learn about evolutionary psychology, then should a college or university adjust its curriculum to match this demand? This issue can be addressed from a strict economic standpoint (supply and demand) – but it can also be addressed from the standpoint of “what comprises an appropriate liberal art education” (as it’s often put on my own campus). Do academics know best what “should” and “should not” be taught? And, if one accepts this premise, should they let this expertise single-handedly drive curriculum? And what about when academics disagree with one another in this regard (it could happen!)? I’m not going to answer these questions here – I just want someone other than me to think about this stuff!
In my most recent publication, co-authored with Dan Glass and David Sloan Wilson (Glass, Wilson, & Geher, 2012), we explore data regarding the evolution training of evolutionists who study human behavior. In the population of articles published in one of our top-tier journals, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, published between 2001 and 2004, articles were analyzed (based on key word searches) for content related to evolution. 31.5% of these articles clearly related to evolutionary content. So, in case you’re wondering, YES, evolution has arrived in the behavioral sciences.
David contacted all of these first authors – 27 of 46 responded to a brief survey regarding their perceptions of evolution training in higher education. The article is brief and straightforward enough, so I’ll just highlight here. Most authors described their own evolution education as self-training – that came mostly after they completed their PhDs. Further, most authors say that it was difficult-to-impossible to learn about evolution applied to humans at their PhD-granting institution – and they say that the scenario is no better at their current institution.
So just to put the pieces all together:
1. Students at colleges and universities yearn to learn about evolutionary psychology.
2. The media and laypeople all around the world eat evolutionary psychology up.
3. Evolutionary approaches to human behavior famously have shed light on important issues of the human condition.
4. In spite of points 1-3, academic institutions are highly resistant to expanding curricular offerings related to evolution in areas that pertain to humanity.
5. Point #4 is echoed in our new publication, showing that even those evolutionists who publish in the most esteemed psychology journals find evolution education extremely hard to come by in the Ivory Tower (or, as David Wilson calls it, the Ivory Archipelago due to the lack of connections across academic subfields).
As I’ve written in several pieces, one solution to this all may be to put evolution in a broader curricular context – by creating an interdisciplinary evolutionary studies (EvoS) program. This idea, which started at Binghamton – and then SUNY New Paltz – has received major funding by the NSF and is now starting to slowly spread to other campuses around the world (Albright College, University of Alabama, University of Missouri, University of Lisbon … and more!). Putting evolutionary applications to human affairs in a broader, interdisciplinary context may well hold a key to helping this approach to humans reach its potential (Garcia, Geher, Crosier, Saad, Gambacorta, Johnsen & Pranckitas, 2011).
In any case, if you believe, as I clearly do, that applying evolutionary principles to issues of the human condition is integral to helping advance our understanding of what it means to be human, you have reason for a nice panoply of emotions – outrage (academics are generally resistant to this approach), intrigue (students and lay audiences are fascinated by this approach), and hope (the interdisciplinary EvoS approach to education may well hold the key to allowing evolution to reach its potential in helping shed light on the human condition). As with anything, we’ll just have to wait and see what the future holds.
Fisher, M., Kruger, D. & Garcia, J. (2011). Understanding and enhancing the role of the mass media in evolutionary psychology education. Special issue of Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 4(1), 75-82.
JR Garcia, G Geher, B Crosier, G Saad, D Gambacorta, L Johnsen & E Pranckitas. (2011). The interdisciplinary context of evolutionary approaches to human behavior: a key to survival in the ivory archipelago. Futures, 43, 749-761.
Geher, G., & Gambacorta, D. (2010). Evolution is not relevant to sex differences in humans because I want it that way! Evidence for the politicization of human evolutionary psychology. EvoS Journal: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 2(1), 32-47.
Glass, D.J., Wilson, D.S., & Geher, G. (2012). Evolutionary training in relation to human affairs is sorely lacking in higher education. EvoS Journal: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 4(2), 16-22.
Platek, S., Geher, G., Heywood, L., Stapell, H., Porter, R., & Waters, T. (2011). Walking the walk to teach the talk: Implementing ancestral lifestyle changes as the newest tool in evolutionary studies. Evolution: Education & Outreach, 4, 41-51. Special issue on EvoS Consortium (R. Chang, G. Geher, J. Waldo, & D. S. Wilson, Eds).