Improving an Introduction to Evolutionary Studies Course

As usual, I’m inspired by a few other recent blogs–namely Adam van Arsdale’s, Holly Dunsworth’s, & John Hawks’s (who is ingeniously focusing on the evolution of one body part at a time & actually posting his lectures here; maybe we can have him give one when he visits us for our lecture series in December) discussions of improvements they’re attempting to their Introduction to Biological Anthropology courses–to write a similar post myself.

I am just wrapping up a semester of teaching our introductory course to the EvoS minor, “Evolution for Everyone,” am reading student research proposals, & comments about the course & thinking thru the next iteration for spring 2013.  The trick with the design of this course is that it is “team-taught,” in that I provide a few structural lectures but otherwise coordinate what I keep referring to as a “Whitman’s Sampler” approach to our EvoS minor, by having a series of guest lectures by other professors who teach courses in the minor give sort of mini-intros to their disciplines.  While I thought it worked pretty well the first time around last spring, this semester’s iteration felt more disjointed to me, & it took me longer to get a feel for the students.  So the trick will be to (1) keep what was good about this & the last run of the course, which I think is the guest lectures & the integration of our ALLELE series expert speakers & (2) fix the lack of continuity by thinning out the modules & doing more structural work.

The basic outline of the class starts with me giving an intro to evolutionary concepts & mechanisms.  The students are generally cross-disciplinary & there is a healthy mix of bio/anthro/psych/chem types & non-science majors.  They all seem genuinely interested in knowing more about evolution, with most of the non-science kids having only pop cultural exposure previously.  This year I cut back on the cell biology so as not to overwhelm the non-bio people, since the rest of the course does not deal as much in mechanics as it does in concepts.  However, that was a mistake, as the students really missed exposure to the fundamental principles of molecular evolution, even if they didn’t quite follow when I gave those lectures.  Lesson learned.  No matter how much students gripe about learning Hardy-Weinberg in other courses, these kids need it.

From there, I tried to bring in speakers from other departments at my university who could address the topics in the class as I might normally teach it when following the typical textbooks:  some history & background on Darwin & the historical & philosophy of science that informed his theory of natural selection, some of the mechanics of natural selection & population biology, human history (paleoanthro), & then some topics in biological variability

For the history of science (that whole Aristotle, Buffon, Cuvier, Lyell, Lamarck, Malthus section of any intro to Darwinian theory) I invited Renee Raphael, a historian of science, who introduced students to the cultural tensions between Darwin’s thesis & natural theology, Paley’s watchmaker concept, & so on.  She brings in primary sources for the students to read & analyze, but I see & hear the difficulty they have sympathizing with the 19th century ideology that was more philosophical than what we would today consider “scientistic.”  In defense of my students, I have found them to be largely self-selected staunch secularists, angry at the intensity of Baptist hellfire & brimstone of their largely Deep South upbringings & ongoing environment, so they are actually far more reactionary against & less sympathetic to religious ideals than I am.

The first year I had students read David Sloan Wilson’s Evolution for Everyone & articles assigned by each speaker to accompany their lectures.  Those were not well-integrated into the course & the students never seemed to have read them, so this year I assigned just three tradebooks instead.  During this section of the course I had students read David Quammen’s The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, which I really like a lot but I’m not sure was quite right for these nacent evolutionists so early in the course.

The next module was by Fred Andrus, who teaches geological sciences.  He sets a great tone for the antiquity of the world & emphasizes how long this has been accepted by 18th century capitalists because of their quest to understand how to find coal to fuel the industrial revolution.  This blew my mind the first time I heard him lecture on the topic, & he has straight-forward lectures with one straight-forward & simple message each lecture (he is truly a genius at uncomplicating things).  I especially like his activities, including labeling a roll of toilet paper with geological timespans (humans being on the very last sheet natch–which, in all fairness, I saw David Strait do a version of when I used to TA for him at SUNY Albany, which he doubtless adopted from Fred Grine or someone at SUNY Stony Brook) & the visit to our own campus Natural History Museum.  Last year he was going to take us to rock outcropping to see the coal strata (& light it to prove it burns), but it rained; &, sadly, this year the outcropping had become unstable.

I have hosted three biologist modules over the last two iterations, including Leslie Rissler‘s module on evolutionary biology & speciation last year & this year, since Leslie (co-director of the EvoS minor) is off being an NSF program director, her post-doc Jen Sheridan filled in & provided a much-needed intro to Mendelian genetics (since I shamefully left it out) & a lecture on frog ecology, her specialty (which was awesome!).  Both years animal behaviorist Ryan Earley has given fantastic lectures on cooperation, deception, & alternative mating strategies, presenting primary research papers & examples from his own studies of signaling behavior & deception in fish.  He is great & we share a lot of theoretical interests.

Last year I gave three lectures on evolutionary medicine, primates & paleoanthropology, & religion signaling behavior (my research interest).  This year I just did the one lecture on evolutionary medicine but stepped aside on the other two to give the students more variety.  I invited our new linguist Matthew Wolfgram to give two lectures on the evolution of language, which I really enjoyed.  However, I realized that my 3-lecture interlude last year, at a point where the students were starting to get the hang of things, really gave me an opportunity to connect with them & get to know them a bit.  This year that did not happen until nearly the end.

Instead of providing them any continuity, I hosted three more guest lectures by cognitive psychologist David Boles, social psychologist Rosanna Guadagno (check out Rosanna’s study on personality factors of people likely to be bloggers), & philosopher Richard Richards.  While I loved all of their modules & learned a lot, as usual, the students had difficulty keeping up with the continual changing of pace.  Because, in addition to all these starts & stops, we hosted four of our usual outside evolution lecturers, who all stopped by for a discussion or presentation (including Eugenie Scott & Greta Schiller, Brian Fagan, Ryosuke Motani, & Frans de Waal), as well as an impromptu visit from behavioral ecologist Andy Sih.  And the students loved these opportunities but could not really digest them.

As mentioned, the students were also required to read three tradebooks, which, in addition to the Quammen & Wilson titles, included Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane, which ultimately bored me a bit.  We didn’t quite finish that one.  And we read articles by the outside speakers so the students would have a basis for discussion, which didn’t always happen.  They often sat there mute while I nervously drove the discussion by asking ridiculous questions to which I already knew the answers.  The only motivation the students had to actually read the books otherwise was a quiz I administered every class, drawn from the reading.

Finally, the students were required to compose a 3-page research proposal founded in evolutionary theory but focused on a topic within their own majors that I discussed at the beginning of the semester when I lectured on the scientific method & hypothesis testing but didn’t mention again until the class before it was due.  Most of them forgot, so I had to give an extension.  And they were administered two multiple choice tests.

Ironically, in my opinion, as I could feel the course veering off as I sat in the back of the room observing & taking notes for exam questions, the students gave really positive feedback about in general, though they as often echoed my sentiments.  But even better, they offered a lot of constructive criticism that I want to try to implement as follows, which will hopefully work (I’ll let you know) & provide a template for others who can’t, as some other programs do, offer two separate intro to evolution & modular seminar-style courses:

  • I will organize the course into three sections that I’m modeling on the recent Consilience Conference in St. Louis.  I will provide a more substantive intro, then proceed with a natural sciences module (e.g., biology, geology, etc.), then a social sciences module (anthropology, psychology, etc.), & end with a humanities module (history, philosophy, English, etc.).
  • Each guest lecturer will give fewer lectures & only on Thursdays (it’s a Tuesday/Thursday class).  Students will be assigned relevant research papers on those days that relate to the lecture & give them some exposure to research methods.
  • On Tuesdays I will facilitate the flow of the course with activities & discussions.  We will do group activities to discuss research design & hypothesis testing (which they sorely needed guidance on, I now realize), so students can refine a proposal over the course of the semester thru classroom work, not over one week on their own.  I will assign reading from Wilson’s Evolution for Everyone for those days during the first half of the semester, as I think he does a great job of presenting a breadth of “roll-your-sleeves-up” evolutionary study design in that book, with compelling implications for classroom application & life.  During the 2nd half, I will again assign the Quammen book, when perhaps they are more interested in a lighter read about Darwin’s life & process.
  • Outside lectures will stay as they are, but I will require that students write up questions in advance to ask during our discussions & give some credit (extra?) to those who actually ask them.  I will collect the questions afterward & penalize students who didn’t compose any.
  • And students always want more activities & field trips.  Maybe we’ll go to the zoo & see the primates.  That’s always fun.  Maybe we will go fossil hunting.  Alabama has some of the richest fossil beds in the country, I hear, & have yet to vist them.  What else?  I am open to suggestions…
Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he directs the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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4 Responses to Improving an Introduction to Evolutionary Studies Course

  1. Pingback: Becoming a Lightning Rod for Controversy by Starting an Evolutionary Studies Program in Alabama, Part 2: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly | Welcome to the EvoS Consortium!

  2. John says:

    The Botton talk is just 5 min long and really got me thinking about how the secular world does a bad job from a pedagogical standpoint, it’s one of my favorite TED talks.

  3. Christopher Lynn Christopher Lynn says:

    Well stated, John, & thanks again for your insightful comments. I was once far less moderate myself, & was decidely angry about the “religious ignorance” I felt I’d grown up around in Indiana before moving to NY. I credit anthropology with opening my eyes thru enabling me to have an open mind about non-Judeo-Christian traditions, which I then realized I should be turning toward those around me as well. In particular, I think it was reading Delmos Jones’ “Towards a Native Anthropology” that alerted me to the importance of studying one’s own community of development, perhaps after studying a more exotic one, to see it in a more objective light, which is what led me to do a 180 in how I view fundamentalist Christianity. So, yeah, I certainly value that angry young person stage & think it may be an important transitional phase for some people. It is nice to see young people feel strongly about something, because far too often we’re greeted by bovine stares in the classrooms.

    And you’re right about bringing in a speaker who can rectify religiosity & evolution. That will be interesting. And I actually have one like that already lined up. I contacted a faculty member in Aerospace Engineering who does biomimetics, which is studying design features in animals (she looks at shark skin & butterfly wings) & reverse-engineering them to solve human engineering problems. She welcomed my invitation to come speak to the class but felt obliged to warn me that she is a Christian Scientist & to give me a run down on what that means. And last year we had an ALLELE speaker, Mary Schweitzer, who grew up as a fundamentalist Christian but loved dinosaurs. In specializing in dinosaur evolution, she was forced to abandon the literalist position of fundamentalism or her passion for dinosaurs…she chose the dinosaurs. So, yeah, I agree with you, interesting stuff & important too. This fall I’m trying to lure Joseph Bulbulia, who studies the evolution of religion, to speak as part of the series.

    And you’ve given me more homework. I still haven’t caught up with the last assignment, but I haven’t forgotten. Keep it coming. I’m happy to have the opportunity to share ideas & thoughts like this.

  4. John says:


    It is nice to see your passion for teaching and it sounds like a course I would enjoy taking. It is rare to hear of a prof. at a research institution that is passionate about this part of the job. I was thinking that it might be productive to bring in someone religious or from a spiritual background who has no problem with incorporating evolution into their worldview. While I tend towards the agnostic lately this is something that I thought a great deal about during my own faith transition to a somewhat unorthodox, non-literal, but still practicing Mormon. Many of your students may still have trouble reconciling their views inherited from their upbringing and may still be in that rebellious stage. I thing this is a good and necessary stage to be in, but I think it causes problems when they can’t take a more moderate view with their more literally minded Bible-belt family members. I think the religious fundamentalism that is being expressed in America right now is really the last gasp of the old world religions and we will begin to see an evolution of spiritual thought in time, although I would be arrogant indeed to predict when such a thing would happen. Despite the decline of organized religions in the Western world, I do think we need to give religion credit for the things that they do well. Like this Ted talk by Alain de Botton here:

    Here’s another thing on reconciling the religious and scientific worldview:

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