Sticker Shock in Alabama-An Op-Ed in Defense of Science Education

I wanted to share with everyone a recent op-ed letter that I submitted to local and state-wide news media in Alabama following the continued approval of anti-evolution textbook disclaimers in Alabama textbooks. This year marks a decade since the last textbook adoption year in the state of Alabama, and as teachers around the state are surveying the books they feel best fit their 21st Century students, the Alabama State Board of Education has voted to maintain their position that evolution is a dangerous subject that requires a warning that is both scientifically inaccurate and unnecessary.

Textbook evolution sticker hurts children’s understanding of science but also their faith, by Dr. Amanda Glaze, AL.com (Birmingham News/Huntsville Times/Mobile Press Register), March 31, 2016

I am Alabama proud. I was educated in Alabama and I teach science in Alabama schools. I love my home state and I am proud of many things that we are doing right in our science education, including the adoption of the new Alabama Course of Study for Science. But I am not proud of a recent decision by the state board of education. I am heartbroken.

Evolution is a fundamental and unifying principle of the life sciences. There is no controversy about evolution within the scientific community. As the National Academy of Sciences observes, “The scientific consensus around evolution is overwhelming.” Every year, thousands of publications appear in the scientific research literature that apply, refine, and extend evolution.

The new Alabama Course of Study for Science reflects the scientific consensus on evolution, describing it correctly as “substantiated with much direct and indirect evidence.” But the board recently chose to flout the consensus and the standards, instead retaining the scientifically inaccurate and pedagogically inappropriate disclaimer about evolution stuck into the state’s textbooks since 2001.

The disclaimer describes evolution by natural selection as scientifically controversial and it suggests that doubt about the importance of natural selection in evolution is scientifically justified. These are simply mistakes. Just as problematic, however, is the implicit message—that evolution is something so horrible that it is necessary to warn students about it.

As a science teacher and as a science education researcher in Alabama, I can definitely say that the disclaimer’s effect is uniformly negative. The mere presence of the disclaimer often discourages biology teachers from presenting evolution forthrightly or at all—even though, as a famous scientist once observed, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

It is Alabama’s students who are the victims here. Students who have little chance to attain a proper understanding of evolution are at risk of not attaining a basic level of scientific literacy. And because understanding evolution is practically important, in such fields as medicine, biotechnology, and agriculture, they are also at risk in their future careers.

But it’s even worse than that. Although the disclaimer is evidently intended to protect the faith of students and teachers alike, I am convinced that its effect is both negative and detrimental to both science and religion. By encouraging the idea that faith and science are at loggerheads, the disclaimer forces students to make a choice between the two. There is no need to do so.

Francis Collins, the co-leader of the Human Genome Project and the director of the National Institutes of Health, once said, “The evidence supporting the idea that all living things are descended from a common ancestor is truly overwhelming. I would not necessarily wish that to be so, as a Bible-believing Christian. But it is so. It does not serve faith well to try to deny that.”

In short, the disclaimer is a failure from the scientific point of view, a failure from the educational point of view, and—on the testimony of a distinguished biologist with a deep Christian faith—a failure from the religious point of view. And the state board of education’s decision to retain the disclaimer was a failure to serve the education of the students in Alabama’s public schools.

If we in Alabama could come together to insist that our students deserve to be taught science, including evolution, properly, as the scientific community understands it and as our state’s science standards now present it, free from censorship, ideology, and disclaimers, then it would be easier for those of us who care about science education here to say—as we would like to say—that we are as Alabama proud as ever.

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Evolution, antibiotics, and public health

There are many fears about antibiotics.  People are petrified about antibiotics being in the meats that they eat, but on the other hand, they outright demand antibiotics for a minor viral sinus infection.

First of all, I must say.  Antibiotics are good.  Overusing or improperly using antibiotics is bad.  Let me clarify a few myths.

There are expiration dates for a reason.  Some antibiotics change chemically.  Yes, people commonly think they get weaker, so when they get the sniffles, they reach for an expired antibiotic in their medicine cabinet because it, “still has a little bit.”  Wrong!  Some antibiotics change chemically and can actually harm patients if they are taken when they are too old.  Those antibiotics with a little bit left might be weak at killing the bacteria, and in comes evolution – the bacteria become resistant.

Antibiotics treat certain infections, not all of them.  Some are broad spectrum, some treat only gram positive or gram negative, some treat only specific species of bacterial infections, and none treat viral infections.  Taking amoxicillin for a simple viral sinus infection will not make you well sooner, but it will add to the weighted sum of people improperly using antibiotics – accelerating evolution along the way.

Antibiotics are good for farm animals…when they are sick with a bacterial infection!  Sure, it is probably better to eat a healthy cow than a sick cow, but are we all exiled for life for coming down with pneumonia once?  No, but regularly dumping antibiotics into feed, however, is evolutionarily dangerous.

Tuberculosis is becoming more and more resistant to the level that a vaccine is in order.  People are now dying from gonorrhea in developed countries.  Superbugs are developing in infants in India.  We need an evolutionary perspective in public health more now than ever.

None of the above should be construed as medical advice.  Rather, we should remember that evolution is incredibly important in health and sanitation.

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Never forget that we are mammals

What makes us mammals?  The fact that we are warm blooded vertebrates?  Live birth?  Fur or hair?  Well…yes, but the defining factor is mammary glands, the glands that make breast milk, which is one of the evolutionary wonders of the mammal world.

It is commonly said that breast is best, and an overwhelming body of scientific evidence confirms that breastfeeding is indeed superior to formula.  Does not breastfeeding mean that someone is a neglectful parent?  Absolutely not!  There are valid reasons for not breastfeeding.  Sometimes babies might have a vitamin deficiency that requires formula, or a mother might need to use formula in order to balance a work schedule that is beneficial to both mother and baby, which are both completely understandable reasons not to breastfeed.

There are some grey areas as well.  When the mother is ill, especially from an active infectious disease, it is usually in the best interest for the infant to have formula.  Nonetheless, even with mothers in Sub-Saharan Africa who are HIV positive, so long as their infection is adequately controlled by antiretroviral medication and that the risk of mother-to-child transmission is virtually nonexistent, breastfeeding can provide better nutrition than formula and it also reduces the risk of endemic parasites contaminating the water used to mix formula.  None of the above should be accepted as medical advice, but there are some situations where breast might not be best.

But…breast is usually best because it benefits both the mother and the baby.  Immunity to bacteria and viruses are passed from the mother to the child through breastmilk, and even some chronic diseases such as asthma and obesity have been shown to be lower in breastfed babies.  Babies who are breastfed are even argued to have higher IQs.  For the mother, pregnancy weight and uterine size are likely to return to normal faster should she breastfeed.  These are just a small list of some of the many benefits of the evolutionary method to feed infants.

Remember, we are mammals because of our mammary glands, and no matter how good our lab sciences may get, our evolutionary engineered breastmilk is best.

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Signaling and Coronary Candidacy

Recently, Dr. Tom Nolen of the Biology Department at SUNY New Paltz gave an EvoS seminar talk on the communication, aggression, and behavior of crickets. Whilst this talk may have little implications to human health on the surface, one recurring theme in his talk was how crickets communicate via signals, notably, honest and deceitful signals.  Something that comes to mind is how people can send “signals” regarding the mortality and morbidity of their diseases.

A discussion of the social sciences in medicine would be incomplete without including the topic of coronary candidacy.  Coronary candidacy is an example of lay epidemiology, a concept coined by Blaxter in the ’70’s and 80’s.  Lay epidemiology seeks to explain the causes of disease as the “laity” understand them as opposed to how the medical model would explain the cause of a disease.  At the heart of coronary candidacy is something called the “prevention paradox,” that is, one’s apparent ability to prevent heart disease through beliefs about what makes one a candidate for heart disease.

I am sure that you heard someone say, s/he is the “last person” they would expect to have a heart attack.  This formulation of a “candidate” for a heart attack is an example of a layperson describing “signals” or “cues” for someone who would or would not have a heart attack.  Another prevailing theme in coronary candidacy is the justification of behaviors.  For example, if someone has a family history of heart disease, but good eating habits, but does little exercise, but has good cholesterol medicine, but has moderate stress, etc., that person is evaluating their disease risk not by using a scientifically validated medical risk assessment, but rather formulating a “candidacy” for heart disease based on a cohort of lay beliefs.  The point here is that people send signals to others regarding their coronary candidacy, even if these signals are unintentional cues.

The handicap principle, although not without its problems, applies here too.  If someone were to be at high risk of a heart attack due to excessive weight, if s/he were to suddenly lose weight, s/he may send the signal that s/he is healthy, but this dishonest signal comes at an enormous cost of sudden weight loss, which is a severe trauma on the body.  It is clear that we send enormous amounts of information about our health through signals and cues, regardless of the honesty of the signal.

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Why You Should Tip Your Bartender from an Evolutionary Perspective: How Reciprocal Altruism Can Get You Tipsy.

I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” We all know this mantra.  Actually, when executed properly, it’s the most efficient way to get things done.

Let’s take a moment to think about our ancestors.  It wouldn’t make sense for someone to share all of the berries they found or the meat they hunted with someone else.  Why bother?  It’s going to help ME survive if I save it all for myself.  Right?  The problem is that evolution is not about survival – it’s about reproduction.  The name of the game is passing on your genes.  Because of the inherent nature of evolutionary processes, cooperating is actually beneficial.  Sharing my berries with my child will increase reproductive success.  My genes are passed on, and my offspring get to grow and be healthy and continue the pattern.  This is known as kin-selected altruism – helping out and cooperating with family members.  Cooperation among kin increases overall reproductive success (Hamilton, 1964).  Ants all equally benefit from a reproductive standpoint when they each work for the queen.  Humans do reproductively better when we cooperate with our kin as well.  Studies have found that we share food more with our own kin than with non-relatives (Ziker & Schnegg, 2005).  It’s probably no surprise that we tend to leave our will with a close relative compared to friends or strangers (Cartwright, 2000).  Okay, so helping out the family makes sense.  What about non-relatives?

Research has pointed out that helping out non-relatives may be selected for as well (Trivers, 1971).  Reciprocal altruism is a type of social interaction in which one individual pays some cost or sacrifice to another with the expectation (however unconscious) that the same sacrifice will be made for that individual.  Paying a cost to a non-related recipient (buying my friend a gift) may benefit me if/when that individual pays me back someday (she buys me a gift).  Scratching someone else’s back today might benefit you someday when you’ve got an itch and need to call in a favor from that same person.  But what if that person never comes back to scratch your back?  What if that person receives the benefit, but never returns the cost?  We would call this person a cheater, but let’s face it – they’re winning here.  They got their back scratched, AND they didn’t have to do anything for it!  The problem with cheaters is that ultimately, all their bridges get burned.  Think back to our ancestors – suppose one day a lion comes up Grog the Caveman’s cave, and he has a weapon to take care of the issue and save his friend, Thak.  If Thak was a cheater, you think Grog would save him?  Thak has been eating Grog’s meat, borrowing Grog’s tools, and hogging Grog’s fireplace for a long time, all without ever helping out Grog in return.  Lot of I.O.U.’s, that Thak… He does not have Grog’s back when he needs him.  Paying any cost to Thak will never benefit Grog.  It makes more sense to consider giving Thak over to the lion for dinner…

So, what’s a more modern and fast-paced example of reciprocal altruism?  Hanging out at the bar, of course!  I can’t think of a quicker way to display this in action.  Patrons do not HAVE to pay their bartender a tip.  It’s encouraged and expected, but not enforced.  Someone could order a Long Island Iced Tea, watch me make it, pay for the drink in exact change, and then walk away.  And many people often do.  Here’s the problem… After about 3 Long Islands, I no longer feel like making these for you for free…. You’re out of luck.  The nature of being a bartender, or any waitstaff, is that tips are what pay the bills.  And that’s fine, until someone cheats the system.  Let’s use Joe as an example.  Joe could be the cheater, and it would work out for him for a while.  He would get his buzz cheaper than other tipping patrons.  Ultimately, this runs out though.  After Joe has established himself at every watering hole in town as the non-tipper, no bartender is going to serve him.  On a lighter note, those who tip are likely to get unexpected benefits often.  I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that, as the bartender, I often buy a round for my regular tipping customers.  It’s nice to do.  I don’t do it in hopes that they’ll scratch my back later, but quite often this is what happens.  It ends up in a nicer tip at the end of the night.  At the very least, tipping your bartender will keep him/her happy and eager to serve you throughout the night.  Reciprocal altruism can get you tipsy.  Now, I’m not saying that the only reason people do nice things is because we’re selfishly all hoping and expecting nice things to come our way afterwards.  I’m merely pointing out how this type of altruism has been selected for through evolution.  It can be adaptive.

The bottom line here is that you should tip your bartender.  It keeps them happy, and that keeps your drink stiff.

 

Cartwright, J. (2000). Evolution and human behavior: Darwinian perspectives on human nature. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Hamilton, W.D. (1964). The evolution of social behavior. Journal Theoretical Biology, 7(1–16).

Trivers, R.L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46(35–57).

Ziker, J., & Schnegg, M. (2005). Food sharing at meals: kinship, reciprocity, and clustering in the Taimyr Autonomous Okrug, Northern Russia. Human Nature16(2), 178-211.

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How I Scared the S*** Out of Guys in Only 15 Minutes…. And Now You Can, Too!

Recently, I had the opportunity to present my work at an evolutionary psychology independent conference (EPIC).  It was truly an amazing opportunity and a wonderful experience for presenters and audience members alike.  Both alumni and current members of the New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology lab presented their own research at this conference within a standard 15 minute time slot.  The conference was open to the public, and audience members included several faculty members, various interested college students from near and far, and even local high school students interested in psychology and evolutionary studies.  I was privy to hear about the evolutionary psychology behind music and emotional intelligence, how evolutionary psychology is truly interdisciplinary, and even the evolutionary psychology behind ostracizing people, among other topics.

My current thesis work evaluates the existence of what I call partner insurance.  This is what I presented at EPIC, and it was a blast (Watch the full video here).  Partner insurance is like other types of insurance, but for your love life.  In case of flood, fire, breakup, divorce…. an individual may have a Mr./Ms. Plan B.  My research only studies this phenomenon in heterosexual women, so my data reveal frequencies of Mr. Plan B’s and which characteristics in women are predictors of having a Mr. Plan B.

Previous research has demonstrated that college women, on average, have 3.78 Mr. Plan B’s (Dibble & Drouin, 2015), and that roughly 2/3rds of all college students who are in a committed relationship will openly admit to having at least one Mr./Ms. Plan B (Dibble, Drouin, Aune, & Boller, 2015).  YEAH.  When I mentioned this, the whole audience had the same reaction you’re probably having now – silence and immediate nail-biting.  Well, fear not.  According to my preliminary analyses, this is something women grow out of.  Women who report having a Mr. Plan B are significantly younger than those who do not.  I argue that this phenomenon may be a bit more localized to just college students or young adults, in general.

That being said, I still scared the shit out of many of the guys in the room (whoops – sorry about that).  Overall, my data reveal that roughly 20% of women in committed relationships will report having a Mr. Plan B, and there are other predictors of this besides age.  As it turns out, women who are more narcissistic, women who tend to lack remorse for their actions, and women who are generally a little more detached from morals are the ones who report having a Mr. Plan B.  Not a great picture, I know. The silver lining is that if and when this work is published, it should add to the body of literature on human mating strategies.

And here’s where Darwin comes in – keeping evolutionary theory in mind might help to explain partner insurance in this case.  Intrasexual competition is one of various mating strategies.  This occurs when members of the same sex compete for a mate.  We might see this in animals when male elk compete with other male elk using their antlers.  In humans, a simple example would be Sally telling Janice that her hair looked great, when really, Janice desperately needed a hairbrush.  Research has demonstrated that women who are more narcissistic and follow the other same characteristics listed above are generally more competitive for mates (Carter, Montanaro, Linney, & Campbell, 2015).  Partner insurance – having a Mr. Plan B – could simply be another mating strategy in the form of intrasexual competition.  By holding onto a Mr. Plan B, a woman arguably keeps a potential mate inaccessible to other competing females.

So, is having a Mr. Plan B smart?  Having car insurance is certainly a wise move, but partner insurance?  On the one hand, we could argue that having a backup boyfriend might be adaptive.  A woman who organizes her life in such a way that she is in and out of frequent relationships might be someone who would benefit from having partner insurance.  However, we could also make a very strong case that partner insurance would serve as a serious threat to an existing and otherwise healthy relationship.

My intent at EPIC was never to scare the s*** out of the men in the room, nor is that the intent of this blog.  I’m hoping this work will be recognized soon, and we can continue to gain understanding about how humans interact in the world through a Darwinian lens.  Meanwhile, I’m going to go help Janice.

 

Carter, G. L., Montanaro, Z., Linney, C., & Campbell, A. C. (2015, February). Women’s               sexual competition and the Dark Triad.Personality and Individual Differences74,               275-279.

Dibble, J. L., & Drouin, M. (2014, May). Using modern technology to keep in touch with           back burners: an investment model analysis. Computers in Human Behavior, 34, 96-           100.

Dibble, J. L., Drouin, M., Aune, K. S., & Boller, R. R. (2015, June 11). Simmering on the             back burner: communication with and disclosure of relationship alternatives.                         Communication Quarterly, 63(3), 329-344. doi:10.1080/01463373.2015.1039719

 

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How Evolutionary Psychology Can Help You on a First Date

martini

“Are we doomed?” & “Oh, you must be using me as your case study!”

 

These are the two comments I get the most at work.  Did I mention I’m a bartender?  By day, I study evolutionary psychology.  But by night, I put on a cape and bartend.  Okay, I don’t wear a cape… usually.  Often, customers will ask me what I’m studying and what I do when I’m not tending bar.  Once I mention the words ‘evolution’ and/or ‘psychology’ I typically get asked if we’re all doomed as a species (whatever that means), and whether or not I’m using the bar scene as my laboratory.  Probably not and no, respectively.  My limited knowledge in evolutionary psychology can’t really answer that first question (can anyone?), and I’m certainly not secretly taking notes on people’s drinking habits, behavior, or emotional issues they dish to me.  What I do typically study in the actual laboratory is mating strategies from an evolutionary perspective.  This is definitely something seen at the bar.  I’ve witnessed many a first date crash and burn after a couple martinis, and I’ve also seen many a happily wedded couple enjoy a nightcap on their date.  I’m sure we all have, and most of us probably have our own dating story to tell.  Based on research in human mating strategies, and on my experience actually witnessing mating strategies in action from behind the bar, here’s my take on what to know when you’re dating.

First, it’s important to know the difference between a Type I error and a Type II error.  Or as Glenn Geher puts it (Darwin’s Subterranean World), the more aptly named “Found Fool’s Gold” Error and the “Failed to Find Something that’s Actually Real” Error.  A Type I error occurs when someone reports an effect that is not actually present – a false positive.  A simple example would be if a company announced that their new anti-depression medication helps fight depression, when really, it does not.  The “Found Fool’s Gold” Error – the treatment didn’t really work, but now everyone thinks it does.  This is obviously a huge problem.  A Type II error occurs when an effect really IS present, but is missed or goes unnoticed – a false negative.  An example of this would be if the same new anti-depression medication was tested, and the researchers declared that the treatment is useless because it had no effect on depression.  It could be that the new treatment actually decreased anxiety, but this benefit went unnoticed and unreported because the researchers were only looking at depression.  The “Failed to Find Something that’s Actually Real” Error – the new medication actually worked for something, but the effect was missed.  Both cases are errors, but one (Type I) is generally much worse than the other (Type II).

Now, let’s relate this to mating strategies.  When it comes to women seeking men, The Type II error would be to assume that men are not willing or ready to commit to a relationship long-term.  This error is safer in a way – the cost of making this error is significantly less than the cost of making the Type I error.  The Type I error would be to lack any sense of skepticism and assume all men are ready and willing to commit to a long-term relationship.  The cost of making this error is far greater than the cost of the Type II error when dating.  The cost of unexpectedly having to bear children without resources and support from a would-be father or husband is greater than the cost of missing a potential dating opportunity.  For men seeking women, the Type II error would be to assume that all women definitely want to sleep with you.  The cost of this error might be a slap or a drink thrown in your face.  However, the cost of the Type I error – assuming no women want to sleep with you – would be a serious loss of reproductive success.

Indeed, research has shown that we tend to stick to the Type II errors when it comes to mating strategies.  Haselton and colleagues found that women tend to assume that men are unwilling to commit, and men tend to over-perceive a woman’s sexual intent (2000).  It is the less risky route to take in terms of increasing one’s reproductive success.  True enough, I see this a lot when I’m working at the bar.  Often, women on a date will later confess to me or ask if I think the guy they’re on a date with is a “player” or unwilling to commit and be exclusive.  Similarly, I hear men making comments once in a while like “dude, she totally wants to sleep with me.”  (Cue eye-roll)

So, what?  What’s the take-away?  Here’s my advice when it comes to dating today – have fun and relax a little.  Ladies and gentlemen, it’s actually in our biology to feel these things – for women to be skeptical of a man’s level of commitment and for men to over-perceive a woman’s sexual intent.  When weighing the costs, there’s clear evidence and there are clear signs that one error may cost a lot more than the other.  This has shown to be adaptive for our reproductive success.  However, knowing why we think and feel this way when we date can also be adaptive.  Being aware of these mechanisms may alleviate any initial negative or judgmental thoughts about a person’s dating perspective.  Guys, let’s avoid calling her “baby-crazy” or “needy” if a gal mentions interest in the long game.  Ladies, maybe just throw the water in his face instead of the red wine when he wrongly assumes you’re ready to go home with him already.

 

Haselton, M. G., & Buss, D. M. (2000). Error management theory: a new perspective on           biases in cross-sex mind reading. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology78(1),       81-91.

Geher, G. (2015, October 21). Renaming Type I and Type II error [Web blog post].                      Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/darwins-subterranean-                  world/201510/renaming-type-i-and-type-ii-error

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Darwin’s Big Idea: Evolution as a Cross-Cutting Construct

So recently Aron Wiegand, webmaster for evostudies.org, posted the following question to us EvoS bloggers:

“From the selective breeding of plants to animal husbandry, conservation, and drug development, what do you consider to be the most prominent example of the practical application of evolutionary knowledge in human society?”

Aron, this is a hard question to answer! When the world celebrated Darwin’s would-have-been 200th Birthday on 2/12/2009, such major media outlets as Time, the Atlantic, and Newsweek underscored the fact that Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were actually born on the same day – and much discussion ensued about which historical figure had a stronger influence on the modern world. Being compared with Abraham Lincoln in terms of influence?!?! Not too shabby. Darwin’s influence has been simply enormous on modern thought.

My money goes to the field of education itself. The ideas of evolution have the capacity to serve as an intellectual infrastructure for connecting ideas across all areas of academia. This basic idea, which we refer to as the EvoS (Evolutionary Studies) model of education (thanks to David Sloan Wilson for spearheading this movement!), allows students to (a) learn about the basic principles of evolution and then (b) see how these principles are applicable to such seemingly diverse areas as genetics in fruit flies, Neanderthal social structures, the nature of art, reactions to infidelity in modern humans, the nature of human religion, and more. Way more.

What is particularly special about the EvoS model of evolution education is that it provides a new way to think about interdisciplinary education. Interdisciplinary education pertains to any form of education that draws on content across multiple traditional academic areas (e.g., biology and geology). Most interdisciplinary programs at colleges and universities, such as programs in gender studies, focus on a shared content area (in this case, gender, for example). Such a program would include courses in such fields as history, sociology, and political science all as they relate to the content are of gender. Such a curriculum is connected by content.

EvoS is different – and it provides a novel way to think about interdisciplinary education. Instead of connecting classes based on shared content, EvoS connects classes based on the shared set of principles of evolution. Thus, our EvoS curriculum at New Paltz includes a course in historical geology, which focuses on the fossil record and how evolution helps us make sense of the fossil record, and it also includes a course in social psychology, as this course will typically include some content related to how human social behavior can be understood as the product of evolutionary forces. And that’s not all – students in our EvoS program at New Paltz (and in similar programs at other schools around the country) take courses from a bunch of different departments – courses that vary considerably on terms of content, but that share the common pedagogical tool of evolutionary principles.

For a great introduction to the EvoS concept, check out the many free-and-streaming videos of the past speakers in our annual EvoS Seminar Series.

Darwin’s Influence on Education as Only Partly Realized

So in answer to your question, Aron, I think that Darwin’s influence in the field of education is huge. But get this – I also think that the potential that Darwin’s ideas have to inform how we educate people has only be partly realized. EvoS programs such as our program at New Paltz are still only found at a handful of colleges and universities. As a result, it’s still the case that most colleges and universities offer evolution education only in compartmentalized areas – such as biology and geology departments. This is a shame, as Darwin’s ideas have the capacity to improve our understanding of such issues as:

  • Human Physical Health
  • Human Mental Health
  • Education
  • Politics
  • Conservation of the Environment
  • … and more!

We neglect Darwin’s ideas within academic circles to our detriment. In the future, based partly on the efforts of the EvoS Consortium that hosts this blog, I see a time when Darwin’s ideas are fully implemented across academic areas – and a unified and coherent educational framework connected with evolution helps turn on the light for generations of students in years to come. Hey, a guy can dream, right?

 

 

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Struggling with a big decision? Your body knows the answer.

Got a heavy decision to make? Ask your body.

I’m horrible at decision-making. Always have been. I don’t know why I struggle, but I will mull over my options for ages before I eventually settle with the cobb salad…. After changing my order three times. Small decisions, big decisions, I’m not good at it. In most areas of my life, I actually consider myself to be a fairly logical and reasonable individual. I think things through. I’m the type to make a pros and cons list. This is usually helpful enough. However, there are some decisions – often the big ones – that can’t be made from my pros and cons list. I need to call in a different method.

Ironically, this method is far more simple than penciling out every possible detail and consequence of each possible option. Here it is: I ask my body. Body, how do you feel about X? (My body tenses up a bit, my shoulders rise a little, I feel uncomfortable.) Body, how do you feel about Y? (My arms stretch out like the Dodgers are about to win, I relax a little, I smile.) Pretty simple – go with Y. I’ve used this method for decisions as petty as whether to go away for the weekend or stay home and focus on work, along with decisions as big as deciding which job to take – the one I’ll love or the one that pays more. I’ll spend way too much time writing out exactly why I should or shouldn’t choose (fill in the blank). Eventually, I ask my body what it feels is best. It’s never really steered me wrong.

Our bodies have a funny way of knowing what we need sometimes before our minds do. It actually seems a bit counter-intuitive for us to think this way, but it shouldn’t be. Most other species let their bodies take care of them. If an animal is hungry, it eats. If it’s tired, it sleeps. If a predator is lurking, it plays dead. Animals will do all these things without a pros & cons list. I sincerely doubt that chickens consciously take a moment to weigh whether playing dead is the best option for them to avoid predation. Yet, extensive research shows that animals do in fact engage in a freeze response known as tonic immobility as a defense mechanism from impending doom (Gallup, 1974). Even humans can enter into a catatonic state when faced with such traumas as sexual assault (Moskowitz ,2004). The body reacts quickly to protect the individual without forethought, logic, or even a pros & cons list.

Our emotions are not without physical properties. Typically, we describe our emotions in terms of the psychological. I feel sad, happy, angry, excited, etc. Universally, these emotions come with physical expressions. Typically, we can tell when a dog is angry. At this moment, we probably don’t try to play fetch. We can tell when someone is sad or troubled by the expression on their face and their body’s demeanor. Similarly, we can tell when people are happy or excited. I wouldn’t walk into a pub to see a bunch of smiling individuals jumping and cheering and think to myself, “Bummer, the local team must have lost.” This is nothing new, and it is not unique to humans. Charles Darwin himself published a book in 1872 which describes the intertwining of the psychological and the physical for emotional expression in humans and animals. This is a complex system that is a highly adaptive. When it comes to our decision-making skills though, we often limit ourselves to the psychological. The pros and cons lists. This isn’t inherently wrong or bad, of course. It’s probably how we make most decisions with any level of awareness. I’m suggesting that if you find yourself stuck, try bringing the physical into it.

Our bodies may be onto something before our minds are, or at least when our minds are in the way. When it comes down to it, try asking your body.

 

 

 

Darwin, C. (1872). Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. N.p.: Penguin Classics

Moskowitz, A. K. (2004, October). “Scared stiff”: catatonia as an evolutionary-based fear             response. Psychological Review,111(4), 984-1002.

Gallup, G. G. (1974). Animal hypnosis: factual status of a fictional concept. Psychological             Bulletin81(11), 836-853.

 

Posted in Evolution and Psychology, Nicole Wedberg | 1 Comment

How Exactly is Evolution a “Crosscutting Concept”? Enter Bill Nye the Science Guy

Finally, Some Evolution Controversy: No Such Thing As Bad Press

If you’re like me, you are feeling pretty bummed today about not getting a ticket to see Bill Nye. The fact that only a limited number of students were able to attend is a disservice to the University’s student body, not only because Bill Nye the “Science Guy” is for many of us a childhood hero, but his message on the importance of teaching evolution in public schools was not heard by those who need to hear it most. And although many of us were not able to listen to Bill Nye’s words or admire his bow tie, we can help to carry out his mission of including evolution in the K-12 curriculum.

By Ruth Bishop “Evolution belongs in the classroom and all students belong in Bill Nye’s lecture” (The Crimson White, 9/29/15)

Bill Nye the Science Guys recently spoke at the University of Alabama on the topic of “The Importance of Teaching Evolution.” The talk was hosted by The Blount Undergraduate Initiative & as part of the ALLELE series (Alabama Lectures of Life’s Evolution, hosted by the Evolution Working Group). There were three big questions/complaints that emerged from this talk: (1) Is any one speaker worth paying what, essentially, was equivalent to my first year’s salary as a tenure-track professor? (2) Why did we not foresee the outpouring of interest & book Nye in a larger venue? (3) Was it worth it, given that he never directly said, “it’s important to teach evolution because…”?

Does Your Program Need Attention & Have Money Laying Around?

The first two questions/complaints really belong together, & the answers are rather boring. Who really wants to hear about the logistics behind booking speakers? Let me just say, I’ve been involved in booking the ALLELE series now for 6 years (full disclosure: I’m the co-chair of the Evolution Working Group & took it upon myself to help raise enough money to support Blount in bringing in a big name, so, yes, I am biased), & we’ve had some medium-name events but had no experience with someone a whole generation of students grew up on. Let’s face it, Ed Wilson, Lawrence Krauss, & Frans de Waal are big in science circles but NOT household names. Bill Nye, on the other hand, is someone even your non-science _____ [fill in the relative] has heard of. I admit, I didn’t grow up on Bill Nye. He came after I was already in my 20s & not watching much PBS or whatever. I also came to science later in life. While we do our best to bring in most of our speakers because they’re good presenters with interesting research, we brought in Bill Nye for you, the public, because we knew you’d like it. Period. And it’s really amazing how many people who complained that we should have anticipated the outpouring of interest when we FINALLY brought a good science speaker to UA didn’t realize the Blount program has been doing this for 15 years & ALLELE is in its 10th year & that ALLELE alone brings in at least 5 free evolution speakers every year.

And, boy, did you like it.

And it was a free event. Many of you would have preferred we charged & been willing to pay so it would not have been so difficult to get the tickets that were passed out. The Alabama Museum of Natural History website had an ~148,000 hit spike in the day after we announced the Nye ticket giveaway. We gave away tickets over 3 successive days, times, & locations & had an estimated 600 people show up for the 200 tickets the EvoS Club gave away. Those were gone in 6 minutes.

On the second day, the ticket giveaway was to begin at 1 PM, & people had started lining up by 6:15 AM. On the final day, people camped out overnight.

We gave away over 900 tickets to fill up Moody Music Hall, which is the largest venue on campus we could access for free. I know, I know, you all wanted us to host it in Coleman Coliseum or the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater. The Coliseum would have entailed the two of us doing the fundraising to realize in advance that we needed to raise an additional $20,000 to cover that expense & to somehow be able to convince others of that importance. Some Colleges in the University that I shall not name but who, IMHO, should have been supportive of a talk by an engineer about education expressly gave not a dime to support the Nye talk. And the Amphitheater? Jesus Christ, we should go from struggling to fill a 500-seat hall for some talks to considering the city amphitheater? What do you think we are, event planners? Apparently, we could have filled it, but, as it turns out, the University would not have liked us to host a big University event like that off-campus. So there you go.

He Didn’t Talk about the Importance of Teaching Evolution in the Classroom!

As to the focus: Nye’s talk epitomized evolution’s importance as a “crosscutting concept,” though, no, he didn’t drop the E word repeatedly to ham-fist that narrative home. If Nye’s position on the importance of evolution is unclear, spend 2 hours 45 minutes & watch this:

EvoS teams at the University of Alabama, Binghamton University, and SUNY New Paltz recently submitted a proposal for a $2.5 million grant to study the efficacy of teaching evolution at the undergraduate level as a “crosscutting concept.” I like this expression a lot because it seems relatively clear what it means, containing as it does three general terms common in standard American English usage—cross, as in cross-walk; cutting, as in cutting to the front of the line; and concept, as in…hmm, well, I use it a lot. As in, the concept of ‘stress’ or the concept of ‘love’ or the concept of ‘dissociation’ (not common, but central to my research). In other words, a concept is something that may be difficult to put one’s finger on or describe simply. It may not exactly be a thing, but it has biological or cultural meaning or influence.

While not an expression most of us EvoSers were previously familiar with, “crosscutting concept” should be something most K-12 educators know because it is the expression utilized throughout the Next Generation Science Standards.

Crosscutting concepts have value because they provide students with connections and intellectual tools that are related across the differing areas of disciplinary content and can enrich their application of practices and their understanding of core ideas. — Framework p. 233 (NGSS, Appendix G)

Those of us tilting at the windmills of undergraduate evolution education (kidding) are probably more familiar with the term “consilience,” adopted by my university’s most famous alum Edward O. Wilson in his book of the same name. While both expressions describe similar, er, concepts…(no, can’t use the same term to describe itself)…phenomena, crosscutting concepts suggests a theme relevant across disciplines. Consilience refers to a dissolving of disciplinary boundaries, as Jim McKenna points out in a recent commentary on the integration of anthropology and psychology in primate studies of development (bit of a digression, but as Gerald Graff & Cathy Birkenstein point out in They Say, I Say, all writing is a conversation & it’s reading the writing of others that often inspires our own efforts, as an answer to or inspiration of what we have read).

Our primary interest in the EvoS grant proposal is to assess the utility of teaching evolution to students regardless of their background or major & the value of an evolutionary perspective to many questions & all walks of life.

How can we, at the universities with a specific horse to ride, be helpful to k-12 teachers, with often more limited resources & many many horses to corral? We can start by using the same language to be assured we’re teaching the same principles. And, more importantly, we can use that language to connect the dots.

On “paper,” the talk was entitled “The Importance of Teaching Evolution.” Yet, Nye never had a title slide, did not get around to talking about evolution until at least the 30 minute point, or ever say “it’s important to teach evolution because”…

While there is some dissent among my colleagues at UA on this point, Nye did something far more important than SAY why evolution is important, he exemplified it by ranging (or, dare I say, cutting) across topics from autobiography & history to space exploration & physics.

I spend semester after semester saying “it’s important to teach evolution because…” to students who already probably accept that because they wouldn’t otherwise be in my class. (Unlike the biologists at UA, who get a lot of Creationists in their classes, bound for [yes, gulp] med school, that are anti-evolution, most of my students are Anthropology majors who are already aware that no job description out there in the world advertises “Anthropology majors apply.” We are one of those interdisciplinary disciplines that cut across many concepts, so it is no stretch to think of evolution this way. I recently had a reporter ask me for an article coming out soon in The Atlantic Monthly what other controversial trends or fads, besides evolution & the paleo diet, biological anthropology is relevant to. Uh, all of them, I answered [not helpful if you’re a reporter]. Race, climate change, immigration, healthcare reform, vaccination, education. All of them.)

Why should a non-science person care about evolution or evolution education? Not for evolution itself? What does an English major care about ring speciation in salamanders or the latest hominid fossil find (ahem)? Really? How does it influence their lives & make them better at whatever they choose to do with them? Granted, a lot of them DO care & choose to make livings that are directly relevant to evolution, but they could just as easily focus on the Gospels & find relevance in biblical scholarship. Of what use is evolution to a history major? A philosophy major? A computer science major? An engineering major?! We need people to understand why evolution is foundational to science literacy & that basic science literacy is important to understand, nurture, & protect our world for ourselves, our children, etc.

Basic scientific literacy is important in inspiring people, in inculcating the joy of discovery, & in saving the planet. It can get so depressing listening to the Ben Carson’s of the world who seem to have studied science yet have placed these bizarre religious limitations on discovery. Eff them. Go out & do something exciting! Build a better rocket! There’s life on Mars—let’s go explore it! We can build batteries that capture wind & solar energy & can completely resolve our energy crisis! How cool is that? But, again, what is the importance of evolution? It cuts across all of these.

To understand how life evolved, we need to know what to look for. We just found evidence of water on Mars, literally, the day he gave us our talk. This will help us discover if life has EVOLVED elsewhere in the universe & how life EVOLVED here on Earth. In fact, I think he broke the news to us before it broke because Nye ran off & did a live interview on MSNBC about this news story between his Blount/ALLELE talk & a post-talk book signing for Blount/EvoS students.

Anti-evolutionists like Ken Hamm hold that the world is 6000 years old. They also hold that climate change is not a result of human activities but part of the natural world (which is all controlled by a supernatural being). Yes, there have been other climate change events in prehistory, but they happened over thousands of years, not hundreds, & they influenced the demise of dinosaurs, EVOLUTION of mammals, & many other extinction & speciation events.

Was it Worth it?

We will see, but something tells me the answer will be yes.

https://twitter.com/camille_c_carr/status/648694013072134144

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