The Evolution Paradox in Higher Education (Or how I had to buck up and teach myself this evolution stuff!)

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.

Geher, G. (2006). An Evolutionary Basis to Behavioral Differences between Cats and Dogs? An Almost-Serious Scholarly Debate. Entelechy: Mind and Culture.

Geher, G. (2006). Evolutionary psychology is not evil … and here’s why …Psihologijske Teme (Psychological Topics); Special Issue on Evolutionary Psychology, 15, 181-202.

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).

Wilson, D. S. (2011). The neighborhood project. New York: Little Brown and Company.

Glenn Geher

About Glenn Geher

Glenn Geher is professor and chair of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. In addition to teaching courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and conducting research in various areas related to evolutionary psychology, Glenn directs the campus’ EvoS program, one of the most successful, noteworthy, and vibrant features of a campus that prides itself (rightfully) on academic vibrance. In Building Darwin’s Bridges, Glenn addresses the details of New Paltz’s EvoS program as well as issues tied to the future of evolutionary studies in the rocky and often unpredictable landscape of higher education.
This entry was posted in Evolution and Biology, Evolution and Psychology, Evolution and Scientific Method, Evolution in Higher Education, Evolution in the Classroom, Glenn Geher. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Evolution Paradox in Higher Education (Or how I had to buck up and teach myself this evolution stuff!)

  1. Avatar Dave Gerstle says:

    Thank you for your response. I do not understand how my criticism of this article’s data and conclusions implies that I have not given a ‘big hug’ to evolutionary studies. I’m not even sure what that means or why should it matter, one way or the other. Scientific claims about human behaviors require rigorous methodology, representative samples, and conclusions that are grounded in the available and up-to-date evidence. This article falls short on these counts:

    1) This survey was conducted at least five years ago, perhaps closer to seven. Since then, there may have been drastic changes in the professional lives of the surveyed authors and their intellectual environments. This research predates the birth of the EvoS Consortium and the proliferation of EvoS Programs to dozens of universities. These factors do not invalidate the survey’s results, but why are they being published in 2012 without further investigation?

    2) The article’s sample size limits the conclusions that may be drawn from it. Can the input of 27 individuals stand in for the intellectual climate of US higher education at-large? Would you accept an N of 27 from your own graduate students or an article you were reviewing for publication?

    3) Even allowing for this small sample, the article’s conclusions do not follow from the evidence. Based upon the surveyed authors’ responses, their universities neither facilitate nor inhibit evolutionary training. They feel neither especially isolated nor connected in their academic circles. One cannot extrapolate from these results that evolutionary science is being actively resisted within US higher education.

    4) Finally, please review the seven charts in this article. The sample size presented across them is not consistent. It varies between 27 and 24. This was also problem in Wilson’s original write-up of this survey, but it is more problematic now that it is replicated in a peer-reviewed journal.

    I sympathize with the complexities of research into human behaviors and beliefs. People are exceedingly hard to study. This only obliges us to be rigorous in our collection and presentation of data, as well as the conclusions that we draw. The risk of pulling broad conclusions from inconsistent, out-of-date, or ambiguous data lies in researchers’ attempts to ‘fill in the blanks’ with their own biases. That is all fine and good in a blog. But a peer-reviewed journal is another matter.



  2. Glenn Geher Glenn Geher says:

    All – thanks for the thoughtful posts. Counter-comments as follows:

    – Dave, I see you haven’t yet fully given evolutionary studies the big hug that I think it warrants! That’s OK! Healthy skepticism that pushes people to collect better data and to interpret data in relatively conservative terms is healthy for science – and really for any human process (as long as not overdone – as is true with anything). Perhaps we can discuss these details over a pint at a conference one day.

    – Nick, you are a true soldier – and your eloquent and thorough prose on how to take steps to address problems related to evolution education is, as always, well-presented and appreciated.

    – And Carmi, like myself, you raise a litany of questions regarding the ultimate business of higher education. I can almost envision a conference dedicated to this topic and participants from across academic areas. This conference could include important discussions of these issues that underlie all of higher education.

    – Finally, Dan, note that I can fight my own battles – but often not very well! I totally appreciate you chiming in and pointing out counter-points to Dave. Great job pointing out relevant features of Geher and Gambacorta (2010).

    Dan, can you please do this for me at home as well – especially in conversations starting with phrases such as “where were you?! We all were waiting for hours …” and “what is this that I’m eating? – that you cooked! What the??!!” etc. My response, “Oh honey, please talk with Dan about it – he usually has better answers than I have – even in summarizing my own work!” “Oh, OK,” says Kathy – perfectly content with this batch of reason and ready to call Dan for some answers!

    But as a more serious answer to Dave’s serious points, I raise an idea that I used to teach Research Methods students all the time when teaching this class. It’s easy to be a critic. The perfect study has never been done – and it never will be done. That’s part of the deal in a field where you study human behavior. And our recent study is part of that world. Could we have had a larger sample? Could the fact that the data are now 5 years old render it less relevant than it would be otherwise? etc. All good points – but, to my mind, none are deal-killers. Rather, all are evidence that specific methods in any study will always be imperfect and, accordingly, always open to criticism. Realizing this point helped me a long way to go from a smart critic of others’ work to someone who could really embrace all aspects of research (even its imperfections and liabilities) and conduct my own work. It’s not always perfect, but it is always fun!

  3. Avatar Dave Gerstle says:

    Some would call it ‘subtle,’ others would call it ‘extrapolation.’ But I guess that will suffice to address the last of the five problems I point out. How about the other four?


  4. Daniel Glass Daniel Glass says:

    The Geher & Gambacorta, 2010 article in question is “Evolution is Not Relevant to Sex Differences in Humans Because I Want it That Way! Evidence for the Politicization of Human Evolutionary Psychology.” In that article, hypothesis 5 (pg 35) was: “Being an academic should correspond to a greater tendency to attribute causes of sex differences in children and adults to ‘nurture.'” Results supporting this hypothesis can be found in the last paragraph in page 40: “For the analysis addressing attitudes about sex differences in adults, a converse trend was found, with academic employment status having a significant effect (F(1, 175) = 5.89, p < .05; partial eta squared = 3%)." Also see Table 3, at top of pg 41, showing significant effects for academic status on attribution of sex differences to "nature" vs. "nurture". The implication, admittedly subtle, is that since evolution relies on at least a modicum of natural factors as well as environmental ones, those who disagree with the concept of some natural differences by extension are not fully on board with evolutionary perspectives on behavior. If you feel like the "nature vs. nurture" question was not the same as "do you believe in evolutionary influences on behavior," I appreciate your point. However, Glenn and Dan Gambacorta did intend that question as a proxy for acceptance of evolutionary psychology.

  5. Avatar Dave Gerstle says:

    There are some problems with the article you introduce here, Dr. Geher:

    This research is at least five years old.

    The sample size is small (27 surveyed authors), and certainly not representative of the entirety of US higher education.

    The sample size changes midway through the analysis (the charts shift between 24 and 27)

    These data do not provide evidence of “dramatic levels of resistance [to evolution] within the academy”. On the whole, the BBS authors respond that their institutions neither facilitate nor discourage evolutionary training. They feel neither drastically isolated nor connected in their own institutions.

    The articles cited do not offer what the authors claim, e.g. Geher & Gambacorta (2010) do not investigate academic attitudes toward evolution.



  6. Avatar Carmi Turchick says:

    You can take the radical out of the Marxist paradigm, but at least in my case I remain a radical. What this means for this topic is that I ask far more radical questions, such as: 1)Now that there is a scientific toolkit based on evolution which allows us to support our views of human nature and behavioral predispositions on actual empirical evidence and sound science, how can we justify taking students money in exchange for “teaching” them disproven or absurd notions (such as Freudian/Marxist/”Feminist”/post-modernist/Blank Slatist/purely rational homo-economicus/Political Science based on Hume and Rousseau/etc.)? 2) Should we not at least allow students who accept that humans evolved, and who know that this means human behavior also has evolved, to complete degrees in whatever field involving human behavior they are interested in without having to pretend to “learn” crap that is completely wrong, and which could only be right if the Theory of Evolution was wrong? 3) Should fields such as Women’s Studies, Sociology, some areas of Anthropology, Political Science, Economics, and so on, which contain at least 99% wrong and absurd information, even be allowed to remain in academia giving out degrees in exchange for mastery of what we know to be wrong?

  7. Avatar Nick Armenti says:

    As you know, I am strongly supportive of your position and concerns expressed above. I and many others like yourself are particularly making an effort to promote the practical, applied aspects of evolutionary thinking. I suggest that those of us who are dedicated to advancing the acceptance and use of evolutioinary thinking to advance an understanding of and an improvemnt in the human condition via evolutionarily informed approaches need to develop an effective set of methods to lay the foundation for an acceptance of the value of evolutionary thinking. I don’t believe that this has been done to date.
    One suggestion is that we learn from healthcare that treating those who are already ill, is not the most effective approach or only remedy for the problem facing healthcare providers. There are just not enough resources allocated to preventive efforts in healthacre or, as I see it, in our effots to get evolutionary thinking in the mainstream. Yes, attempting to address and convert those who are resistant to Evo in higher education is necessary but it’s like treating those already afflicted (with Evo-rejection syndrome) and that road is a tough one to travel and to make headway. I suggest that the approach be augmented by addressing those educators at the elementary and high school levels. This is more akin to prevention and reducing the Evo-rejection “disorder”. I recall others in the recent past talking about creating course work on evolution for “lower” education. In addition we need more exposure via public media, (Internet, TV, radio, newpapers, magazines and DVDs) to educate readers, listeners and viewers in a nonconfrontational manner, avoiding disrepect for others’ positions on religion and creationism. This needs a lot of thoughtful planning and it will take patience and persistence but I think it will pay off in the long run. There is no quick fix here. I suggest we get together to do this planning.

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