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.

Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he founded 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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