Undergraduate students are challenged when trying to understand the principles of evolution in science courses. Often they begin with deeply embedded yet flawed ideas about what evolution is and how it works, and it is difficult for them to correct these. Furthermore, for some, personal conflicts between evolution and religion can interfere with gaining meaningful understanding. Students may learn to pass exams, then when the course is over, revert to reluctance to accept—or even to denial of—evolution.
Researchers have identified several misconceptions about evolution that students commonly hold, including the following: (1) changes in a population occur through a gradual change in individual members of a population; (2) new traits in species are developed in response to need; (3) all members of a population are phenotypically similar; (4) all members of a population are genetically equivalent, so variation and fitness can be ignored; and (5) traits acquired during an individual's lifetime will be inherited by offspring.
Knowing what our students think about evolution is requisite to designing instruction to help them tackle their erroneous ideas and ultimately gain understanding, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to read David Sloan Wilson's thoughts on how to help everyone learn about evolution. My perception was that he wrote for a broad audience, including those with no previous background in science or evolution. I approached the volume from the perspective of a teacher who uses evolution as the thread that interconnects all the topics in an undergraduate introductory biology course. As I read, I imagined working with my students in a course with a large enrollment, using the scenarios and active learning activities Wilson presents. As I delved deeper into the book, however, I thought he began taking literary license with evolution that I would not use in an undergraduate course.
Wilson, a distinguished professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University in New York, considers himself an evolutionist who uses the principles of evolution to understand the world around him. He distinguishes “evolutionist” from the more familiar label “evolutionary biologist” on the grounds that evolutionary biologists typically restrict themselves to the conventional realm of biology. He, however, proposes a broader vision: that evolution is not only real but that it is relevant to all human affairs—indeed, to almost all aspects of life on Earth. His discussion of this nonconventional subject matter makes up a significant part of the book.
The chapters are short, with metaphors, applications, and analogies about evolution interwoven with personal anecdotes and biological facts. Wilson writes in the first person—a refreshing approach—and provides insight into his experiences and development of his way of thinking. I predict that his undergraduate evolution course will provide a novel learning experience in which students find themselves in a lively environment that connects and transcends the disciplinary boundaries of biology, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, and even the fine arts. Without doubt, students in Wilson's course are active participants rather than passive listeners.
Wilson begins the book with a discussion of the implications of evolutionary theory, not the facts of the theory. Why is evolution such a big deal? He skillfully leads the reader through a variety of scenarios—for example, brainstorming the advantages of infanticide in beetle populations, Wilson's area of research. This approach is intended to encourage people to set aside their personal biases and to consider evolution through real-life examples. Then he lays out the components of the theory. Students should by this point have a context for developing a conceptual framework for variation and its consequences, natural selection, adaptation, and the time it takes for natural selection to work.
Throughout the book, Wilson tries to show that evolution is essential to understanding everything that seems distinctively human, such as a sense of beauty and personality, and thus is deeply consonant with the rest of life. He argues the same point for morality and religion. In several places he seeks to demonstrate that morally laden terms such as “good” and “evil” have a simple biological explanation; traits associated with “good” cause groups to function well as units, while traits associated with “evil” favor individuals at the expense of their groups. Wilson's examples, inspired mostly by his ideas about the importance and generality of group selection, are woven throughout the narrative.
Wilson can apply the conceptual framework of evolutionist thinking to virtually any topic in biology, and his reflections about how evolution may have influenced human value systems are intriguing. He suggests that when students learn the conceptual framework, they gain confidence in their abilities to work with evolutionary theory to understand and improve their world. Readers will find the theory presented engagingly: Wilson fills his chapters with new ideas, vivid examples, and personal anecdotes in a witty, personable writing style. The approach Wilson takes and the ideas he presents in this book may stimulate some teachers to think outside the box as they design their evolution curriculum.
At the outset, I was intrigued by Wilson's novel notions. My enthusiasm waned, however, as chapter after chapter rolled out largely speculative ideas about the emergence of aesthetics, the origin of laughter, the vital arts of dancing and music, and cultural evolution. The presentations eventually seemed tendentious, especially given the paucity of hard evidence to support the posited explanations. His extraordinarily broad application of evolutionary principles is overly zealous and dangerously close to overstepping the boundaries of science. Although all readers will gain something from this book, I ended it feeling apprehensive that part of Wilson's intended readership may be misled by the number of ideas that, although tantalizing, are indeed just ideas, not established explanations.