Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


To Understand Evolution, Try Focusing on Humans

• June 01, 2010 • 2:49 PM

A researcher finds focusing on humans rather than animals helps students grasp some of the fundamental concepts of evolutionary theory.

The theory of evolution is one of most familiar in all of science — and one of the most widely misunderstood. Even well-educated people are often fuzzy regarding the mechanics that drive evolutionary change.

Is there a better way to teach both students and the public about this fundamental process? Writing in the online journal Evolutionary Psychology, British anthropologist and psychologist Daniel Nettle puts his finger on one major roadblock to understanding and offers a simple but compelling solution.

A researcher with the Newcastle University Institute of Neuroscience, Nettle notes that evolutionary principles are usually illustrated using animals. He proposes that we instead teach evolution using human beings as our main reference point.

He argues that, while we tend to view all members of a particular animal species as fundamentally alike, we have no problem seeing that one person can vary a lot from another — a point is that is essential to grasping the evolutionary process.

The notion that one particular robin might, due to a genetic mutation, be better than other robins at evading capture by cats is difficult to grasp. To us, a robin is a robin is a robin. It’s far easier to understand that a specific person could have a unique ability to do something well, take advantage of that talent to build a successful life and ultimately produce children in his or her image.

Nettle tested this proposition in two studies. In the first, 50 university students who watched images flash before their eyes were able to differentiate between two people, or two inanimate objects, far faster than they could differentiate between two members of the same animal species. This hesitation occurred in spite of the fact the animals were often shown in different poses, making their body outlines quite distinct.

In the second study, 123 students were asked to imagine they were Martian anthropologists who had come to Earth to study a specific life form. Some randomly picked an animal, others a group of people (the Malagasy). Each was asked to assess how their chosen species evolved through time.

Those who wrote about humans “tended to think that adaptive change could occur within the same species,” Nettle writes, “whereas in the animal version, they were more likely to respond that when the environment changes, a species goes extinct, and a novel species adapted to the novel conditions comes along. There were also trends towards a greater clarity that population change does not require individuals to change during their lifetimes.”

Nettle acknowledges this approach won’t solve all misunderstandings. For instance, it does not address the common misconception that evolutionary change is “driven by the needs of species.” (A random genetic mutation can benefit a species — say, one that subtly alters the shape of a certain type of fish so it can swim faster, catch more prey and ultimately have more offspring — but the species cannot will this into existence.)

He also concedes this approach could increase the already substantial resistance to evolutionary theory, since people are generally more open to thinking of animals than humans as the product of an evolutionary process.

Nevertheless, he concludes, “the results are at least suggestive that thinking about humans might be a good starting point for developing good intuitions about how evolution works.” Given the current state of ignorance, it’s certainly worth a try.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.