Menus Subscribe Search

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

August 21 • 4:00 PM

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent Westernizing Surgery

The CBS news anchor and television personality’s story proves that cosmetic surgeries aren’t always vanity projects, even if they’re usually portrayed that way.


August 21 • 2:37 PM

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There’s heightened functional connectivity between the brain’s emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.


August 21 • 2:00 PM

Cracking Down on the Use of Restraints in Schools

Federal investigators found that children at two Virginia schools were being regularly pinned down or isolated and that their education was suffering as a result.


August 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, School Principal?

Noah Davis talks to Evan Glazer about why kids aren’t getting smarter and what his school’s doing in order to change that.



August 21 • 10:00 AM

Why My Neighbors Still Use Dial-Up Internet

It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no other choice.


August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


August 20 • 8:40 AM

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.


August 20 • 8:00 AM

What the Cost of Raising a Child in America Tells Us About Income Inequality

You’ll spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise a kid in the United States, or about five times the annual median income.


August 20 • 6:00 AM

In Praise of ‘American Greed’

While it remains semi-hidden on CNBC and can’t claim the car chases of Cops, American Greed—now with eight seasons in the books—has proven itself a worthy endeavor.


August 20 • 4:00 AM

Of Course I Behaved Like a Jerk, I Was Just Watching ‘Jersey Shore’

Researchers find watching certain types of reality TV can make viewers more aggressive.


August 20 • 2:00 AM

Concluding Remarks About Housing Affordability and Supply Restricitions

Demand, not supply, plays the dominant role in explaining the housing affordability crisis. The wages are just too damn low.


August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


Follow us


How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

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