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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.

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