Evolution Outside of the Science Classroom

If you’re a college instructor, and the subject of evolution comes up in a class, and you are not a scientist yourself, what should you say about it to your students? Here are some things that might help you think about this issue.

First thought: Keep the big picture in mind. Regardless of discipline, if you’re working with college students, you’re basically hoping to turn them on to four things: (1) critical thinking and dialogue; (2) close reading, seeing, and writing; (3) intellectual and cultural literacy; and (4) discipline specific skills (reading a particular kind of graph in an economics class; teaching MLA formatting of papers in an English class, etc.). The subject of evolution is thus a “teachable moment” in three out of the four areas that you’re likely focusing on in a college classroom. And as the philosopher Daniel Dennett says, the theory of evolution is “a universal acid.” It drives you to question your certainties, and that’s good for your intellectual life.

Second thought: If humans did not just pop into existence inexplicably out of nowhere, they must have a history. How does history connect to the variety of subjects (economics, psychology, political science, history, literature, philosophy) that might be raised in the non-science classroom? By historicizing questions, one can discuss with students how, exactly, one might use critical thinking and evidence to arrive at historical inductions (converging lines of evidence, Occam’s razor, etc.). And by foregrounding history, one can also introduce students to structuralism and poststructuralism. No person, after all, is an island. Each is part of larger dynamic and evolutionary systems. Stephen Greenblatt’s “new historicism” (the insights of which are informed by evolutionary notions of embeddedness in systems, radical contingency, and flux) can also be raised. And, of course, there’s also the sociology of science itself. That too can be discussed. To not think historically is to not be much of a thinker at all, and evolutionary theory is about thinking historically.

Third thought: You can talk about etiological narratives and “just so” stories. One can introduce students to etiological narratives and just so stories and ask how they function:

  • Etiological narratives. These are origin stories that appear in ancient texts like the Gilgamesh Epic and the Bible. It’s the way people, before there was science, explained aspects of the world to themselves and their children. Why are there different languages in the world, why are there rainbows in the sky, why do women have pain in childbirth, why must we labor by the sweat of our brow, why do snakes go on their bellies, where did the first woman come from? The above questions all come, obviously, from the first eleven chapters of Genesis, and each gets answered with a story.
  • Just so stories. College-level evolutionary discussions can often take on story-telling characteristics quite similar to ancient etiological narratives. Why do humans love honey, avoid spiders, and smile? If evolution is true, there must be some link between these questions and the competition for survival, resources, and/or sex. But what’s the right story to tell? And what about biologist Stephen Gould’s caution about “spandrels” (aspects of life’s evolutionary “architecture” that are accidental artifacts of unrelated selective forces)? For example, it may be that a mutation in East Asians upon their sweat glands, apparently driven by climate adaptation, also thickened their hair follicles (which might increase sexual attractiveness). What story does one then emphasize in retrospect about what really drove the adaptation (survival selection or sexual selection)?

An example of a well known scientist engaging in “just so” evolutionary storytelling is physicist Michio Kaku (b. 1947). In his book Physics of the Future (2011), he coins the term “Cave Man (or Cave Woman) Principle” to account for the persistence of certain forms of high-touch behaviors in our otherwise high-tech age. Here are two instances of Kaku applying his principle (15-16):

  • “[T]he caveman always demanded ‘proof of the kill.’ . . . Similarly, we want hard copy whenever we deal with files.”
  • “[O]ur ancestors always liked face-to-face encounters. . . . This is the reason cybertourism never got off the ground. It’s one thing to see a picture of the Taj Mahal, but it’s another thing to have the bragging rights of actually seeing it in person.”

By contrast, Jerry Coyne, geneticist at the University of Chicago, writes at the end of his book, Why Evolution is True (Viking 2009), the following: “There is an increasing (and disturbing) tendency of psychologists, biologists, and philosophers to Darwinize every aspect of human behavior, turning its study into a scientific parlor game. But imaginative reconstructions of how things might have evolved are not science; they are stories” (228).

Fourth thought: Experts collide. When experts collide, what do we do? Here’s philosopher Bertrand Russell (Let the People Think 1941) offering a few rules of thumb:

(1)   That when experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend judgment.

In other words, if it is wise to believe things and apportion our level of belief (high, medium, low) to good reasons and evidence, then when experts collide it should give us pause; when they agree, we should take their opinion into strong account; and when they say there is no ground for rendering a judgment, we should not run ahead of them. But there are problems (if not logically, emotionally) with Russell’s otherwise sensible formulation. What, for example, about Abraham and Isaac? Shall we never take intellectual or commitment leaps beyond the evidence? Isn’t it quite obvious, for example, that we all start with quite diverse philosophical premises (metaphysical and epistemological) that cannot be scientifically grounded before we engage in scientific practices? Given that we are embedded in the system we are trying to explain, our starting premises, if we are being honest with ourselves, cannot be taken for granted.

Also, what about the issue of Oedipal struggle in the classroom? Young people generally don’t like to defer to older generations or adhere to given systems of thought without really being presented with very good reasons for doing so. They like contrarians, conspiracy theories, counter-assertions, and populism. By laying Russell’s “follow the experts” trip on them, we’re inviting (justified) rebellion. In Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky laid out the psychological dynamics of the underground man determined to engage in intellectual perversity precisely because he needs to think for himself, breath fresh emotional air, and assert his own being in the world. As teachers, we would do well to revisit Dostoevsky’s text because claims made in the classroom ought to keep everyone on their toes, including the instructor. We should keep complexity in play and avoid the temptation to offer pat responses to difficult issues. And we should honor ambiguity and Socrates. Jacob should wrestle the angel.

Fifth thought: Memes are interesting. For being an early and vigorous defender of the theory of evolution by natural selection against its critics, 19th century biologist Julian Huxley became known as “Darwin’s bulldog.” In the late 20th and early 21st century, the sinewy and quick-witted Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, in his equal enthusiasm for the power of evolutionary explanation, has been called “Darwin’s greyhound,” and in his seminal 1976 work on evolution, The Selfish Gene, he argues that what underlies all of life’s activity is the reproductive imperatives of genetic material: a chicken, as it were, is an egg’s way of making another egg; an anthill is a way to make another egg-filled queen ant, and so on.

Dawkins in turn argues that human language, being also a code for carrying information, functions analogously to genes, moving words, phrases, and ideas about like viruses from human mind to human mind, some being more successful at provoking humans to reproduce them than others.

In the last chapter of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins coins a term for the viral and replicating nature of culture and language. Cleverly mashing echoes of the words imitation and memory with genes, he calls those bits or clusters of culture and language that go viral memes. Memes, like genes, are replicators. Among their potential iterations, memes can travel small and independent (“Got milk?”), can mutate (“Got beer?”), and be carried along in some larger memetic cluster (the 23rd Psalm—“The Lord is my Shepherd . . .”—in the King James Bible).

An obvious example of a meme is the repetition of the phrase “I prefer not to,” by Bartleby, a copyist in a 19th century law office, in Herman Melville’s well known short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener.” In the story, the phrase comes to infect the minds of the copyist’s employer and coworkers, and it has even taken on a life of its own outside the story itself, becoming readily associated with all forms of passive resistance to authority, from Thoreau to Gandhi to Martin Luther King.

Here are three sentences from the last chapter of Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene that might make for conversation starters in the classroom:

  • “Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes, fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches” (206).
  • “If a meme is to dominate the attention of a human brain, it must do so at the expense of ‘rival’ memes” (211).
  • “When we die there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes” (214).

Sixth thought: Face the religion question directly. The quote that appears below can be found at the beginning of biologist Stephen Gould’s book, Dinosaur in a Haystack (1995). It’s hard to contrast the West’s religious era with its secular era more clearly. So much is implied in the way that Gould has put this:

What transition could be more profound than ‘created in God’s image to rule a young world of stable entities made for our delectation,’ to ‘a fortuitous twig, budding but yesterday on an ancient and copious bush of ever changing, interrelated forms.’

What’s implied here? Numerous things (which can be laid out as movements, as in a piece of music). The movement…

  • from an externally derived purpose for humans (we are here “to rule a young world”) to one of having no particular purpose whatsoever.
  • from nature for us to nature indifferent to us.
  • from authority (priestly rule) to expertise (the scientist’s rule).
  • from short time to deep time.
  • from entity, essence, and soul to flux and no-self.
  • from determinate history to history as contingency.
  • from center to margin.
  • from human primacy to human belatedness.
  • from human separation from other life forms to interrelation.
  • from dualism to monism.
  • from man derived of God’s “stuff” (in God’s image) to man derived of “animal stuff” (our genetic inheritance).
  • from dignity to afterthought (or worse, no thought at all).
  • from reason to chance.
  • from The Tree as something to which we seek return (as in the Garden of Eden) to something we cannot escape (our evolutionary position as a twig on Darwin’s Tree of Life).
  • from unchanging truth wins to deconstructive time wins.
  • from human hopes win to death wins.
  • from spiritual structuralism (the stable hierarchy or chain of being from God and the angels down) to materialist structuralism (we are embedded in a matrix consisting of atoms in flux in a void).

Concluding thought. Critical thinking—the attempt to arrive, as nearly and objectively as possible, at the truth of a matter—is a skill every college student should practice daily. As a habit of mind, it’s a form of real power—the power of critical thinking. As such, the following quote by Derek Bok might be useful for the college instructor to contemplate: “Many seniors graduate without being able to write well enough to satisfy their employers. Many cannot reason clearly or perform competently in analyzing complex, nontechnical problems, even though faculties rank critical thinking as the primary goal of a college education” (Our Underachieving Colleges, Princeton 2006, p. 8). Another thing important to college is aspect seeing (seeing things from the vantage of different aspects or points of view, as when one gazes at an image that visually alternates between a vase and two faces). The cosmos is rich with ways that one can view it, and evolution is a rich vein for developing both critical thinking and aspect seeing. Learning to think about evolution is part of what it means to become a college educated person in the 21st century. So be brave. Raise the subject of evolution in class. Doubt and think.


Here’s an example of aspect seeing (which, by the way, fascinated the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein). Do you see two faces or a curvy Martian?

And shall we call her Marilyn Martian?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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