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Evolution

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"...Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution..."

-Theodosius Dobzhansky

If there is one big idea, one organizing principle in modern biology, it is evolution- that all life on earth descended from a common ancestor, and shares one common set of biological machinery, and much of the same genetic information.

A Note on Sequence: How evolution fits into the curriculum:

In many full-year introductory biology courses, the year starts with an overview of all the different phyla and classes of life, followed by cell biology. Evolution is "stuck in" somewhere because it's considered a controversial idea. Finally the year ends with environmental science( often to be cut short because of year-end scheduling issues). I feel this approach is wrong; it communicates the pre-1850's notion that the kingdoms and phyla are fixed; that each section is fundamentally different from the next, and completely disconnects the origin of species from the environment.

A much better approach, I feel (which is followed by some of the newer authors), is to start with environmental science; connoting the notion that it is environmental conditions, whether on the scale of a continent or within the small intestine, that determines the characteristics of successful species. Next should be cell biology, to understand the basics of the amazing molecular and genetic machinery within us. This should be followed by the evolution unit here presented, which, in my mind at least, is the intellectual climax of the year. After students understand the basics of DNA science, and how species arise through natural selection, is the time to explore the great variety of living things. Their essential oneness is then understood, all sharing a common set of machinery, from DNA and RNA to HOX genes and mitochondria. Finally the year is concluded with more detailed study of plants and animals, and the body systems of that special animal, the human being.

Overview of Topics:

A teacher cannot do justice to evolution in the short time (2 weeks) that is available for it. One can only touch on the major topics, which include:

  • Who was Charles Darwin? How did he come to develop his theory of evolution?
  • Adaptations
  • What is evolution?
  • Describe how natural selection drives evolution
  • How do new species form?
  • How does the fossil record gives evidence for evolution?
  • Other evidence for evolution- similarities in early development, DNA ( evo-devo) sequences

These topics are taught through a combination of textbook readings and worksheets, video excerpts, web interactives, and inquiry-based labs and simulations.

Finally, it is important(while the time available is limited!)to acquaint students with why the study of evolution is important. Not only does it help biologists resolve many medical and public health issues, from MRSA and AIDS to influenza; improve agriculture, etc.; it helps us to not only understand where the world we know( including us) came from, but to understand the nature of science and scientific inquiry itself.

Links

PBS Evolution

Understanding Evolution (UC Berkeley)

Nova Evolution-Beta

Massachusetts Teacher's Domain- Resources

Darwin-American Museum of Natural History

Becoming Human

Evolution Animation Clips- HHMI

PBS/NOVA- What Darwin Never Knew

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Ammonite Fossil

 
Revised November 2011 by Jonathan Dietz, dietzj@mail.weston.org