Leading with complexity in evolution education

The dynamic processes that connect the fine details of life, like DNA, enzymes & neurons to the growth & development of bodies, to behaviour & society are neither linear nor easy to study. We can engage students in facts & details, yet not lose sight of dynamics & complexity⎮3 min 30 sec read

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By Agustín FuentesGuest contributor from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame

Evolution is neither “survival of the fittest” nor simply “biological change over time.” In human evolution, behaviour, perception and imagination can be as relevant as bones, genes and muscles. These realities make teaching about evolution, accurately and honestly, really difficult. Traditionally, we’ve created simplistic stories about DNA, drawn linear models of evolution and presented our students with narratives that make the world seem simple, tidy and well organized. It is not, and they know it. So when we force them to memorize overly simplistic models, we deny their ability to deal with dynamic complicated processes…a capacity we know has been central to human evolutionary success.

Traditionally, we’ve created simplistic stories about DNA, drawn linear models of evolution and presented our students with narratives that make the world seem simple, tidy and well organized. It is not, and they know it.

If we acknowledged, from the get go, that the world is indeed complicated, messy and wonderful because of it, we will be doing better science education. Can we lead with complexity? Yes, we can.

The dynamic processes that connect the fine details of life, like DNA, enzymes and neurons, to the growth and development of bodies, to behaviour, and even to society, are nether linear nor easy to study. But there are patterns and processes that we can describe, debate and develop. There are ways we can present these to students and enable them to learn facts and details yet not lose sight of dynamics and complexity. Unraveling the dynamic systems of life and making them accessible is our job as educators. To understand these patterns and connections we do need to break them down into smaller chunks of information, but we must be careful never to present those bits as if they were in isolation from one another. 

For example, DNA never does anything by itself. It is not a blueprint for “who we are,” rather it is part of the system of how we become. It is a strand of molecules with a diversity of chemical properties shared by most life on this planet. It can show us what we have in common with other life and how we are distinctive. Its interactions are part of a system that stretches from the nucleus of the cell to the cellular matrix, to the bloodstream to the shape and function of our brain and out to the ways in which we see, smell and taste the world. We can track much of that journey, and relate it to students. In doing so we offer a greater capacity for learning and insight. By framing each aspect of organic functioning as connected, even if only in a general sense, we offer detailed understanding into particular aspects of systems without losing the core reality that they are part of a system of processes not things in isolation.  


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About guest contributor Agustín Fuentes

Agustín Fuentes, trained in Zoology and Anthropology, is the Edmund P. Joyce C.S.C. Professor of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. His research delves into the how and why of being human. Ranging from chasing monkeys in jungles and cities, to exploring the lives of our evolutionary ancestors, to examining what people actually do across the globe, Professor Fuentes is interested in both the big questions and the small details of what makes humans and our closest relatives tick. He has published more than 150 peer reviewed articles and chapters, authored or edited 19 books and a three-volume encyclopedia, and conducted research across four continents and two-million years of human history. His current explorations include the roles of creativity and imagination in human evolution, multispecies anthropology, evolutionary theory, and the structures of race and racism. Fuentes is an active public scientist, a well-known blogger and lecturer, and a writer and explorer for National Geographic. Fuentes’ recent books include “Race, Monogamy, and other lies they told you: busting myths about human nature” (U of California), “Conversations on Human Nature(s)” (Routledge) and “The Creative Spark: how imagination made humans exceptional" (Dutton).  

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Curriculum design and educational innovation, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Global ESD works internationally to support sustainability education initiatives that connect concepts in human evolution, behavioral ecology, and sustainability science. By linking scientific perspectives on social change with students and classrooms seeking to make the world a better place, our aim is to foster a more global discussion about where we are going in the light of where we all have come from. Our work is done in close collaboration with the Department of Comparative Cultural Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Primary contributors to this blog community are Dustin Eirdosh & Susan Hanisch

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