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Evolution - Dont Debate The Theory, Just Apply The Mechanism
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Evolution - Dont Debate the Theory, Just Apply the Mechanism

Evolution!

Few scientific theories engender the same emotion or passion than the theory of evolution. Whether the criticism or defence has more to do with religion or Lamarckianism doesn't really matter. To argue about evolution is rather to miss the point.

Most of the questions that your average high school biology student needs to tackle are concerned with Darwin's famous mechanism of evolution: natural selection. The truth is; the idea of evolution was around far longer than Darwin's idea. Interestingly, Lamarck never received the same emotive reaction that Darwin did, possibly because of the strength of his argument and how close he was to referring to Wallace's mechanism of evolution. Depending upon your view of history, you may have a soft spot for Alfred Wallace who was one of the infamous silver medallists. You may think winning isn't everything, it's how you play the game, but tell that to people like Wallace. The same ideas and meticulous science to support your idea is of little value if someone else beats you to the punch (or publish in this case).

As far as students are concerned, they will benefit from learning the 2 by 3 method for applying Darwinian mechanisms to evolution.

The first 3 are the adaptations. Adaptations are the modifications we see in populations which have given them a survival advantage. No adaptation on its own confers an advantage on its owners. Long fur is not much of an advantage is the temperature gets warmer, but if it gets colder, then there may be an advantage in the longer fur.

The 3 types of adaptations are structural, physiological and behavioural. To help you distinguish between them, try the following:

  • If we can dissect it and hold it in our hands, it is structural.
  • If it relates to how the organism's body functions, it is physiological.
  • If it relates to what the individual does, it is behavioural.

We can dissect the fur and measure different lengths. You don’t even have to do this. If you have a pet dog or cat, you will probably know exactly when it starts to shed its longer hair.

The second 3 relates to our evaluation of how an adaptation can provide support for the theory of evolution.

When dealing with the benefit to the species as a whole, we need to identify another 3 critical steps.

  1. Variation within the population; some individuals had longer fur, others had short fur, while others had long fur which could be shed when the weather was warm.
  2. Selecting agent; a change in temperature over the course of the year were sufficient to overheat those with thick, heavy coats, or freeze those with short, sparse coats. Only those able to protect against the cold, then shed to avoid overheating in the warmth were able to survive in all conditions. Hot weather favoured those with short fur, while cool weather favoured those with long fur. Seasonal weather favoured those members of the population who could regulate their coat length.
  3. Reproduction; the survivors pass their genes onto subsequent generations, shifting the population to one that favoured those that could vary the length and thickness of their coats through shedding and regrowth.

Any question which deals with evolution can be treated in such a way. Find online quizzes and lessons to help students practice applying their knowledge. The problem sometimes occurs when students either make a speech about their view of evolution (it may get it off your chest but is unlikely to be worth any marks and most questions dealing with applications of evolutionary theory occur within the species level anyway) or use a Lamarckian explanation. The latter may simply be a clumsy attempt at trying to indicate that either an individual adapted to the changing weather conditions, or the population gradually changed over time by progressive coat shedding or length variation. It is critical to identify the second of the 3s when explaining the phenomena so you do not fall into a Lamarckian trap.

There are a number of evolutionary simulations and other applications of integrating technology in science education to be found on the internet. Such activities provide engaging activities and instant feedback to help students see the consequences of their choices.Structuring answers around the 3 key steps of variation, selecting agent and reproduction will ensure students focus on the Darwinian approach, whether they like it, or not.


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