Should all biology classes include evolution? Lately I have been thinking about "evolution across the curriculum," the initiative promoting evolution as a core concept of biology that should exist in class of every subdiscipline -- from ecology to microbiology to physiology and biochemistry (Wei, Beardsley, & Labov, 2012). Working on a project to move evolutionary thinking into a microbial genetics course here at MSU, I am learning that transplanting concepts from one field into another is not so simple. In this post, I discuss how language can impede learning when terms have multiple definitions and non-scientific meaning for students.
Mead and Scott (Mead & Scott, 2010a) discuss how evolutionary biology language use differs between students and scientists, specifically discussing the ambiguous meanings of terms “design” and “purpose.” Language ambiguity is problematic when words have more than one meaning (Rector, Nehm, & Pearl, 2012). For example, the word “purpose” in a biological sense often refers to a structure’s function, but non-experts may associate “purpose” with non-scientific existential meaning. Without explicitly discussing the meaning of “purpose” in a given context, use of the word could inadvertently lead to student confusion about the content. Mead and Scott suggest one way to avoid confusion is for teacher's to use alternative words that don't have teleological connotations. For example, a teacher might substitute in "function" where "purpose" was previously used. Mead and Scott give an example:
How can I stay clear of potential teleological thinking in microbiology? One way is to focus on structure-function reasoning, similar to the aardvark example above. Rather than asking a vague “why” question, I could ask "What structures and functions are involved with the E. coli colony color turning blue?" I could then explicitly contrast methodological practices with natural phenomena by following with, "In this experimental setup, the E. coli are blue. Are they blue in nature? Would this trait be adaptive in nature?" Finally, I could explicitly disambiguate the "design" we do as human researchers from the adaptive emergence of functions produced by evolution by natural selection.
The classroom is not the only place facing confusion due to language ambiguity. I commonly find this problem in non-evolutionary biology writing and discourse, such as in microbiology seminars and biomedical literature. Here's an example from the CDC (Antibiotic Resistance Questions & Answers, 2013)
What do you think? Where is there room to incorporate evolutionary thinking across the curricula? How do different biology disciplines have unique challenges when it comes to making those changes?
Antibiotic Resistance Questions & Answers. (2013). Antibiotic Resistance Questions & Answers. Center for Disease Control. Retrieved June 1, 2014, from http://www.cdc.gov/getsmart/antibiotic-use/antibiotic-resistance-faqs.html#why-bacteria-resist
Mead, L. S., & Scott, E. C. (2010a). Problem Concepts in Evolution Part I: Purpose and Design. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 3(1), 78–81. doi:10.1007/s12052-010-0210-8
Mead, L. S., & Scott, E. C. (2010b). Problem Concepts in Evolution Part II: Cause and Chance. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 3(2), 261–264. doi:10.1007/s12052-010-0231-3
Rector, M. A., Nehm, R. H., & Pearl, D. (2012). Learning the Language of Evolution: Lexical Ambiguity and Word Meaning in Student Explanations. Research in Science Education, 43(3), 1107–1133. doi:10.1007/s11165-012-9296-z
Wei, C. A., Beardsley, P. M., & Labov, J. B. (2012). Evolution Education across the Life Sciences: Making Biology Education Make Sense. Cell Biology Education, 11(1), 10–16. doi:10.1187/cbe.11-12-0111
Side Projects, The Blog!
A blog for all things non-dissertation.