Evolution and the citizen: Your thoughts?

I’m preparing for my first trip to New Orleans. The occasion is the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America. Steven Austad, a University of Texas biologist, asked me to come give a talk in a session he’s organized next Monday. Austad studies the evolution of aging in the hopes of finding ways of slowing the aging process. (I wrote about him in 2007 in the sadly defunct Best Life magazine–read the article here or here.) In the face of an anti-evolution education bill passed by the Louisiana legislature, Austad decided to use his trip to the state next week to organize a session on the important of a good evolution education.

My task is to discuss “how understanding evolution allows Americans citizens to formulate more informed decisions about societally important matters.” I like this assignment, because it’s an interesting twist on the standard question about the value of evolutionary biology. Typical answers to that question include the cosmic–how it helps us see our place in the history of the universe–and the practical–how it can help in our search for better health and happiness. (See here, for example.)

The question I’m addressing is a bit different. How does a good understanding of evolution better prepare us to make decisions as citizens?

I’ve got a few ideas of my own, but this seems like a good question to throw open for discussion. If I crib any of your suggestions for my talk, I will thank you profusely when I deliver it. You’ll be able to check for yourself next week, when I’ll post a recording with slides.


Update: The stars align! A couple hours after I posted this request, Ed Yong posted his excellent write-up of evolutionary trees in the courtrooms.

31 thoughts on “Evolution and the citizen: Your thoughts?

  1. For me, understanding evolution gives us the proper foundation to make good choices. It helps us to see that we are not so radically distinct, grounding and embedding us in the biosphere and in the web of living things. (As David Suzuki always says, “We are the earth, we are the air, we are the water…”) And it’s only really from this perspective (a very modern, scientific one, while being a very ancient aboriginal one) that we can make good decisions about what to do with toxic waste, what we should and should not do with a five day old blastocyst, what burning fossil fuels really means, if who one chooses to sleep with is an epic national debate that should take up all our time and energy – given the wild spectrum of sexual proclivities (both in human societies and among our myriad biological cousins (from primates to parasites)… I think all of these decisions are made easier and with a greater care for future generations (of all creatures) given a thorough evolutionary footing. (I am reminded of Janine Benyus’ TED talk about biomimicry — how would nature do it? This is such a profound and game-changing question, one I don’t think you would/could even ask if you don’t believe in evolution…)

  2. I agree with Chris’s, observation, but especially, with regards to medicine, an understanding of evolution allows us to understand how genetic defects have occurred (and how they may be corrrected if possible) and to fight the spread of infectious diseases, such as for example, malaria, as spread by the parasitic protozoan Plasmodium (We could argue that we are engaged in a pharmaceutical coevolutionary arms race with Plasmodium and the bacillus responsible for TB, for example). To paraphrase Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in medicine makes sense except in the light of evolution”.

  3. An understanding of evolution is the greater part of my baloney detector when it comes to biology. For instance, Larry Niven pointed out that ESP must be either useless or non-existent, because if it existed and were useful, the genes for it would have taken over rather quickly.

    As an aside: Could someone tell me what “TED talk” means? I’ve seen it on these blogs several times, and I can’t even guess what “TED” stands for.

  4. I’m interested in evolution as it applies to nutrition. Nutrition has such a massive impact on our health and on our society – as you know, affecting the medical system that supports us, as well as more seemingly indirect effects like our mental health. When knowledge of evolution is combined with contemporary science and research, we are able to make informed decisions and do what is best for our bodies. People like Mark Sisson, Kurt Harris and Stephan Guyenet are writing some great blogs on the subject.

  5. “How does a good understanding of evolution better prepare us to make decisions as citizens?”

    The main thing coming to mind for me is diversity’s role in evolution; how “diversity” plays out in a system’s adaptiveness over time, affecting its ability to survive and innovate in response to changing conditions. A good understanding of evolution enables us as citizens to understand and value “difference,” whether it applies to other people, of political systems/ideas/parties, of religions, economies, of biodiversity, you name it. I once read (unable to pin down the author, despite trying for a long time) an aphorism that has stuck with me ever since: “Diversity is life’s strongest card.” Evolution validates this statement. Of course, we also learn on a daily basis how diversity in systems poses challenges (e.g., to social systems) that introduce the need for adaptation, learning, etc.–adaptation which, paradoxically, itself may well threaten the system. But an understanding of evolution helps us as citizens also know that such stresses via adaptation and learning serve the long-term viability of the system. The challenges experienced via the hands of “difference” have the biggest payoff imaginable: greater potential likelihood of long-term survival in a changing world. Margaret Wheatley gets at it, also, in saying: “Including diversity well is a survival skill these days, because there’s no other way to get an accurate picture of any complex problem or system” (p. x in her Foreword to “The World Cafe: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter,” Brown & Isaacs, 2005). Citizens (of a community, state, nation, world) who understand evolution will appreciate the truth of Wheatley’s observation and, I would fervently hope, seek to “include diversity well” in pursuit of long-term system health.

  6. Things you know if you understand evolution:

    diversity is good.

    specialization to a narrow niche is dangerous when the niche changes.

    using the materials at hand can lead to amazingly effective outcomes.

    incremental changes in a system that operates exponentially make big differences over relatively short periods.

    pre-existing values or rationales for “success” can be completely irrelevant to values of success in another model (what is “nice” or “right” in a moral sense isn’t always a good evolutionary strategy).

    there’s more than one way to skin a cat (most creatures have LOTs of evolved strategies to solve a given problem, humans especially).

    looking at a problem from a new angle can lead to new solutions (what is the “point” of evolution?) – it’s not to produce a particular organism, least of all us.

  7. For gerontologists, the answer has to start with the simple observation that the reason we age, and the ways we age, are all rooted in evolution. For the broader public, I’d note that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, and that includes medicine. To be an informed patient in the 21st century, people need to understand their own evolutionary histories. To read a newspaper (or whatever comes after it), too.

    I talked about some of the ways that evolution is important outside of biology in this talk at the 2009 AAAS meetings. Happy to share any of the slides, or sources, if it’s helpful.

  8. This may be a little convoluted, but here goes:

    1. We make decisions based on rational and emotional brain processing.

    2. The emotional brain processing is relatively hard-wired and handed down from our primate ancestors. The evolutionary value of most emotional reactions serve various purposes, but largely to stabilize social structures.

    3. The rational component of decision making is also a product of evolution, but much less specific. It is a non-specific result of evolving large brains.

    4. The more we understand the emotional and rational components that lead to decisions, the better our decisions will be. Basically, we want to keep our emotional components in check.

    Two recent publications run in a similar vein. Anthony Appiah’s book “Honor Code” focuses on two components of moral decision making. As I read it, the “Honor” component is the primitive one. Frans DeWaals had an opinion essay in the NY Times last week on moral decision making (link below). He describes the evolution-based altruistic decisions that primates make and relates that to aspects of morality. But he ends, by saying that there is also an important “top down” element in human moral decision making — presumably, the rational component. And he includes a great quote from Darwin,

    Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts … would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed … as in man.

    De Waals article:

  9. “How does a good understanding of evolution better prepare us to make decisions as citizens?”

    Well, I do agree with the comments above that focus on our relationship to our surroundings. In particular, I think that in this day and age of politicized science, with tactics taken right out of the tobacco playbook, understanding of evolution should provide fuel for combatting the mounting hazard of antimicrobial resistance, one of the public health catastrophes that will define the 21st century, in my opinion. I know that we do not have direct evidence of causation of this problem by the egregious misuse of antibiotics in our food supply, but understanding how bacterial evolution progresses leaves very little doubt that there is a connection. So, a citizen who is well informed on the laws of evolutionary biology cannot help but be concerned about this state of affairs, and, in addition to voting with one’s wallet, can use scientific reasoning to educate peers and legislators on its perils. Just one example of how evolutionary knowledge can shape our future.

  10. It is not so much our understanding of the fact of evolution that is so important to being an informed, responsible citizen. It is our understanding of how we know that evolution is a fact that is critical. Evolution instructs us on how to understand. Evolution challenges us to ask: how do we know? Do we “know” God created the millions of species on Earth because that’s what religious doctrine declares? Or do we know that species evolved from common ancestors because of the century and a half of empirical evidence that proves the idea true, and because it makes sense of and explains all we see around us. Do we know what we know because of fear, irrationality, ideology, or fundamentalist beliefs? Or through rationality and empiricism? In this way, evolution touches issues and ideas that are important to any informed citizen. How do we know anthropogenic global warming is real? How do we know what causes autism, AIDS or cancer? How do we know whether UFOs or weapons of mass destruction exist? We know by looking at these questions in the same way Darwin looked at the world around him.

  11. I’m not any better off than before I understood evolution. There are still outside forces that serve as determinate factors in who I am. It would help if I could gain more control over the environment. If I could control microorganisms, I would see to it that they change in ways that assist human beings. In fact, I would like our whole entire environment to be of assistance to humans and to put everything in those terms: be the center of the activities.

    Once we pass out of our bodies, we don’t know if we will continue to be the center or peak of existence like we are on earth and so it would be great to prepare for whatever may come, and to loosen up the ties to physical environments with prospects for a future life in an unknown state. Perhaps we’re with an entire range of higher life forms when we are out of body, so things will be looking up.

    TED is a think tank exchange of ideas; a global conference lasting 4 days and costing $3,750 approx. for registration.

  12. That question has two interpretations: “us” as individuals or “us” as a community? I think the second interpretation is the important one, so I’ll answer why “we” need to know about evolution, not why “I” need to know about evolution 😉

    Generally, having some insight into the processes driving evolution is absolutely necessary for knowing how populations of organisms are shaped by their interactions with the external world. Because it allows us to more efficiently accomplish a great number of things that are directly relevant to human well-being. But so much is lost with such a sweeping generality…

    So why is that understanding useful? Here are a few examples…

    1. A community that understands evolution is a community that will be more capable of preventing unintentional acts of artificial selection that can make some problems worse instead of better. These include the occurrence of drug resistant pathogens, insecticide resistant agricultural pests, etc.

    2. Evolution improves medicine. To develop more effective cancer treatments, for example, it helps to recognize that different treatments cause different selection pressures on tumors (which typically consist of a diverse populations of cells). Thinking about an “evolutionary response” to such strong “selective pressures” helps medical researchers develop more effective means of killing off those cancer cells.

    3. Stewardship of our living natural resources (e.g. native plants and animals) also requires evolutionary considerations. Genetic diversity of populations can help them adapt to environmental changes, and intense selection on harvested populations (e.g. fisheries, or trophy big game animals) can have adverse consequences (e.g. smaller fish and game animals) in this regard. Likewise, saving endangered species requires careful breeding programs that minimize inbreeding problems.

    Alternatively, too much diversity can screw up locally adapted populations. For example, moving individuals between different populations in somewhat different habitats (e.g. moving sport fish into different waterways) can result in hybrids that aren’t as well suited to their environment their native predecessors.

    4. As for individuals, almost everyone recognizes that understanding basic science is a prerequisite for being considered a well educated person, and there are many socially valuable and personally valuable aspects of having a well-rounded education. Even for those who don’t believe in evolution for religious reasons should still value in understanding evolution so they can interact with the rest of the world.

    It’s almost cliche to say, but “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” and whenever a community needs to make a decision about any living organisms (human or otherwise) they will be better off making that decision “in the light of evolution.”

  13. Matt…I believe TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. You can see that on one of their ads somewhere, if I remember it correctly.

    okay, googled it. Seems I’ve remembered correctly. (google search phrase Define: TED talks)

  14. Evolution helps me to be a good citizen because it reminds me that all living things are my family. All people and animals of all shapes and colours are my family. I do not accept other people hurting them emotionally or physically. Because they are my family I accept their different quirks; eating insects, building nests, having sex with the same gender, hanging around deep sea volcanic vents. I forgive them for their short comings, and rejoice in their achievements. I champion their right to exist.
    Evolution reminds me that things change over time, for better or worse. Change is not something to be afraid of but a part of the condition of living.
    Evolution teaches me that co-operation is a tool worth using.

  15. I’m with Kylie & many of the others – we and all living creatures are part of the family of life. Understanding that we are land animals like others (& related to ‘fish’!) can help us cope with the randomness of life and death. Because I’m human though, I can’t always really feel that as much as intellectualize it, but still – it helps. Also it helps us kind of grasp our very random, infinitely small place in the universe…which again, because we are human, is difficult to really integrate into our day to day living; but we can take moments out of our day to remember this and appreciate it. For me, that natural selection has led humans, today, to having the (OK still limited but growing every day) understanding of life on our planet is testament to the amazing power of evolution. Who needs gods when we have this??

  16. Primarily, I believe understanding evolution allows us to formulate more informed decisions about societally important matters because this understanding conditions us to resist simplistic characterizations of complex situations. It also conditions us to resist false characterizations of certain proposed solutions as “natural.”

    Some decisions we have to make are related to science. For example, going forward, we will have to weigh up the risks and rewards of drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico. I find that a common misconception about evolution is the belief that plants and animals that aren’t killed in the immediate aftermath of an event like the Gulf oil rig explosion will somehow (unconsciously) will themselves to adapt because they have a will to live. Those of us who live far from the Gulf are now reading reports that the damage doesn’t seem (in obvious ways) to be as bad as we first feared. It may seem to someone who doesn’t understand natural selection that organisms in the Gulf have already “adapted”–after all, many plants and animals are still alive. But, once we understand natural selection, we can understand that we won’t know for a long time whether or how Gulf ecosystems have changed in response to the spill. Adaptation, if it occurs at all, occurs over many generations, and if generations are long–for example, as in many fish, birds, and reptiles–it can take decades or centuries before we can even begin to get an inkling of what the important effects (other than immediate large die-offs) may be. We will also understand that the effects are likely to be much more complicated–whether positive, neutral, or negative from our perspective–than they at first appear. So, understanding evolution may shift our assessment of risk and reward in science-related (medical, environmental, biotech-related) situations, and it should also make us wary of simplistic or overly confident predictions of outcomes, whether those predicted outcomes are positive or negative.

    I believe that understanding evolution can help us formulate more informed decisions even in non-science-related situations. In order to understand evolution, we have to adopt a non-teleological outlook. This isn’t easy for most people (at least most Americans) to do, I find–it takes a while, if they’re willing to start with. But adopting this outlook as regards nature conditions us to be more open to non-predetermined approaches to other matters. Evolution teaches us that things don’t necessarily “have to be” a certain way, and there’s rarely only one “natural” answer to a problem. As other commenters have said, variation (not the “ideal”) is natural, and lots of members of a generation, all of whom vary from one another, will end up being fit, will leave offspring, and we won’t always be able to decipher what determined their fitness. I believe that working at understanding evolution opens us up to being more comfortable with complexity, with considering multiple possibilities, and may also make us more comfortable with taking a longer view, both backward and forward.

    Looking forward to your talk–I think he’s asked you a very important question.

  17. Practical application: the evolution of resistance to antibiotics, pest poisons, herbicides, pesticides is predictable. The intensity and frequency of their application needs to be managed as a matter of public policy.

  18. _My_ understanding of evolution allows me to make an informed opinion regarding other people’s opinions regarding science, science policy, and the like. For example, if politician X denies evolution, then I will not vote for that politician, and I certainly would not want that politician on any panels or committees dealing with science, education, technology, or the like.


  19. Evolution informs on everything known about biology, and I think having a correct understanding of evolution makes a lot of the natural world make more sense. I’d imagine the average person wouldn’t have it inform terribly much on his or her daily existence, but its like knowing that the Earth goes around the Sun, or that there are continental Plates and an old universe. It makes you less susceptible to the type of BS that comes from creationists, New Agers, and anyone else that wants to sell a custom made viewpoint on the universe where mankind is special, spiritual, and distinct from the world. Knowing about evolution is important because it knocks us down a peg, and reminds us of how much we are like the rest of planetary life, and how alike humans are to one another.

  20. Not understanding the basic concepts of evolution probably reflects a gross lack of intelligence, lack of education, adherence to dogma, general lack of curiosity etc. In fact, it is very hard to believe that creotards actually manage to navigate around this world, procure food and so on, let alon be good, responsible citizens.

    [CZ: Talk about unhelpful.]

  21. For me, learning about evolution was the first step in realizing the extent to which many leaders of my evangelical Christian faith had unwittingly deceived themselves in order to legitimize their interpretation of the Bible. (That’s the most charitable interpretation I can give; sometimes I think they knowingly lied.) Once my eyes were opened to how othewise good people can and do deceive themselves, I looked into many other areas of my faith and was forced to admit that I had indeed deceived myself about the efficacy of prayer, the inspiration of the Bible, the superior behavior of Christians, etc., etc., etc. After 40 years in the faith, I walked away from it and became an atheist. All my evangelical training had taught me that taking such a step would lead to despair. On the contrary, now that I no longer have to agonize over questions like “Why does God allow good things happen to bad people?” or “What is God’s will for my life in this situation?” or “Why doesn’t God grant my prayers?” I am much happier. Also, I find the evolutionary narrative to be much more marvelous and awe-inspiring than anything I believed before. A story that starts with our atoms being born from supernovae and continues step by tiny step until those same atoms congregate to form *thoughts* about being born from supernovae is pretty cool! I am *so* much more fascinated by the world now. So for me, an education in evolution was not only a case study in the perversity of human psychology, but the first step to a joyous union with reality.

  22. Around here there are many (and continuing) societal questions regarding land use, water use (This is the West; water is for fight’n over.), invasive species (cheat grass) and so on. Policies are wise only if established in the light of evolutionary change.

  23. In my previous answer, I didn’t spell out the answer the question of how an education in evolution helps me to be a better citizen. What I was trying to say was that learning about how readily leaders in my faith-tradition could deceive themselves, and others, about evolution taught me to be more skeptical about people’s truth-claims in general. Therefore, in the public square I am not as easily hoodwinked by people from either extreme of the political spectrum. In fact, considering that I myself had been self-deceived in favor of creationism for decades taught me to be skeptical even of myself; I am more sure I have listened to all sides before spouting an opinion.

  24. Evolution is a constant for me, I live in the country and am immersed in the natural world unlike the years I spent in the city. I see what Darwin saw in the Galapagos Islands in every valley and ridge I cross, the species change minutely or drasticaly depending on the Micro-climate. I live in the Sonoran desert north of Phoenix AZ and the bulk of ALL Flora and Fauna species here are also found in slightly different forms in the jungles farther south even though the environment is radicaly different.
    Evolution allows me to be a good citizen in figuring out which trees in my yard should be allowed to breed (wood production, leaf fall, fire resistance, desease resistance), which ants are beneficial and which are a threat to my existance (farming techniques) as every natural speices effects the others in the same physical proximity in ways not yet understood even by science let alone farmers.
    Evolutionary approches to farming have shown that many pests are only pests once farmers have removed the “pests” preferred food plants like Aphids and milkweeds. If the milkweeds are left in the garden with the human planted mono-cultures the Aphids usualy prefer their natuaral diet over the human provided diet.
    Biology only makes sense in the light of Evolution, BUT Evolution is NOT a constant in Science, it changes the way it effects organisms based, like physics, on scale.
    Evolutionary forces that effect macro animals (multi-cellular animals and plants) is different to single celled organisms. Single celled organisms can exchange MASSIVE amounts of DNS in one meal (huge genetic changes can occur based on incomplete digestion of one single celled creature by another) creating something never seen before with a HUGE change instead of the expected, incremental changes usualy seen in Macro evolution.
    Understanding this shows why certian farming techniques (chinese farming methods in particular) are horridly harmful to the human population. THe chinese farmers live in close proximity to their geese and pigs, two species that share human influenza virus. viri can change like any other single celled orgnism, massively in one moment due to the three types of viri swapping genes like kids swapping clothes at a sleepover. This is THE source of “the Asian flue” every year sweeping out of China.

  25. I understand evolution, that death giving meaning to my life.If there is no death there is no meaning to evolution.Evolution teach us give your gene to next generation and accept the death joyfully.Most scientist wanted to extent the life of man they can extend the lifespan with certain limit but they must understand extreme old age is curse and burden on society.Extreme old age is misery to that man, he is helpless completely depend on other`s help.So we must keep aim die gracefully in time, that is real understanding of evolution.

  26. I believe that evolution theory gives us an excellent example of social psychology at work. Research has revealed that most of us, if a subject is deep and difficult, will resort to heuristics (decision shortcuts) to come up with an answer that doesn’t require extensive research. These days evolution is presented as an unquestionable fact. Anyone who doubts it is assured, as I was by a naturalist, “There’s no scientist worth his salt that doesn’t believe in evolution.” This is an appeal to what social psychologist Robert Cialdini, PhD calls the Authority Principle – people tend to believe an expert. And if all experts believe in evolution, why shouldn’t we believe in it, too.

    The problem is that this kind of statement is not only dogmatic but patently false. Scientists like Lehigh University professor Michael Behe (author of Darwin’s Black Box) and internationally known neurophysiology researcher, Professor Frantisek Vyskocil of Charles University, Czech Republic have concluded that, based on scientific evidence, life on earth did not result from evolution. A number of other distinguished scientists have examined the evidence and come to similar conclusions. See some examples below:

    Renowned British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle made a presentation to London’s Royal Academy of Sciences which was later published as a book called Evolution from Space. In it he outlined the mathematical probability of getting all 2,000 proteins needed for a living cell from primordial soup. Mathematicians agree that any chance that is more remote that 1 in 10 to the 50th power is statistically impossible. Hoyle calculated that the probability of obtaining all 2,000 proteins needed for cell structure and vital enzymes as 1 in 10 to the 40,000th power. “An outrageously small probability,” Hoyle states, “that could not be faced even if the whole universe consisted of organic soup.” He adds: “If one is not prejudiced either by social beliefs or by scientific training into the conviction that life originated [spontaneously] on the Earth, this simple calculation wipes the idea entirely out of court” (Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, p.24). In a lecture at California Institute of Technology, Hoyle concluded, “Rather than accept the fantastically small probability of life having arisen through the blind forces of nature, it seemed better to suppose that the origin of life was a deliberate intellectual act.”

    Many have been taught that the fossil record proves evolution, but this is absolutely untrue. The New Evolutionary Timetable admits, “The fossil record does not convincingly document a single transition from one species to another” (p. 95). A major initiative by the Geological Society of London and the Palaeontological Association of England examined the fossil record in detail. According to Professor of Natural Sciences John Moore, “No transitional forms have been found in the fossil record very probably because no transitional forms exist in fossil stage at all. Very likely, transitions between animal kinds and/or transitions between plant kinds have never occurred” (Moore, 1970, p.24). Well known astronomer Carl Sagan acknowledged “The fossil evidence could be consistent with the idea of a Great Designer” (Sagan, 1980, p.29). Some interesting food for thought!

  27. My thoughts about evolution and the citizen are……..

    That it is ironic that the religious sorts who reject the theory are so damned good at actually playing the game of “survival of the fittest.” The Bible is, in many ways, a guide for “Playing the game of natural selection to win.”

    On the other hand, it strikes me as equally ironic that the group so well able to elaborate upon the principles of natural selection seem so interested, over all, in making sure that it cannot do its job and eliminate some from the gene pool.

    I read all the lovely and warm fuzzy posts about how evolution helps us remember that we are all related, and that is sweet. But at the same time, the only way to ensure a more peaceful, harmonious, less destructive, more cooperative humanity, may very well be in letting (or helping) the less cooperative, etc., exit the gene pool.

    Evolution is not win/win game. Change comes because some fall by the wayside and others become dominant.

    The “anti evolution” crowd is the majority because they are very clear that they need to eliminate the competitor, and they are willing to be as violent and aggressive as they need to to accomplish that. They had no problem using violence to eliminate competing memes, and the genes of the people spreading those competing memes.

    The supposedly evolutionarily savvy crowd, on the other hand, expects that the competing meme will just agree to go extinct without a fight. Purely because it is the rational thing to do. Good luck with that. It seems to me that secular need more brushing up on evolutionary principles and “how to play the game of natural selection and win” than the religious right do.

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