Thinking as a Hobby

Get Email Updates
Email Me

Admin Password

Remember Me

3478390 Curiosities served
Share on Facebook

The Counterintuitive Nature of Evolution
Previous Entry :: Next Entry

Read/Post Comments (2)

As I mentioned in the last entry, this essay talks about how much of the resistance to understanding and accepting evolutionary theory may not be due to religious beliefs, but the fact that the theory is counterintuitive.

Others argue that there are lots of scientific theories that are as or more counterintuitive, but that the general public doesn't seem to have a problem taking scientists' words for. I tend to think it's a little of both. I think evolutionary theory is counterintuitive in a way that many other scientific ideas are not.

A favorite creationist argument is the "watch on a beach", put forth by William Paley back in 1802. It goes like this: You're walking along a beach and find a watch in the sand. Do you assume that it was thrown together by chance, or that it was designed and crafted by an intelligent agent and dropped or discarded on the sand?

The appeal to intention in design is very strong, and despite the argument being wrong, it rings true for a lot of people.

Brown thinks we might need to teach evolution in a better way, building up to it incrementally, and using better analogies and instructional approaches:

We need to provide stepping stones -- self contained, non-biological systems that can be explained and accepted on their own. The concept of gradualism -- the "slow, cumulative, one-step-at-a-time" process described in Richard Dawkins' Climbing Mount Improbable -- is central to evolution. Can we apply such gradualism to the teaching of evolution as well?

I think this is a great idea. And there are already some great examples. I've used a few that I've written about here.

Before dealing with populations, mutations, and selection, I think the major intuitive hurdle for people to get over is the idea that structure can arise without intent. My favorite examples are beaches and crystals.

Our world is covered with beaches, which are formed without intent, by a non-random sorting algorithm. The action of the waves sorts the rocks on a beach, not by the guidance of some supernatural agent, but based on the properties of the system, most notably the different weights of the rocks (incidentally, Dawkins uses this example in The Blind Watchmaker). Order arises from disorder. The pebbles are sorted based on weight due to the impassive, impersonal action of the waves.

A second example are crystals. Take your favorite type of crystal, either the ephemeral snowflake or the eternal diamond. Snowflakes are formed by the properties of water falling through cold air and crystallizing. Diamonds are formed by the particular alignment of carbon by immense geological pressure. Surely your average schoolchild can grasp the idea of the emergence of order from disorder in such systems. There is no need to invoke a spirit to intentionally craft every snowflake. Some believers might want to invoke a god who set up the laws that allowed such events to happen, but I think it would be unlikely to find one trying to argue that the intervention of god was necessary for the creation of every snowflake and diamond, and that they could be not explained naturalistically.

These sorts of examples would be a nice introduction to the concepts in the theory of evolution. I'm also a huge advocate of hands-on pedagogy and the use of technology and simulation. I think most students who got their hands on relatively simple, clear genetic algorithm software packages and played around with them for even a small amount of time, it would make grasping most of the core principles a snap.

Unfortunately, I don't think evolution is either taught very well, or in some cases taught at all, but rather shunted to the end of the school year where the teacher "runs out of time" to teach it. I've seen this strategy in Texas schools.

Maybe one day it will change. Maybe.

Read/Post Comments (2)

Previous Entry :: Next Entry

Back to Top

Powered by JournalScape © 2001-2010 All rights reserved.
All content rights reserved by the author.