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Evolution and Education — The Evolution Institute Weighs In

Sarah Chaffee

Evolution education is my subject at the Center for Science & Culture. So with interest, I took note of an online pamphlet from The Evolution Institute, “Education Through an Evolutionary Lens.”

The Introduction by Gabrielle Principe (Department Chair, Department of Psychology, College of Charleston) notes that our system of strict formal education doesn’t comport with our past as hunter-gatherers. She believes today’s education system is necessary, but that we should keep in mind the importance of learning from experience and the biological oddity of keeping kids in classrooms for hours a day while using tests to measure knowledge. On the whole, she’s right. As a kinesthetic learner myself, more of a physical style, I know it’s important to focus on more than just absorbing knowledge cognitively. It’s well documented that physical activity is central to health — not just of the body, but also the brain.

But what does any of that have to do, necessarily, with evolution? There is no reason why integrating more active, experiential learning into classrooms is more consistent with evolution than with intelligent design. The nod to evolution seems more like “narrative gloss,” as National Academy of Sciences member Philip Skell called it.

I cannot say that the entire publication is similarly adaptable to a design perspective. Consider an article by educational psychologist John Sweller (Emeritus Professor, University of New South Wales) on “Evolutionary Educational Psychology as a Base for Instructional Design”:

An immense knowledge base held by a human is analogous to the immense amount of information held in a genome. The structures and functions required by human cognitive architecture can be mapped directly onto the structures and functions that we call evolution by natural selection. Both are examples of natural information processing systems. A genome is analogous to long-term memory; reproduction with its transfer of genomic information is analogous to humans obtaining information by imitating other humans, listening to what they say or reading what they write; random mutation is analogous to random generate and test during problem solving; the epigenetic system has the same function as human working memory.

This is…ironic. He considers much of the same science that Stephen Meyer deals with in Signature in the Cell but reaches exactly opposite conclusions. The analogy is clever, but it rests on mere assertion. Or maybe “circular reasoning” better describes it. But that’s what evolutionary psychology is: It begins with the premise of Darwinian evolution, considers human psychology, and finds confirming evidence there for, you got it, Darwinian evolution! Intelligent design, conversely, begins with no premise, is open to evidence of guided or unguided evolution, and infers the action of an intelligent agent.

I have not yet had a chance to finish all the articles in the pamphlet, but I think this point is relevant: Education functions best when we focus not on soliciting student agreement or buy-in to a rigid creed, but rather on stimulating the critical faculties.

It’s for that reason that, at Discovery Institute, we recommend students practice critical thinking by examining the scientific controversy over evolution. That is how evolution should interact with education.

Photo credit: evanst10000 via Pixabay.