Teaching and learning about evolution is constrained by the central challenge facing all of education, that of learning transfer. One of the “holy grails” of education is to develop in students the ability to transfer their prior learning to new contexts and, most importantly, to the world and their lives outside of the classroom. Transfer of learning (or simply transfer) is more complex than mere application, however, and can be more accurately thought of as the careful construction, use, and analysis of analogies.
Transfer is really about the ability to critically analyze the similarities and differences between two concepts or phenomena. For example, a young child can easily learn that “my dog” is named “Rover”, while “Billy’s dog” is named “Scout”, generalizing the deeper concept of “dog” and recognizing that the variant surface features (e.g. hair length) of either dog do not make it any less dog-like. The child has appropriately transferred their prior learning of their own dog to a new one, and constructed an analogy map, in their mind, that allows for the general qualities of “dog” to be explicated. Children have evolved to intuitively engage this core capacity to map the similarities and differences of the phenomena of everyday life, generalizing and categorizing the world around them in more or less helpful ways. In fact, the expansion of our analogy-building capacities may well be foundational to how human language and culture originally evolved (Brand et al. 2020). When it comes to the complex abstractions of modern scientific thought, however, this is where explicit education is often required (see Geary & Berch 2016).
Researchers focused on teaching evolutionary science have taken up the charge of seeking effective ways to help students appropriately transfer the core concepts of evolution across the diversity of phenomena that evolution scientists seek to explain. As with teaching for transfer in general, teaching for transfer in evolution education has proven challenging.
Here, we do not aim to review the literature on the challenges and opportunities of engaging students in transfer of evolutionary principles (see, e.g., discussion in Bruckermann et al. 2020), but rather, we want to suggest that the problem may lie within the evolution education research community itself. We argue here that evolution education research is holding itself back from achieving the field’s full potential by not critically examining the reluctance in the field to engage in the richly networked conceptual analogies that evolution science itself is founded upon.
Learning transfer in evolution science versus evolution education
Evolution science, in the 21st century, is a decidedly interdisciplinary endeavor, spanning, integrating, and perhaps transcending divides between the natural and social sciences. This means that evolution scientists tend to be experts in the critical transfer of scientific concepts across domains of knowledge, such as between biology and culture. Despite this fact, evolution education (at the general education level) remains firmly confined to the biology classroom (Eirdosh & Hanisch 2020). This is, perhaps, in part, an unfortunate happenstance of history, a remnant of the rising tide of disciplinary specializations in our ever complexifying world. However, it is also, at least in part, by design, a result of the well-meaning intentions of a significant contingent of leadership within the evolution education research and development community.
For most of the last decade, our projects (see www.GlobalESD.org) have sought to advance a general education model of evolution education that weaves together biological and cultural evolution in a meaningful and scientifically appropriate manner. While we have a great many supporters among practicing scientists and educators, it is the evolution education community itself that we most often get criticisms from, and these criticisms very frequently reflect deep-seated misconceptions about the nature of transfer in evolution science or a certain skepticism regarding how the transfer of evolutionary principles across domain can advance scientific understanding.
So, let us take a moment to dissect these common misconceptions. Each of the quotes below has been abstracted and anonymized, but come from multiple instances of real-world encounters, at academic conferences, through peer-review processes, personal communications with experts, social media, and other exchanges at the highest levels of evolution education research and development. Each quote reflects a problematic understanding of the conceptual transfer foundational to understanding evolutionary theory, and therefore reflects a driving constraint on the efficacy of evolution education in the public understanding of science.
“Genetic evolution is real evolution, cultural evolution is just an analogy.”
This is by far the most prevalent misconception among evolution education researchers, and indeed it frames all of the conceptions we will discuss below. There is a lot to unpack in this quote, but it needs to be said at the outset that this conception, prevalent as we have found it to be among (some) evolution educators, reflects a significant misunderstanding of the scientific enterprise. Scientists construct models, whether verbal or formal (i.e. mathematical or computational), and test these models through the multitude of investigative tools we continue to evolve. Evolutionary theory is a set of such models, and it comes in verbal and formal varieties. Critically, the map is not the territory, NONE of these models actually “are” evolution, on the contrary, ALL models of evolution are constructions intended to symbolically represent what we think is happening in evolutionary processes. That is to say, all models of evolution are analogies of what we think evolutionary processes are like. Thus, when evolution educators make this claim that cultural evolution is “just an analogy”, it is a bit like the child learning about dogs proclaiming “Billy’s pet Scout only looks like a dog, but he’s not a real dog because his hair is a different color from my dog’s hair.”
Studying the evolution of genetic variants has proven remarkably productive in the 20th century, and over the last ~50 years, the models of genetic evolution have shown to transfer, in some respects, to the study of cultural evolution (Cavali-Sforza & Feldman 1973; Boyd & Richerson 1985). There are, and should be, rigorous and healthy on-going debates about how well our models fit the data, but at the end of the day, cultural evolution scientists are studying real evolutionary processes just as much as those studying genetic evolution.
The degree to which a method or concept or theory transfers to different phenomena shouldn’t be based on whether the method was originally developed for that phenomenon, or whether a concept was originally used to describe that phenomenon, only whether it helps to make sense of and communicate the patterns we see. Indeed, evolutionary biologists also advance their own field through careful analogy-building from the cultural domain, such as when borrowing words like inheritance and adaptation – which had original meaning in everyday life prior to their adoption by biologists. Why did biologists use the word “inheritance” (which comes from the word “heir”) to describe genetic inheritance? Clearly, because there was a shared sense that some underlying processes and principles transfer across inheriting an estate and inheriting genes, even when the surface features of these systems are quite different. It is the exploring and describing of these similar underlying processes and principles as well as these different surface features, that is at the heart of transfer thinking.
When evolution educators and advocates deny the transferability of evolution concepts across domains of biology and culture, they are denying students the opportunity to develop a rich, meaningful, and scientifically adequate understanding of modern evolutionary science.
“Carcinogenesis only resembles evolution.”
It isn’t just the genetic evolution versus cultural evolution debate on which some experts in evolution education struggle with transfer thinking. We commonly advocate that evolution education should capitalize on the conceptually fascinating (and of course, often tragic) phenomena of cancer to help students engage in the transfer of core evolution principles at multiple scales of biological organization.
Humans are multicellular organisms, forged by ~600 million years of selection for the trillions of cells within each of our individual bodies to work together for the “collective good” of our own organism. Most of the times this cooperation works smoothly, as cells within our bodies do their part, receive their “fair share” of energy and nutrients, process important information, and protect the organismal society from harmful intruders, but every once in a while, this elegant cooperation breaks down and rebel cells emerge, fighting for their own short term growth (see Revenge of the Somatic for a student-friendly rap introduction to this phenomenon). It is now commonplace for oncologists to apply evolutionary models to better understand, prevent, and treat the emergence of cancer (e.g. Greaves 2018; Greaves & Maley 2012). That is – scientists who study cancer are often engaged in the critical transfer of core evolution concepts and processes from the scale of populations of individual organisms to the scale of the organism as a population of cells, in order to understand and influence their target.
At the level of science this is largely uncontroversial, but at the level of evolution education we continuously face the criticism that this is not “really evolution”, it only “resembles evolution”, it is “only an analogy”. All of the criticisms of this line of thinking in the domain of cultural evolution apply to the case of carcinogenesis, only here the inability of our expert critics to engage in appropriate transfer of learning is starker, as we are still, in fact, dealing with a case of differential survival and reproduction of genetic variants, these variants just happen to occur within the confines of the cellular populations comprising an individual organism.
When evolution educators and advocates deny the transferability of evolution concepts across scales of biological organization, they are denying students the opportunity to develop a rich, meaningful, and scientifically adequate understanding of modern evolutionary science.
“Cultural evolution is intentional, biological evolution has no direction, and students might get this confused, so we should not engage them in thinking about the differences.”
If we are able to engage those in the evolution education world on these issues to this point, the argument will often turn to the more pragmatic aim of teaching these multiple models of evolution. Critics will explain to us that “biological and cultural evolution are different processes”, that “cultural evolution is intentional” whereas, “biological evolution has no direction,” and so, therefore, we shouldn’t confuse students by teaching evolution in this way. This set of conceptions reflects a failure of transfer at multiple levels.
First, the simplistic dichotomy between biological evolution as a random process and cultural evolution as an intentional process simply does not hold up to empirical scrutiny regarding either biological or social change (see Mesoudi 2008 for a detailed discussion). That is, known biological processes, such as adaptive mutation and the role of goal-directed behaviors as selection pressures, demonstrate that shades of goal-directedness have their place in the evolutionary explanations of many phenomena. Likewise, the sheer amount of human behavior driven by automatic, intuitive processes, and serendipity, as documented and modeled by the many observations and experiments of cultural evolution scientists, let us understand how much of cultural evolution may be occurring with little or no specific human intention.
It is not easy to tease apart the random, undirected aspects of evolution from the more directed or intentional aspects. It is not easy, yet it is critically important, lest students acquire a deeply flawed model of the origins of biodiversity and the nature of social change. Many in evolution will concur with us that, currently, our field is ill-prepared to engage students in this space. What concerns us, however, is a significant contingent of evolution education leadership that actively claims that students in general education should not be engaged in this conceptual clarification at all.
When evolution educators and advocates deny the transferability of evolution concepts across the spectrum of random to intentional changes in complex adaptive systems, they are denying students the opportunity to develop a rich, meaningful, and scientifically adequate understanding of modern evolutionary science.
“Biological and cultural evolution may have similarities, but they are different and distinct processes, to be taught in different classrooms.”
Finally, there are those in evolution education who have come to accept that evolution concepts do transfer across biological and cultural domains, and that we should engage students in this basic idea, but remain obstinate against integrating cultural evolution within biology education on the basis that they are “different and distinct” processes, or that teaching cultural evolution would “take time away” from already limited opportunities for teaching genetic evolution. This again represents a failure to engage in transfer thinking, as well as a failure to appreciate the role of transfer in the student learning process as a whole.
First, it is true that genetic evolution and cultural evolution have their surface-level differences, and it is clearly important to understand those differences. It does not follow, however, that the differences among these processes mean they can be cleanly isolated across the traditional boundaries of school subject areas, such that biology class should only deal with genetic evolution – and by extension, evolution will only be defined and presented to students in a strict gene-focused manner. Rather, understanding human evolution, past and present, requires an integrated understanding of gene-culture co-evolution. Too often, biology classrooms engage students in learning about the fossil history of hominin morphology without touching on the complex interplay between genes and culture in the shaping of our species.
If the evolution education community were to fully embrace the conceptual clarity of modern cultural evolution science as a foundational element of introductory human evolution education, and focus on teaching this conceptualization for transfer of learning, we might find time in the curriculum opens up a bit for evolution concepts more generally. We might find that our colleagues in history, civics, and social studies might be more willing to reinforce the appropriate application of cultural evolution concepts in their classrooms. We might find that more classic topics in biology such as carcinogenesis and the neurobiology of learning present new opportunities for deeper learning as students can transfer core evolution concepts to these scales of living systems.
Teaching evolution for transfer of learning
Essentially all evolution education professionals agree that we should teach evolution science in a way that empowers students to transfer their learning across contexts, but there remains significant disagreement regarding exactly which concepts can be transferred across which contexts. Critically, those arguing that transfer of evolution concepts should be limited to the domain of biology are, most frequently, demonstrating their own inability to engage in appropriate transfer thinking on the issue itself, often with a lack of current understanding about the state of cultural evolution as an interdisciplinary science itself.
This is most problematic given that evolutionary theory has become a remarkably powerful transdisciplinary theory that is poised to be of applied value for evolving a more equitable and sustainable future. In addition to foundational understandings on the origins and diversity of the human condition, students should be empowered to understand how evolutionary principles can help them more flexibly influence their own minds and behaviors, as well as their communities, towards their preferred visions of the future. As it currently stands, the position of evolutionary theory in the curriculum is confined to the biology classroom, and the reluctance of evolution educators to really engage in the transferable nature of evolutionary theory falls short of providing our students with this broader understanding.
Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. J. (1985). Culture and the Evolutionary Process. University of Chicago Press.
Brand, C. O., Mesoudi, A., & Smaldino, P. E. (2020). Analogy as the core of cumulative cultural evolution. PsyArXiv. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/ynkqf
Bruckermann, T., Fiedler, D., & Harms, U. (2020). Identifying precursory concepts in evolution during early childhood–a systematic literature review. Studies in Science Education, 1-43.
Cavalli-Sforza, L. L., & Feldman, M. W. (1973). Cultural versus biological inheritance: phenotypic transmission from parents to children (a theory of the effect of parental phenotypes on children’s phenotypes). American Journal of Human Genetics, 25(6), 618–637. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1762580/#
Eirdosh. D., & Hanisch, S. (2020) Should we teach evolution beyond the biology classroom? Global ESD at Nature Partner Journal – Science of Learning community. https://go.nature.com/2RLh4vp
Geary, D. C., & Berch, D. B. (Eds.). (2016). Evolutionary Perspectives on Child Development and Education. Springer.
Greaves, M. (2018). Nothing in cancer makes sense except… BMC Biology, 16(1), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12915-018-0493-8
Greaves, M., & Maley, C. C. (2012). Clonal evolution in cancer. Nature, 481(7381), 306–313. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10762
Mesoudi, A. (2008). Foresight in cultural evolution. Biology and Philosophy, 23(2), 243–255. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-007-9097-3