Southeastern Section - 64th Annual Meeting (19–20 March 2015)

Paper No. 9
Presentation Time: 11:10 AM




Scientific fields of inquiry are only as good as their applications – it's what you’re currently doing with the science that matters. Philosophizing is, after all, just that. While the social, religious, and philosophical issues that make biological evolution a heated topic have their place in public discourse and in the classroom, they may be an unnecessary distraction when teaching evolution as part of a core curriculum. This is more often a practical consideration of time constraints across a semester/quarter than any nod toward diplomacy, sensu Gould’s conception of non-overlapping magisteria. Additionally so, wistful retellings of the path of discovery by all the old dead people in the field, like that Darwin guy, often leads to “why do I need to know this” syndrome among the students – and with good reason. Do tomorrow’s doctors really need a full lecture on Darwin’s exploits on the Beagle – at the expense of a lecture on cis-regulatory or epigenetic evolution? Many students, as with the general public, perceive evolutionary biology as a largely irrelevant discipline outside of academia – essentially just the art of collecting specimens in jars and arguing over their provenance.

To me, the “controversy” is an intellectual one – How do I demonstrate to often misinformed or reluctant students why an evolutionary approach to biological questions has great utility? In the classroom we explore how evolutionary thinking and the datasets generated from related fields of inquiry can be applied to significant and pressing questions. Vignettes include: 1) How phylogenetic inference is applied to proactively design vaccines against influenza; 2) How applying population genetics models and theory can aid in wildlife management and conservation; 3) Industrial production of enzymes via directed evolution; and 4) How the fossil record and a phylogenetic approach to developmental biology are aiding in the search for the origins of congenital birth defects, metabolic diseases, and cancers. In each, key concepts for the course are introduced and layered, and vignettes become more synthetic and integrative as the course progresses. The result is an honest portrayal of what happens in research labs – a demonstration of evolutionary applications made available for those who wish to apply them to their own questions.