Tuesday, April 25, 2006

How Evolutionary Biologists Reconstruct History

Robert Cooper, writing a bit back for the American Biology Teacher (2004) makes a few interesting observations regarding how the predictive sciences such as geology and evolutionary biology have been deemphasized in favor of the observable (for lack of a better term) sciences such as physics and chemistry. He cites Rudolph and Stewart (1998), who argue:

The difficulties [19th century] British scientists had reconciling the explanatory success of evolution by natural selection with its apparent methodological shortcomings reveal a great deal about the gap between the nature of science as practiced and the nature of science as perceived.
Cooper notes that this is still the mindset not just of the modern creation movement but of many who practice and teach science, what he calls "widespread myths about the nature of science." (103)

According to Cooper, evolutionary studies fall into two categories, those that analyze the patterns of evolution and those that analyze the processes of evolution. In hominid studies, it could be reasonably argued, process is inferred from pattern. For example, in the studies involving the earliest hominids, we can infer the pattern of speciation based on the fossil remains over time in a particular area. As noted in a post below about the Ardipithecus to Australopithecus transition in the Middle Awash River valley, we have fossil remains that suggest in situ evolution through a range of eight species of hominids. We would then attempt to determine why the speciation occurred and what the factors might have been that triggered it.

Cooper has some recommendations for all science teachers: move beyond the simplistic notion that there is a universal scientific method, and incorporate scientific conclusions based on historical sciences. I have often thought that an analogy to a crime scene investigation is a wonderful way of teaching the historical sciences and have employed it in my teaching. Cooper also mentions this. He concludes with:

The myth that scientists usually perform controlled laboratory experiments to test hypotheses, and that this experiment work is somehow "more scientific" than historical or comparative studies, is simply incorrect. In addition, the belief that it is impossible to know anything about what happened in the past since no one was there to observe is a serious misconception about the nature of science that hinders the acceptance of evolution.

Quite true.

Literature Cited
Cooper, Robert A. 2004. How evolutionary biologists reconstruct history:
patterns and processes. The American Biology Teacher 66(2): 101-108)

Rudolph, J.L. and Stewart, J. 1998. Evolution and the nature of science: On
the historical discord and its implications for education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 35: 1069-1089.

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