Why learn evolution?

Until now I have glossed over scientists’ main complaint on this issue: creationism in science class. I’ll start addressing it now. But let’s leave aside whether creationism is or isn’t science (remember, we don’t do that!), or anything about the First Amendment. Somewhat counter-intuitively, let’s completely ignore creationism and ID for now. I want to ask a different question: why should we teach evolution in the first place?

Imagine a world where the theory of evolution was not the lightning rod that it is. Even in that world, we could–and should–ask some broad questions about science education and public science literacy: Who needs science education? What does it mean to be scientifically literate? Are there different definitions for scientists and non-scientists?

We can start by dividing children children into two groups: future scientists and engineers, and everyone else. Obviously these are not hard boundaries, and academics disagree if and where to draw lines. But from what I’ve read, it’s generally agreed that these groups don’t overlap and that it’s tricky to balance the needs of both. Science literacy for a budding physicist is clearly different than for someone destined for sales or marketing.

Let’s focus on the latter because the first case is in some sense easier. Gifted students clearly need the opportunity to learn advanced material. But why should everyone be forced to learn natural selection if they’ll never use it after high-school? Before answering this question, and before attempting to define public science literacy, it’s helpful to first reflect on what we want non-scientists to do with their scientific knowledge. What purposes do public science literacy serve?

You can spend a lifetime reading the scholarship just on this one question. My personal favorite is a 1975 article by astrophysicist Benjamin Shen. Shen outlines three categories of science literacy: practical, civic, and cultural. Science in the first category helps people in their daily lives, and includes topics like nutrition, health, and agriculture. The second would help people make informed civic decisions, while the third is in the same spirit as Shakespeare or Greek mythology.

To Shen’s categories I’ll supplement my own three-legged stool. Science education should leave non-scientists with some content knowledge (i.e. scientific facts), some understanding of scientific methods, and some sort of appreciation for and engagement with science. But I’m not sure specifically what content, how much process, and how to best cultivate appreciation. As far as I know, the experts aren’t sure either.

We’re now ready to return to evolution. Let’s adopt Shen’s framework for the sake of argument, and remember that we’re focusing on non-scientists. I’ll repeat my initial question: why teach the theory of evolution in the first place? It has very little, if any, practical value. (Quick: when’s the last time you used the theory of evolution to help you decide anything?) It has almost no relevance to public policy. (Quick: when’s the last time the newspaper covered the theory of evolution outside of creationism or intelligent design?) We’re left with the cultural value of evolution, admittedly a powerful justification and one I’ll address in my next post.

Until then, please think deeply on why you want non-scientists to learn and be engaged with science. While Shen’s categories are just one approach, keep in mind that most people will have no practical use for most scientific knowledge. So why should they be forced to learn it?


  1. I’ve just caught up on three or four of your posts today, and appreciate what you’re saying here. It’s great to hear, for once, that evolution isn’t the be all and end all of science. As someone who feels that much evolution ‘science’ is pseudo-science, it’s good to hear someone saying that the world doesn’t stand or fall on this particular theory.

    1. Hi Mike. Thanks for your comment. I appreciate it, and look forward to hearing more of your thoughts. But please note I’m purposefully avoiding any discussion on whether evolution/creationism is or isn’t science. For me the more important question is not whether something is “really” science, but rather who gets to decide and why/when we should listen to those experts. Thanks again!

  2. Yup, I understand what you’re saying about avoiding the discussions about evolution/creationism and science. I think what attracted me to your posts is your refusal to be dogmatic one way or the other, whereas many of those I’m in touch with on Facebook, for instance, have it firmly in mind that Science has got it all together, and understands pretty much everything…and what it doesn’t understand, it’ll know tomorrow. LOL

  3. There are at least two good reasons to learn evolution specifically, and evolutionary theory in general.

    First, evolutionary theory is the overall framework of ideas that ties together the many facts of biology. If you support education in biology, then it makes sense to teach the biological framework as well.

    Second, our strategies for treating infectious diseases are easier to understand, if we understand evolution and a bit of evolutionary theory. We get flu shots every year, because the viral populations evolve. We understand that aggressively limiting initial outbreaks of diseases like ebola is essential, otherwise the viral populations have additional opportunity to evolve and thus possibly evade our treatments. These are matters somewhere between practical and civic, in Shen’s triangle of science understanding.

    Third, we want well-rounded education. Otherwise, we might as well ask: why bother with education in general?

    1. Hi Robert. Thanks for your comment. I’m not so sure it makes sense to “teach the biological framework.” That’s assuming what you have to prove. It could make sense to teach evolution. But maybe not. You have to state your teaching goals. You could, for example, have an entire class on human anatomy. Doctors, in fact, do just that in medical school!

      I actually like your last question. We should ask: “why bother with education in general?” What are its ultimate purposes, and science education in particular? The answers aren’t as obvious to me as they are to you.

      Thanks again.

      1. A framework for knowledge makes it easier to incorporate new facts into that framework. Without a framework, the facts become isolated and do not relate to one another. The brute memorization required becomes that much more burdensome.

        I ask you to answer the education question for yourself. Otherwise, we must first start with your (public) answer: why do you not support a well-rounded education?

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