Does understanding always matter?

Reflecting on evolution as the “foundation” of biology reminded me of  my teaching days in grad school. I’ve had to teach Maxwell’s Equations several times. In the classes I taught at least, it would have been borderline deranged to reduce them to quantum electrodynamics. (Let’s leave aside the fact that I didn’t really know QED.) Good teaching often requires obscuring underlying theories and principles.

I question the implicit assumption that knowing underlying principles is the best way to understand something. Even more strongly, I question whether understanding, as opposed to practical application, is the outcome that matters. Knowledge and understanding by themselves don’t automatically lead to anything useful. Conversely, history is rife with examples where technology advanced even though no one could explain why. Some of the most talented engineers I’ve known did not care a bit about the underlying physics.

Which brings me back to evolution. I can accept that you won’t really “understand” biology if you don’t learn evolution. Yeah I know I just said evolution is not the foundation of biology. And I stand by that statement. But evolution is very important, and you’d understand less if you didn’t know about it. I’m just not convinced that “understanding” biology should be something we care about when we teach biology. No one has explained to me why we teach evolution in the first place. What are our teaching goals here?

1 Comment

  1. Understanding is a problem we face in many various academic disciplines–poetry, history, psychology, economics. I was talking to a famous poet (who’s also an Oxford tutor) and it’s funny how in a poetry class, you never learn to practice writing poetry; you simply analyze. We experience the same in a number of subjects. How many history classes teach the social science of creating a case for historicity rather than analyze “the history” of some event? Do they teach us how to record history and make a case? No, not really. In fact, it’s rare that I will find undergraduate (and even some graduate) history classes that explain that “history” is not an absolute. There is no history. With increasing time from an event, all we can do is look at the evidence and make a conclusion. But the social science of history creation is simply interpretations backed up (hopefully) by someone’s interpretation of evidence. Teaching how to create or do history in this way is hard to find. Teaching that the book on a certain historical event is an interpretation and that we should be reading 7 books on the same event is completely lost. Same in economics. We study economics as if every economic theory is law (even basic economic laws don’t hold sometimes). We are never taught to devise our own economic theories (which is what economics should be teaching). Even economic theories are interpretations based on only known, prior, and localised experience.

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