On teaching biology

The comments on my last post are forcing me to revisit and expand on topics I’ve neglected for a while. Let me start with this challenge from David Bruggeman:

Find me rigorous material in either microbiology or human anatomy that doesn’t involve evolution.

The question I have is: why are you teaching biology? There are many valid pedagogical goals. One could be to teach doctors anatomy for medical diagnoses. If that is your goal, then at least one medical text-book appears to think it’s okay to neglect evolution. From conversations with family and friends who are doctors, it seems you can often succeed just fine without knowing the details of evolution. I humbly submit that there are many other fields (bioengineering comes to mind) that are similar.

As I’ve argued before, in biology the key principles do not neatly stack on top of one another. Unlike in physics, many fields developed independently. This fact is neither good nor bad. But it should be considered when we’re having this discussion. Focusing on evolution is one way to teach biology. But it’s not the only one.

I have a similar critique for this comment:

The purpose of a *Public* education system is to teach children a broad-based, consensus education of the things society thinks they need to become well-informed productive citizens…

How do you define well-informed and productive? Informed for what purpose? What, exactly, do we want children to produce? How does learning evolution advance those goals? And who gets to decide what we mean by consensus? Until you answer those questions, I don’t see why evolution has to be mandatory for everyone. It could be included. But then again, it doesn’t have to be.


  1. Anatomy is a subset of biology. Absent coverage of evolution, you gain understanding of the parts, but not how they came to be what they are. That strikes me as incomplete, and those who consider it sufficient are, arguably, slacking.

  2. You can learn how the parts of an automobile work without learning the process by which they were invented or manufactured. As Praj says, it’s all about what the goals are.

  3. Thanks Agellius. That’s what I was getting at.

    David: slacking has to be defined in a particular context. Running 2 miles is slacking for a cross country workout, but more than enough for a 100 meter sprinter. Why is it necessary to ‘understand the parts.’? If *practicing doctors* don’t need evolution, then perhaps it isn’t that necessary.

    I agree that there are other reasons to teach evolution (cultural, e.g.). But for me at least, those reasons aren’t powerful enough to make it mandatory for everyone everywhere.

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