Why is Evolution Important?

In Anthropology 2016 and Anthropology 2017 there were three readings on the question of “Why is Evolution Important?”

We considered two questions for these readings:

  1. Compare the module on “Anthropology, Science, and Storytelling” with the blog-post “There’s No Controversy: Let’s Stop Failing Our Children On Evolution.” Both are about the teaching of evolution. What do you think?
  2. You have surely been taught ideas of evolution before. What is different about how evolution is taught anthropologically?

Rough notes follow and then Disqus comments.

Lavenda & Schultz, Module 1, tricky?

Compare Desana creation and science (Lavenda & Schultz:21)
Both equally myths and stories
Say something about world, make life meaningful
in the anthropological use of myth (22)
BUT – scientific stories must be compared to evidence and scrutiny (Lavenda & Schultz:23-24)
Must be rejected if they don’t fit (Lavenda & Schultz:24)
The Interplanetary Aliens Hypothesis (Lavenda & Schultz:26)
May not ever be definitively disproved, but without evidence it “holds no scientific interest”
Evolutionary Theory & Scientific Theory (Lavenda & Schultz:26)
Nevertheless, can and should put science in a social context = science studies (27-28)
Provide “a more accurate, if less exalted, view” (28)
Bruno Latour and laboratory ethnography

2016: Has anything changed?

“There’s no controversy” by Barbara J. King
Many students (see Disqus comments below) thought King’s post was a bit too harsh. I tend to agree, and posted some thoughts about other arrogant treatments of evolution.

The evolution of evolutionary theory

Views of Natural World before evolution

Ideas from Bible & Greek philosophy (33)
Greeks: enduring world
Bible: Earth was young, October 23, 4004 B.C. (Lavenda & Schultz:38)
Shared Essentialism, unchanging world
species have essences, unchanged since creation (34)
“Great Chain of Being” (Lavenda & Schultz:34)
1579, Aristotle + Christianity

New material evidence (Lavenda & Schultz:35)

Fossils of extinct species
Similar but different from existing
Catastrophism versus Uniformitarianism (35)
Revise essentialism
Species change over time
Older earth (Lavenda & Schultz:38-39)

New ideas

Transformational Evolution, Lamarck (37)
Panda’s “Thumb”
Use the thumb, stretch the neck, passed along
Mechanism of Natural Selection, Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace
Variation; Heredity; Differential reproduction; Competition for resources

Natural Selection, then and now

After originally talking about “descent with modification,” Darwin borrows Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” phrase (Lavenda & Schultz:40)
Was this Darwin’s big mistake?
No such thing as absolute fitness (Lavenda & Schultz:41)
Fitness in an always-changing environment
Adaptation & Exaptation (Lavenda & Schultz:40)
Taken together, this means anthropologists often think differently about evolution and natural selection. I’ve posted thoughts about the anthropological perspective in Evolution and Natural Selection, Anthropologically.

Genetics, then and now

At Darwin’s time, pangenesis or blended inheritance (Lavenda & Schultz:42)
Mendel’s genetics: disproves pangenesis
Inheritance preserves variation as individual units
Very complex, not just one gene/trait (43-51)
Polygenic inheritance, pleiotropy
Genes a dynamic part of developing organism
Biological anthropologist Adam P. Johnson heartily recommends the 1984 book Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature.

Niche Construction (Lavenda & Schultz:52-54)

Genes are dynamic in an environment
Organisms alter the environment
Beaver dams; Birds, rodents, algae
Human activity
Unintentional alterations
Those alterations can change conditions of selection for the next generation
Niche Construction on a ginormous scale = The Anthropocene
Anthropogenic climate and geological change

Why is evolution important to anthropology?

Sexual selection: people (and other creatures) choose mates
Blue eyes or red feathers are not necessarily indicators of fitness
Agency: Actions like moving, altering the environment, selecting mates can reshape evolutionary processes (Lavenda & Schultz:54)
Doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want or control consequences

Revisiting Great Chain of Being

Evolution is not march to better
Environment always changing, dynamic interaction with organisms (Lavenda & Schultz:41)
Adaptive in one environment, maladaptive in others
Humans not inevitable result or pinnacle (55)
Evolution doesn’t always “work”
99.999% of once-existing species are extinct (55)
Not a necessary path from simple–>complex
Sometimes simpler is more adaptable to changes
We are still in Age of Bacteria (Gould in Lavenda & Schultz:55)
See Men May Be #Woking, But We Are Not Evolving by Christopher Lynn (March 2018).


“The study of evolution in contemporary biology is very lively” (Lavenda & Schultz:54)
A method, not an answer
Invitation to
Debate, ongoing questions, understanding evidence
Not to a dogmatic cult
Accepting that debate doesn’t mean losing religion
But it may mean losing the dogmatic cult

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2016. “Why is Evolution Important? Anthropology and Teaching Evolution.” Living Anthropologically website, https://www.livinganthropologically.com/anthropology-2016/why-is-evolution-important-to-anthropologists/. First posted 3 September 2016. Revised 29 August 2018.

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