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Updated 5:30 PM November 12, 2004




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Everyday evolution: Scientists offer examples to biology teachers

The science of evolution affects everyday life in more ways than many of us suspect, from flu shots to forensic investigations.

Teaching evolution in schools is too important to be sidetracked by those who try to dictate curriculum, according to U-M biologist David Mindell and other internationally renowned scientists and educators. They will deliver that message at a national high school biology teachers' meeting in Chicago Nov. 12-13.

"Whether people realize it or not, they are benefiting from advances in evolutionary biology," Mindell says. For example, knowing how viruses evolve and change over time helps public health officials decide which strains should be included in each year's flu vaccines. Evolutionary biology also aids in drug design, influences decisions about conservation issues and helps convict criminals and exonerate the wrongly accused, he says.

The scientists will discuss these and other applications of evolutionary biology during a symposium, "Evolutionary Science and Society: Educating a New Generation," organized by the National Association of Biology Teachers and the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

Speakers also will address such issues as the relationship between evolutionary science and religion and current ideas and controversies in the science of evolution. Symposium organizers plan to produce a short, inexpensive book and classroom materials based on the invited talks, and full transcripts will be available online.

"We hope to counteract the efforts of religious fundamentalists who are attempting to restrict the high school science curricula in some states," says Mindell, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of the Museum of Zoology and Herbarium.
"Whether people realize it or not, they are benefiting from advances in evolutionary biology."
—U-M biologist David Mindell

"High school biology teachers can use our support, because too often—especially in more rural communities—they get caught in a conflict with public opinion about the teaching of evolutionary science. But scientific findings, such as evolution, are not decided by public opinion. Some scientific ideas may be locally unpopular, but that doesn't make them wrong."

While scientists may debate how evolution has occurred, "the fact of its happening is no longer in doubt and really hasn't been for a long time," Mindell says. But rather than arguing the legitimacy of evolutionary theory, Mindell and the others plan to take a different approach when they speak to the teachers' meeting.

"We're going to give real-world examples that high school biology teachers can work into their classes to show students how evolutionary biology makes a difference in people's lives," he says.

Mindell's talk will focus on how evolution helps solve crimes. He'll discuss one case in which an evolutionary analysis of HIV helped convict a Louisiana physician who gave his former girlfriend a virus-laced vitamin injection. Mindell and colleagues at Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas at Austin performed the analysis, which relied on reconstruction of the virus's recent evolutionary history. Because viruses, particularly HIV, change so rapidly, it's possible to trace evolutionary changes that occur over months instead of millennia.

By spreading the word about everyday applications of evolutionary biology, Mindell hopes to help people understand how crucial it is to teach the subject to future generations without restrictions on curriculum content.

"People who enjoy the benefits of science and Western culture have a stake in speaking up for it," he says. "Everyone has a responsibility to see that science is treated fairly and that science education in public schools is based on science rather than religious ideology."

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