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Introduction to Evolution and Medicine

There is no question that evolution is the major unifying concept in biology and that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” (Dobzhansky, 1973). The teaching and learning of evolution, however, remains a difficult challenge. High school students need invigorating experiences that help them develop a rich understanding of evolutionary principles, and these experiences need to show the relevance of evolution to everyday life. These experiences must also be thoroughly grounded in learning about the nature of science. The Evolution and Medicine curriculum supplement incorporates research-based pedagogical approaches to support teachers as they help students understand the fundamental concepts of this dynamic and exciting field of science.

The questions that evolutionary biologists ask overlap with many that medical researchers ask about human health. The burgeoning field of evolution and medicine uses the models and theory of evolutionary biology to inform medical and public health problems. Though insights from evolution can provide immediate assistance in some clinical situations, the leaders in the field suggest that evolution’s greatest benefits will be to provide a theoretical framework for understanding

Two primary types of questions shape the field: questions about evolutionary processes, such as natural selection, and questions about evolutionary history, or the patterns of evolution. Students investigate case studies that help them develop explanations of medical situations that involve evolutionary processes and patterns.

What Are the Objectives of the Supplement?

Evolution and Medicine has four main objectives: to help students in grades 9-12 understand

  1. the importance of evolutionary comparisons for studying biomedical problems;
  2. the role of evolution in diseases, including how evolution explains many aspects of humans’ susceptibility to disease and how the principles of natural selection apply to specific diseases or health-related conditions;
  3. how evolution helps researchers and health workers better understand, prevent, and treat infectious diseases; and
  4. the process of scientific inquiry through studying evolution and medicine.

The lessons help students sharpen their skills in observation, critical thinking, experimental design, and data analysis. They also make connections to other disciplines such as English, mathematics, and social science.

As the supplement achieves its objectives, it helps convey to students the purpose of scientific research. Students experience how science provides evidence that we can use to understand and treat human disease. Ongoing research affects how we understand the world around us and gives us the foundation for improving choices about our personal health and the health of our community.

Table 1. Correlation of Evolution and Medicine to High School Biology Topics

Topics Lesson 1 Lesson 2 Lesson 3 Lesson 4 Lesson 5
Populations evolve over time.
Natural selection is a powerful mechanism of evolution.
Analyses of genetic sequences provide an important line of evidence for evolution.
All living things on Earth are related by descent from common ancestors.
The instructions for specifying the characteristics of an organism are carried in DNA, a large polymer formed from four subunits (A, G, C, and T).
The genetic information that underlies heredity is encoded in genes.
Changes in DNA (mutations) occur spontaneously at low rates. Some of these changes make no difference to the organism, whereas others can change cells and organisms.
Complex multicellular organisms are formed as a highly organized arrangement of differentiated cells. This differentiation is regulated through the expression of different genes.    

Why Teach the Supplement?

High school life science classes offer an ideal setting for integrating many areas of student interest. In this supplement, students participate in activities that integrate inquiry, science, human health, mathematics, and science-technology-society relationships. The real-life context of the supplement’s classroom lessons is engaging for students, and they can immediately apply what they learn to their lives.

What’s in It for the Teacher?

Evolution and Medicine meets many of the needs of teachers in modern classrooms:

In addition, the supplement provides a means for professional development. Teachers can engage in new and different teaching practices like those described in this supplement without completely overhauling their entire program. In Designing Professional Development for Teachers of Science and Mathematics, S. Loucks-Horsley and coauthors (1998) write that supplements such as Evolution and Medicine can “offer a window through which teachers can get a glimpse of what new teaching strategies look like in action.” By experiencing a short-term supplement like this one, teachers can “change how they think about teaching and embrace new approaches that stimulate students to problem solve, reason, investigate, and construct their own meaning for the content.” The use of supplemental material like Evolution and Medicine can encourage reflection and discussion and stimulate teachers to improve their practices by focusing on student learning through inquiry.

A correlation of the supplement’s major concepts with the biology and scientific inquiry topics often included in the high school life science curricula is shown in Tables 1 and 2. We hope this information will help teachers make decisions about incorporating this material into the curriculum.

Table 2. Correlation of Evolution and Medicine to High School Scientific Inquiry Topics

Topics Lesson 1 Lesson 2 Lesson 3 Lesson 4 Lesson 5
Design and conduct scientific investigations.    
Use technology and mathematics to improve investigations and communications.    
Formulate and revise scientific explanations and models using logic and evidence.
Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and models.  

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