Selection of the fittest

A new study shows that schools and many education programmes are failing to provide students with a basic understanding of evolution.

It is famously difficult to explain evolutionary principles without resorting to anthropomorphic or figurative language. Evolution ‘selects’ the fittest individuals; species ‘adapt’ to change. Both of these phrases are commonplace when explaining the very complex processes involved in evolution. However, this use of language implies that there is an agency or cognition involved in evolution. This misunderstanding is being picked up on by students in the classroom and could form part of a wider desire to fit evolutionary theory into broad social narratives.

Rob Moore and colleagues (University of Cape Town, South Africa), writing in the Spring issue of the Journal of Biological Education, call for more care in the use of language in science education. ‘Given the centrality of evolutionary theory to a clear foundation in biology, the widely documented difficulty that many students have in coming to terms with these concepts is of enduring concern…Establishing a clear conceptual grasp of evolutionary theory will need to include an enhanced sensitivity to language usage.’

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