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Table 1 Suggested strategies to recognize and address student difficulties in understanding that evolution is not an inevitable march of progress, with codes for activities outlined in the text

From: Avoiding the Pitfall of Progress and Associated Perils of Evolutionary Education

Symptom Problem Possible solution Suggested activity
Students think newer always equals better “Parade of progress” view of evolutionary history and evolutionary process Explain that all living taxa are equally evolved; some look like “living fossils” and others appear complex, but all are equally distant from first ancestor C, D, E, F, G, J
Students see evolution as working toward a planned goal or purpose Students retain a teleological view Try to get students to think and communicate in terms of teleonomic (non-goal-driven) processes and explanations A, B, C, H
Students see organisms “getting a little better with each succeeding generation” Students retain a Lamarckian worldview Make clear that organisms seek to survive and reproduce, but do not strive to or need to become perfect A, C, I, J, K
Students refer to “higher” and “lower” life forms Students retain an Aristotelian view of the Great Chain of Being Explore the theory and practice of systematics from a cladistic viewpoint, not a classical one (making clear how these schools of thought differ) D, E, H
Students believe evolution results in perfection Fallacy of optimal design Demonstrate imperfections in humans and other organisms (e.g., vestigial structures), explaining how existing features are modified C, D, I, J
Students confuse function with purpose Teleological thinking and conventions of communication Explain, for example, that there are other ways to pump blood than a heart and other ways to fly than a wing. A, K
Students see humans as culminating pinnacle or end point of evolution Cultural and intuitive (hardwired) views of teleology and human superiority Explain importance of chance events in evolution (e.g., mass extinctions). What would happen if we “rolled back the tape”? Might dolphins be superior to us in some ways? D, E,F, H, J
Students think all change is adaptive Adaptationist program (Spandrels of San Marco) Show that many features of organisms are neutral or non-adaptive; some are historical artifacts, others involve genetic linkage D, E, G, J, K
Students believe all features evolve at the same progressive rate Fallacy of missing links Replace notion of missing links with concept of mosaic evolution (each species as blend of old and new). E, F, G, I
Students think evolution works to fulfill the needs and desires of organisms Fallacy of mutation on demand Make clear the random vs. non-random (directed) elements of processes of variation, selection, and inheritance A, C, K
Students confuse proximate and ultimate causes Confusion of teleonomy and teleology Have students carefully work out precise chain of causal mechanisms, as of hormonal and neural controls of behavior B, C, I, K
Class discussions generate more heat than light; students are uncomfortable “airing out” views in classroom setting Discussions of progress (or lack thereof) unsettling and “hit close to home” Writing assignments (essays, reading journals) offer non-threatening, non-confrontational means to contemplate and discuss difficult ideas All activities, especially L