Evo-Devo and the High School Biology Teacher

Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to work on the AP Biology Redesign project.  It has been a valuable experience.  Of course, with a redesign with a goal to limit the breadth of biology topics covered in order to cover essential topics more deeply one of the focus of our group was trying to determine the “essentials” of biology.  (Sound familiar, Scott?)

Now, let me be clear before someone misinterprets my remarks.  I am really excited about the developments in the field of evo-devo and I actually think that evo-devo is well on its way helping to illuminate our understanding of the history and development of living organisms–an essential topic in biology.

But, what I have not been sure of is the maturity of the field–it seems that much of the work is still on the exponential part of the curve–still being tested and evaluated before the really big synthesis statements can be made.  The questions that are being addressed by the field are some of the most fundamental in all of biology but as an outsider looking in with a limited understanding how am I to know what are promising results, actual results or simply hype?  In fact, unless you are actively researching in the field and involved in the knock-down, drag-out battles of ideas it can be a bit difficult.  At AP Redesign commission, I suggested that it might be premature for us to present evo-devo as fait d’accompli–that there is a lot of exciting but essential work to be done first.  In my mind evo-devo should be presented as an area of very active and promising field of science with an emphasis on how science works–we still don’t know how all the pieces fit together.

The average high school biology teacher is lucky if they can find the time and energy to read one or two general books about the field during the year and very few biology teachers I know have the time or inclination to try and keep up with even a smattering of research papers.  In the Evo-Devo events I am arguing that most biology teachers view of the field is a bit one-sided–there are several excellent books for the general public available–particularly those of Sean Carrol‘s.  Sean is an outstanding speaker as well and is one of the most popular speakers at NABT.  I love his work and his enthusiasm for biology teachers.  Rightfully so, my biology teacher colleagues have carried Sean’s message back to the classroom–it is exciting stuff.  But I have this feeling that even Sean would prefer that evo-devo work be presented as science in action rather than science complete…..

To that end, this long post is leading to a recommendation that biology teachers view one of PZ Meyers recent posting about an evo-devo conference he is attending.   This is science blogging at its best from the perspective of a biology teacher not intimately familiar with the field.  PZ is an evo-devo guy, but he does a great job defining the controversy and the fun associated with the struggle for idea, the rigor demanded in science, and the search for synthesis.   Biology teachers–check it out and use it as a way to introduce and explore this wonderful topic.