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An Interdisciplinary Course In Evolution

By Thomas J. Geelan

Type of Entry:

  • unit (course) outline

Type of Activity:

  • course offering

Target Audience:

  • Biology
  • Advanced/AP Biology


Evolution is the central organizing theme in all biology, yet few biology courses are taught that way. An interdisciplinary evolution course was developed at City Honors School to address the lack of focus on evolution in most science curricula, counteract the threat to scientific literacy posed by scientific creationists, and meet the needs of students by providing a framework for significant intellectual growth. It stresses science as a testable way of knowing, its self-correcting nature and peer review requirements, and emphasizes evolution as both fact and theory. Course topics include the nature of science and religion, the importance of myth in human cultures, the history of science, the impact of science on world views, historical development of Darwinian evolutionary theory, social Darwinism, the rise of Christian fundamentalism in the U.S., the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, the impact of scientific creationism on U.S. science education, an examination of the evidence for the fact of evolution, modern evolutionary theory, relativity theory, quantum physics and the nature of matter, cosmic evolution, the origin of life, speciation, population genetics, dinosaur evolution and the origin of flight/birds, and human evolution. All contribute to the theme that everything in nature evolves - from subatomic particles to galaxies and people.

Awareness of evolution as a natural process continually forces us to re-evaluate our true place in nature. The course uses a free-thinking, discussion-based format in which everyone is required to contribute. All opinions are valued. Guest speakers, research papers, video presentations, analysis of formal creation/evolution debates, laboratory experiences, computer-based simulations, and special individual and class projects are also requirements.

This is a senior elective course, so students have accumulated a wealth of experience by this time. The course challenges them to think analytically and to apply information from all the diverse areas they have been exposed to. They appreciate the opportunity to integrate and express their ideas, share them with others, and digest the feedback. Evaluations reveal that most students sense significant intellectual growth contributing to increased self-confidence - a milemarker on their journey to becoming informed, responsible adults. Many report that it provides closure for their educational experience thus far in life.


This is a course designed to help students to think critically, to emphasise the role of evolution as the central organizing theme in biology, to stress the nature of science as a way of knowing, and to counteract the impact that scientic creationists have had on science education.


The great geneticist, Theodosius Dobzhansky, is often quoted as saying, "Nothing in biology means anything except in the context of evolution." Evolution is the central organizing theme in all biology, but it is ironic that most biology curricula are pitifully deficient in their treatment of it. Not only do most ignore evolution as the central organizing theme, but many are further compromised by the highly organized efforts of scientific creationists. This occurs against the backdrop of apparent setbacks resulting from the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987, which unequiv ocally reaffirmed that scientific creationism was pseudoscience, and must not be taught as science in U.S. public school science classrooms. Nevertheless, scientific creationists continue their efforts. School boards around the nation have adopted textbooks which present their philosophy under the euphemisms, "abrupt appearance," "intelligent design," etc. Some allow the teaching of "alternate scientific theories," falsely implying that some actually exist. Many have been elected to local school boards and textbook committees. Enormous pressure has been placed on textbook publishers, boards of education, and teachers to capitulate with respect to evolution. The results have been dramatically successful. Many biology curricula and textbooks treat evolution as "theory rather than fact." Very few students are ever exposed to the truth or understand that evolution is both fact and theory. Even fewer could explain why. Most would not understand that scientists do not debate the fact of evolution any more than they debate the fact of gravity, nor are they any less sure about evolution than they are about gravity. Certainly this anti-intellectual nonsense not only contributes to the "dumbing down of America" as it becomes an increasingly hi-tech, but scientifically illiterate, society. A recent national survey revealed that 30% of the nation's biology teachers would teach creationism if given the choice, and 19% incorrectly believe that humans and dinosaurs coexisted.

Students at City Honors School are required to take a four-year sequence in science but most have completed four regents science courses by the end of their junior year. It is with this background that I felt there was a need for a course that would be challenging, yet attractive to students because of its controversial nature and interdisciplinary approach. A course devoted solely to evolution seemed to meet that need, as well as address the problems mentioned above. It would allow students to apply the scientific principles they learned in their other science courses, but free them from the restrictions imposed by the limitations of regents syllabi. Furthermore, they would be able to draw upon knowledge obtained from other courses, and life experiences, and use it to synthesize new ideas. In the process they would hopefully develop a better understanding of science as a way of knowing, develop a clear understanding of the central role evolution plays in all of biology, and sharpen their critical thinking skills.

Course Outline

    Unit One - What is Evolution?

      The Nature of Science
      The Nature of Religion
      Evolution as Fact and Theory
      The History of Science
      The Role of Myth in Human Evolution
      The Christian Fundamentalist Movement in 20th Century America
      Scientific Creationism and its Impact on U.S. Science Education
      The 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial"
      The Nature of Matter and Cosmic Evolution

    Unit Two - Evolution as a Fact: Evidence For Evolution

      The Fossil Record
      Comparative Anatomy: Vestigial Structures
      Comparative Anatomy:
          Homologous Structures
          Adaptive Radiation and Divergent Evolution
      Comparative Anatomy:
          Analogous Structures
          Structural Parallelism and Convergent Evolution
      Comparative Embryology
      Comparative Biochemistry
          DNA and Protein Homologies
          Molecular Clocks

    Unit Three - Evolution as a Theory: Theories Of Evolution

      Historical Development of Darwinian Theory
      Influences on Darwin
      Alfred Russell Wallace
      Hugo DeVries
      Punctuated Equilibrium
      Population Genetics
      Social Darwinism

    Unit Four - Dinosaur Evolution and the Origin of Flight/Birds

      Evidence of Extinction
      Adaptive Radiation in Dinosaurs
      Origin of Birds: Thecodont Origin
      Origin of Birds: Dinosaur Origin
      Origin of Flight: Cursorial (Ground-Up) Theory
      Origin of Flight: Tree-Down Theory

    Unit Five - Human Evolution

      Primate Adaptations
      Hominid Characteristics
      Chimpanzee Societies
      Chimp/Hominid Divergence
      Eve Hypothesis

Enrichment Projects

The Great Debate

Students sponsored a formal debate between a leading scientific creationist and evolutionist. The debate was videotaped and students published a transcript. The debate has been studied and debated by all succeeding classes. Many other creation/evolution debates are commercially available on video.

Adaptive Radiation in Penguins

There are at least 17 species of penguins. All live in the Southern Hemisphere and have unique structural and behavioral adaptations. Each student was assigned a particular species of penguin to research. They reported their findings and submitted a formal summary research paper. The group also prepared a colorful map of the Southern Hemisphere showing their biogeographic distribution.

The Scopes Monkey Trial

After studying this famous trial in class students were assigned a library research project. Each student was assigned a different day of the trial. They had to search various publications which covered the trial in 1925 and obtain a hard copy of the articles of that day. They were also required to present a verbal summary of the article and provide a transcript on floppy disk. Future classes will publish a compendium.

Construction of Hominid Family Tree

Students measured the physical data of various hominid and ape skulls. Groups of students discussed the data and presented a proposed family tree to the class in peer review sessions that we call "national meetings." The class debates the merits of each proposed family tree. Students do this prior to any study of human evolution. It provides an excellent introduction to the topic, gives students the same experience that anthropologists have in trying to establish patterns of relatedness among hominid groups, and exposes them to the process of science as a dynamic and self-correcting mechanism dependent on peer review and consensus.


This is a computer simulation available through the BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium. It provides students an opportunity to conduct their own investigations to examine such situations as the effect of an advantageous/deleterious mutation on a population, the effects of a large/small population size, and much more. Each student obtains data over many generations, graphs and analyzes it and reports/defends their findings in peer review sessions. Again, this activity emphasizes the process of science.

Construction of Australopithecus afarensis Exhibit

Students conducted fund raising activities to raise money to purchase a museum quality cast of Australopithecus afarensis , "Lucy," the oldest known hominid at that time. They learned all the bones of the human body, visited the Buffalo Museum of Science to study its Lucy exhibit, designed and constructed a beautiful display case, and assembled the specimen. Lucy is now on permanent exhibit in my classroom and has greatly enriched our study of human evolution.

Evolution Seminar

Each student was given the task of researching an individual who could make a significant contribution to the understanding of the topics covered in class. They were assigned a seminar date and required to submit a proposal, biographical data, abstract, and letter of confirmation prior to the seminar. Each seminar was videotaped for future use and for any student who was absent. Each student was required to complete an evaluation and summary report for every seminar speaker. At the end of the seminar series it was discussed in class over several days. A final summary paper was submitted. This was to utilize class discussions, daily summaries, personal insight, and be a reflective assessment of the entire series. Students kept all material in a portfolio which provided the basis for determining their grade. Our list of seminar speakers was extremely impressive and the topics ranged from the evolution of religion to the fate of the universe. Creationist speakers were also able to present and provided students an opportunity to hear their arguments directly.

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