David Hillis, Alfred W. Roark Centennial Professor in Natural Sciences at the University of Texas and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, said that he has been teaching biology for 30 years and always in states where evolution is controversial, including Kansas, Florida, and Texas. At the beginning of his introductory biology courses in college, or even his advanced evolution courses, students often tell him that they have a religious problem with evolution. Rather than confronting them, Hillis asks them to try to keep an open mind, listen to what he has to say about evolution, and then come back to him if they still have problems. “In 30 years, I’ve never had a student come back to me. I’ve never had a comment on an evaluation complaining about evolution.” People who have religious objections to evolution largely do not know what evolution is. Many of their objections can be overcome by “simply addressing that ignorance.”
In teaching evolution, Hillis starts with familiar examples from the present and recent past and gradually works his way toward the distant past. “They can see that the exact same concepts and things that they know and can understand in the present or in the recent past apply to the ancient past.”
He also seeks to show how the mechanisms of evolution that can be observed today are sufficient to account for major evolutionary changes over long periods of time. Students need to grasp the deep time of Earth to understand why these mechanisms have had enough time to work. “They have a hard time understanding the difference between a thousand and a million, much less between a million and a billion. Once they have used mechanisms to help them understand the depth of time we’re talking about, and you start multiplying the kind of changes we see over short time to those longer times, they begin to understand how this can all work.”
Students need to understand that evolution has practical applications by learning about examples of evolution in action. They need to be shown applications of evolution in human health, agriculture, industry, and basic science.
Instructors also need to demonstrate that evolution is an experimental and an observational science, said Hillis. Few biology courses or textbooks emphasize the point that all the basic mechanisms of evolution can be observed directly and confirmed experimentally, and classrooms should feature these demonstrations and experiments to a much greater extent.
Finally, as emphasized throughout the convocation, evolution needs to be applied in every unit of biology courses and in every chapter of biology textbooks. Textbooks still need to have chapters on evolution to