Activity 7
Proposing the Theory of Biological Evolution: Historical Perspective

This activity uses evolution to introduce students to historical perspectives and the nature of science. The teacher has students read short excerpts of original statements on evolution from Jean Lamarck, Charles Darwin, and Alfred Russel Wallace. This activity is intended as either a supplement to other investigations or as a core activity. Designed for grades 9 through 12, the activity requires a total of three class periods.

Standards-Based Outcomes

The activity provides all students with opportunities to develop understandings of the history and nature of science as described in the National Science Education Standards. Specifically, it conveys the following concepts:

  • Scientists are influenced by societal, cultural, and personal beliefs and ways of viewing the world. Science is not separate from society but rather a part of society.

  • Scientific explanations must meet certain criteria. First and foremost, they must be consistent with experimental and observational evidence about nature, and they must make accurate predictions, when appropriate, about the systems being studied. They should also be logical, respect the rules of evidence, be open to criticism, report methods and procedures, and make knowledge public. Explanations of how the natural world changes based on myths, personal beliefs, religious values, mystical inspiration, superstition, or authority may be personally useful and socially relevant, but they are not scientific.

  • Because all scientific ideas depend on experimental and observational confirmation, all scientific knowledge is in principle subject to change as new evidence becomes available. The core ideas of science, such as the conservation of energy or the laws of motion, have been subjected to a wide variety of confirmations and are therefore unlikely to change in the areas in which they have been tested. In areas where data or understanding are incomplete, such as the details of human evolution or questions surrounding global warming, new data may well lead to changes in current ideas or resolve current conflicts. In situations where information is still fragmentary, it is normal for scientific ideas to be incomplete, but this is also where the opportunity for making advances may be greatest.

  • Occasionally, there are advances in science and technology that have important and long-lasting effects on science and society.

  • The historical perspective of scientific explanations demonstrates how scientific knowledge changes by evolving over time, almost always building on earlier knowledge.  

Science Background for Teachers

In historical perspective, explanations for the origin and diversity of life are not new and probably began when humans first began asking questions about the natural world. By the time of the Greeks, individuals such as Thales (624 to 548 B.C.) and Anaximander (611 to 547 B.C.) proposed explanations for life's origins and gradual changes.

In the 1800s three individuals proposed explanations for biological evolution—Jean Lamarck, Charles Darwin, and Alfred Russel Wallace. In the early years of the nineteenth century, a French biologist, Jean Lamarck (1744 to 1829), proposed a view of evolution that questioned the then popular idea that species did not change. Lamarck proposed the idea that changes do take place in animals over long periods of time, specifically through the use of organs and appendages. The popular example of Lamarck's idea is the long necks of giraffes that helped them feed higher in trees. Based on the extension and use of the neck, one generation of giraffes passed the longer neck to the next generation. (See the excerpt for this activity.)

Charles Darwin (1809 to 1882) was born in England and completed his formal education at Cambridge University. Darwin's main interests

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