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The Devolution of Evolution

By Leonid Moroz The Devolution of Evolution Why evolution and biosystematics courses must be included in all biomedical curricula. Nearly 40 years ago Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” How is it, then, that so few newly minted PhDs in the biological sciences have taken any formal graduate school courses in evolution or biodiversity? This fosters a knowledge gap that can become difficult t

By | November 1, 2010

The Devolution of Evolution

Why evolution and biosystematics courses must be included in all biomedical curricula.

Nearly 40 years ago Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” How is it, then, that so few newly minted PhDs in the biological sciences have taken any formal graduate school courses in evolution or biodiversity? This fosters a knowledge gap that can become difficult to fill by “osmosis” later in a scientific career. Consider the two to five years of intense postdoctoral work, followed by the even more challenging process of earning tenure. Success requires complete dedication to a specialized field of knowledge for professors who then act as advisors for the next generation of scientists, judge hundreds of submitted papers and dozens of grants, and chart new research directions.

To some extent the problem appears to be hereditary: a generation of biologists without an adequate background in evolution gave rise to a second generation of biologists who came of age during the molecular biology boom of the 1980s and 1990s. These trends could now repeat with a third generation working in the current genomic era that began early in the 21st century.

Indeed, it appears that evolutionary biology and biosystematics courses, which deal with the most fundamental concepts in biology, have quietly lost their place of eminence within the biomedical curriculum—“outcompeted” by escalating specialization and the increasingly technical nature of many biological sciences. By failing to require or even offer such essential courses to graduate students, do we lose some strategic advantage as well as a long-term perspective? I think we do by sacrificing a deeper understanding of the fundamental laws of biology. Evolutionary theory, speciation, principles of biological classification, and biodiversity must be part of the required curricula not only for biologists but for medical students as well.

It is by mastering the “how” that we are trained to ask “why?”

Students of engineering must learn the fundamentals of mathematics and physics. A PhD chemist cannot bypass learning the periodic table and its elements. In contrast, ask a young or even a senior biologist with an active research program to name 15 to 20 animal phyla. Most could correctly name 5 to 10 of the 35 currently known. I cannot image a chemist who is unable to refer to or actually recognize most of the chemical elements. It is unthinkable for the chemical curriculum to allow a student of organic chemistry to electively study the properties of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, and phosphorus, or to ignore iron or molybdenum. Why have we accepted ignorance of evolutionary theory and knowledge of biodiversity in classrooms? What effectively distinguishes a biologist from a nonbiologist is the appreciation and understanding of the vast biodiversity of life. Yes, elective courses are essential for creative thinking; they reflect the dynamic nature of modern education, but only if the fundamental biological concepts such as natural selection are secured in the curriculum.

The astonishing biodiversity revealed under one rock (Heron Island, Australia)
Courtesy of Leonid Moroz

Evolutionary principles integrate all the concepts underlying cell biology, genomics, and medicine. It is by mastering the “how” underlying such principles that we are trained to ask “why?” Why do we observe certain types of cellular or systemic organizations instead of others? These “why” questions target the causes, and new experimental designs reveal and explain the origins of biological complexity.

Why, for example, are individual neurons so different from each other? One possible answer is the functional demands within a given neural circuit and behavior. Another is that each distinct neuronal population has a different evolutionary history, and, as a result, neurons carry the heavy molecular burdens of their complex evolutionary past. Such distinctive ancestries might either limit or facilitate future evolutionary opportunities to adapt to changeable environments. In other words, past evolutionary history might provide constraints for the emergence of novel behaviors or resistance to stress, disease, or injury.

Many, if not most, breakthroughs in biology and medicine have come by studying experimental models representing the entire spectrum of the diversity of life: from bacteria to yeasts, from infusorians to algae, from hydra to squid and sea slugs. The doctor’s pragmatic interest in healing and repair and the synthetic biologist’s ambitious dream to build a new life-form require a deep understanding of life’s evolutionary history. This knowledge, when integrated with genome-wide understanding of physiological functions, offers dreams of building a new cell, a new neuron, a new brain, and even a new mind. It hints that there may be more than one way to achieve a particular goal in bioengineering or regenerative medicine, given the modular organization of biological systems and processes. Remarkable examples of parallel evolution exist within all animal phyla.

Sparks of the deep evolutionary past are also present in every cell of the human body. And our battle with diseases and infectious agents continues to drive the ongoing evolutionary process. Indeed, next-generation sequencing technologies are now so powerful that the epigenomes of all major cell lineages and the genomes of representatives of all 35 animal phyla and their 100 extant classes must and will be sequenced within the next few years. With the trend toward sequencing that costs less than $1000 per genome, one can foresee the time when all known creatures on the tree of life will be sequenced and analyzed, opening new doors for research on our understanding of adaptive modifications and the novelties that have arisen over 3.5 billion years of biological evolution. Such a genomic blueprint of the grand diversity of life would truly be a universe-scale achievement for humankind, securing our past, present, and future.

We continue to evolve together with our pets, parasites, symbionts, food, land, and ocean ecosystems. As Peter Medawar eloquently put it, “The alternative to thinking in evolutionary terms is not to think at all.” The sooner evolution and biodiversity are inherent and required parts of every biomedical student’s curriculum, the greater progress we can expect from a new generation of scientists in the clinic and the laboratory. Whether we like it or not, biology simply means evolution.

Leonid Moroz is a professor of neuroscience, chemistry, and biology at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville and the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience, where he studies the genomic bases of memory and the origin of neurons and nervous systems.

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Comments

November 1, 2010

A very well written article on the current situation of biomedical sciences and scientists. In particular, when we are seeing the trend of "translational research", the physicians are most likely to obtain the grant and therefore continue with their research. My concern is when they do not themselves want to learn the basis of disease how can they train the new generation to carry on their jobs in the future. Besides, how would they design the correct lines to research on and tease out the "why" of the defect under investigation. It is a serious issue indeed and I am glad that the current article has addressed it.
Avatar of: Andrew Brower

Andrew Brower

Posts: 12

November 4, 2010

At least in the U. S., most undergraduate biology majors are required to take an evolution course as part of their core curriculum, but I know of no undergraduate curriculum that requires a course in systematics. While evolution does indeed explain the "why" of homology, systematics tackles the more fundamental question of "what is homology?" (obviously not simply "features shared due to common descent"). \nI applaud Dr. Moroz' sentiment, but would argue that the situation for systematics is even more dire than it is for evolution. This is due, in large part, to the usurpation of systematics as an independent field of inquiry by the "architects" of the modern synthesis (e. g., Julian Huxley and Ernst Mayr) in the 1940's, who conflated evidence with explanation and relegated the concept of homology and other principles of systematics to tautology, as "products of evolution." Thus subsumption is perpetuated in the hierarchical organization of disciplines in entities such as the "Faculty of 1000" (try to find systematics as a field or subfield there!). The profound lack of understanding of the foundations of systematics is evident even in the contents of specialist journals such as Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, Systematic Biology and Taxon.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 25

November 4, 2010

I enjoyed very much reading this comment. It is precisely the reason why I went into science. Unfortunately, the scientific climate for the past 30 years selects against the wide knowledge required for well rounded science and selects for restrictive specialization. This has taken the romanticism of doing science and leads the scientist to become a fund raiser. I recall the old mentors who could speak authoritatively in a wide variety of subjects, unfortunately this race of fabulous people is extinct.
Avatar of: Roy Niles

Roy Niles

Posts: 32

November 4, 2010

"It is by mastering the ?how? that we are trained to ask ?why??\n\nExcept that in most evolutionary biology courses, the "why" of evolution, i.e. acquired purpose, is said to non-exist.\n\nBut what if the following from an anonymous source is more likely: "The organism's shared experiences over time are the causative factors that drive and control its evolution. The natural selection function operates within those organisms, not simply some autonomous process doing without the need of their assistance until the time arrives for the organisms to somehow in concert accept the use or usage of that randomly generated selection."
Avatar of: DENNIS HOLLENBERG

DENNIS HOLLENBERG

Posts: 26

November 4, 2010

Science practitioners believe the public-relations effluent pumped out by self-severing institutions in the same way that crass politicians believe that their labors, however tawdry or fraudulent, are morally purposeful.\n\nAs science icons tediously demonstrate, the real motivation is power, aka prestige, mating priority and relative social elevation, as is made evident through the universal network view:\n\n(me) 2007 "On the evolution and dynamics of biological networks" Revista di Biologia/Biology Forum 100(1) 93-118.

November 5, 2010

a long time ago many so-called scientists and their cousins appeared to believe the Ptolomeic geocentric concept. It was even accepted by the distorted Roman church founded by the emperor Costantino in the 4th century of this age.\nThen a bright Polish astronomer postulated the heliocentric concept and many people went nuts.\nIn the 1970s of last century, the strongly materialistic soviet science affirmed that this universe had no beginning. Perhaps that was accepted as a scientific fact in many places outside the Soviet Union too. However, later many scientists talked about the beginning of this universe happening around 15 billion years ago. The difference between infinite (no beginning) and 15 billion is -in serious mathematrical terms- simply infinite. That's quite a gross error for respectful science to make.\nDefinitely enough to erode its authority.\nBut that's not all. The pseudo-scientific obsession with the macro-evolutionary ideas practically persuaded many brilliant scientists to ignore the non-coding DNA when researching the complex mechanisms behind genetic regulatory networks, gene expression pathways, spliceosomes, bio clocks, etc. Then lately scientists are talking about the functionality associated with at least some parts of that so-called "junk" DNA.\nAnother huge scientific hickup -Oops! Shame on that kind of pseudo-science.\nSo much for the benefits of macro-evolutionary concepts taken at face value as a dogma.\nTrue science should not convert speculation into dogma or doctrine.\nThat degrades the beautiful value of science.\n\n
Avatar of: guilherme costa

guilherme costa

Posts: 2

November 7, 2010

I think that really everything in biology we can only understand in the light of evolution. This can modulate our imagination, to confine it in a narrow range of possibilities. Saving us time.
Avatar of: Ellen Martin

Ellen Martin

Posts: 5

November 7, 2010

Absolutely agree about the fundamental importance of evolution and evolutionary theory for any biologist. And for any educated scientist in any specialty. As well as for educated non-specialists. Maybe I'm confused because I've been out of Academia for decades, but are biosystematics and biodiversity the same field of study? And how do they relate to what I knew as taxonomy? When I see "biodiversity", I don't hear systematics but eco-propaganda (save our species). Can anyone clarify?
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 107

November 7, 2010

The absence of evolution from biomedical curricula is not an oversight or a philosophical choice. It's entirely a matter of priorities. There's simply too much else that has to be covered. The 1910 Flexner report set a standard for medical education that we still aspire to today, namely that every physician should received global training in the medical sciences. That was practical 100 years ago, but the explosion of knowledge in the medical sciences has made it an absurd goal today. We typically try to cram so much information into the heads of medical students in the first two years of medical school that pre-clinical training amounts to a form of hazing. And forget about retention. Meanwhile, entire new disciplines like human genomics are clamoring for admission to this already overburdened curriculum. Sorry, no one is going to be able to go back and teach evolution or systematics at this level, however excellent those subjects may be.

November 8, 2010

a long time ago many so-called scientists and their cousins appeared to believe the Ptolomeic geocentric concept. It was accepted by the distorted Roman "church" founded by the emperor Costantino in the 4th century of this age. \nThen in the 16th century a bright German-Polish astronomer postulated the heliocentric concept and many people went nuts. Copernicus wrote: "The mechanism of the universe, wrought for us by a supremely good and orderly Creator... the system the best and most orderly artist of all framed for our sake." \nIn the 1970s of last century, the strongly materialistic soviet science affirmed that this universe had no beginning. Perhaps that was accepted as a "scientific fact" in many places outside the Soviet Union too. However, later many scientists talked about the beginning of this universe happening around 15 billion years ago. The difference between infinite (no beginning) and 15 billion is -in serious mathematical terms- simply infinite. That's quite a gross error for respectful science to make. \nDefinitely enough to erode its authority. \nBut that's not all. The pseudo-scientific obsession with the macro-evolutionary ideas practically persuaded many brilliant scientists to ignore the non-coding DNA when researching the complex mechanisms behind genetic regulatory networks, gene expression pathways, spliceosomes, bio clocks, etc. Then lately scientists are talking about the functionality associated with at least some parts of that so-called "junk" DNA. \nAnother huge scientific hickup -Oops! Shame on that kind of pseudo-science. \nSo much for the benefits of macro-evolutionary concepts taken at face value as a dogma. \nTrue science should not convert speculation into dogma or doctrine. \nThat degrades the beautiful value of science.
Avatar of: Dov Henis

Dov Henis

Posts: 97

November 9, 2010

Rethink Evolution/Natural Selection\nOn Black Holes, Biosphere(s) And All Mass-Formats \nCosmic Evolution Simplified \n\n(a recapitulation) \n\nA. A black future \nhttp://www.sciencenews.org/view/feature/id/50326/title/A_black_future \nWithout destroying the Earth, the Large Hadron Collider might help humans explore the cosmos \n\n\nB. On The Origin And Nature Of Cosmic Evolution: \nIt Is Space-Distance, Not Space-Time. \nLife's Is The Ubiquitous Cosmic Evolution Mode. \n\nThe mode of a gene's response to organism-culture's feedback signal, i.e. "replicate without change" or "replicate with change" in case of proven augmented energy constrainment by the offspring, is the mode of Life's normal evolution, which is the mode of evolution universally. \n\nGenes' Expression Modification \nhttp://www.the-scientist.com/community/posts/list/200/122.page#3649 \n\nAgain, the scope of of genes lifehood is not just the lifehood of genes. \n\nGenes, and Life in general, are but one of the forms of mass, of constrained energy formats. The lifehood of genes is the foundation of the subject of evolutionary biology, which is a major component of the subject of life, which is a minute component of the subject of evolution of the universe, which is the subject for which humanity seeks a unified field theory. \n\nSince the big-bang resolution of E/m superposition ALL the energy of the universe is destined for the galactic clusters expansion plus laying down of the gravity natrix for the eventual cosmic impansion, and ALL the mass is destined to revert to energy for these ends. The mass-to-energy reversion is resisted by the mass, this resistance being the archtype of selection for survival by all materials, including life. This resistance is due, exciting to us, to the fact that - as we know from everyday experience - formation of mass requires investment of energy, that dissipates when the mass disintegrates. And as we also know from everyday experience all energy forms other than gravity end up eventually as gravity energy. This is expected since ALL the contents of the universe are manifestations of the gravity energy freed at Inflation. \n\nAnd again, a unified field theory is sought since unlike the evergrowing list of specific science/technology divisions drawn by the "scientists" trade-unions like the AAAS, the universe and Earth evolve as an integrated intertwined interrelated tangled whole and not as a collection of individual divisions. \n\n\nC. Updated Physical Evolution Defintion \n\n1. Three present definitions of physical evolution, at \n\nhttp://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/evolution \n\n- a process of change in a certain direction. \n\n- a theory that the various types of animals and plants have their origin in other preexisting types and that the distinguishable differences are due to modifications in their successive generations, and also the process described by this theory. \n\n- a process in which the whole universe is a progression of interrelated phenomena. \n\n2. Suggested updated physical evolution definition, of Life's normal evolution and universal energy-mass evolution. \n\na theory, and the process described by it, that the whole universe changes in a progression of interrelated phenomena of mass formats attaining temporary augmented energy constraint in their successive generations with energy drained from other mass formats, to temporarily postpone, survive, reverting of their mass to the cosmic energy fueling the galactic clusters expansion. \n\n\nD. Black holes of ALL sizes are constrained-energy mass formats. Like biosphere(s) they require energy to survive temporarily, to avoid as long as possible their energy used to fuel the ongoing cosmic expansion. \n\n\nDov Henis \n(Comments From The 22nd Century) \n03.2010 Updated Life Manifest \nhttp://www.the-scientist.com/community/posts/list/54.page#5065\n28Dec09 Implications Of E=Total[m(1 + D)] \nhttp://www.the-scientist.com/community/posts/list/184.page#4587\nGravity Is The Monotheism Of The Cosmos\nhttp://www.the-scientist.com/community/posts/list/260/122.page#4887
Avatar of: Jerry Jones

Jerry Jones

Posts: 12

November 9, 2010

While I agree with this sentiment, I think the problem is that Evolutionary Theory is a very large and controversial field, which makes teaching difficult. I think the base of the problem is the use of certain terminology such as "The Modern Synthesis"/"The modern Modern Synthesis" and "The Evolutionary Theory", which rely on declaration of standards for knowing.\n\nI would advise readers who would like to get to the root of the problem to compare Ernst Mayr's book, "The evolutionary synthesis: perspectives on the unification of biology", which describes presentations at the Princeton conference versus Waddington's collection in "Towards a Theoretical Biology", which describes a different group's standards presented at the Bellagio. I would argue that Viktor Hamburger writes from a moderate perspective.

November 9, 2010

For quite a long time, the pseudo-scientific obsession with the macro-evolutionary ideas practically persuaded many brilliant scientists to ignore the non-coding DNA when researching the complex mechanisms behind genetic regulatory networks, gene expression pathways, spliceosomes, bio clocks, etc. Then lately scientists are talking about the functionality associated with at least some parts of that so-called "junk" DNA. \nAnother huge scientific hickup -Oops! Shame on that kind of pseudo-science. What a waste of precious time that could have been used to move the research ahead. \nSo much for the benefits of macro-evolutionary concepts taken at face value as a dogma. \nTrue science should not convert speculation into dogma or doctrine. \nThat degrades the beautiful value of science. \n
Avatar of: kenny mosley

kenny mosley

Posts: 2

November 22, 2010

It is important to define two subsets of the term evolution: micro evolution and macro evolution. Micro evolution refers to the study of minor variations that occur in populations over time as observed in, for instance, the coloration of the peppered moth, beaks of Galapagos finches (Darwin?s observation), and selective animal and plant breeding. Macro evolution is the study of the origin of major innovations. These are new organs, structures (e.g., fish scales evolving into feathers), or body plans. Darwin?s natural selection acting on random variation is a valid concept accounting for micro evolution (e.g., drought-resistant wheat, hip dysplasia in dogs, a shorter race of men resulting from the taller men being lost to the gene pool because of war deaths).\ndoes bark off work\nbark off reviews\nmoobs exercise \n\n\n
Avatar of: Fred Pauser

Fred Pauser

Posts: 1

November 23, 2010

I am a layman who has studied on my own the evolution of the cosmos and the evolution of life, which have become the foundation of my outlook on life. I am alarmed at the notion that people may be granted doctorate degrees in biology-related fields without an adequate understanding of the Theory of Evolution, which is fundamental to understanding who and what we are, our deeper identity. \n\nIgorance is mirrored even in certain comments to this article. One states that evolution is controvesial. The basics of the T of E are supported by overwhelming mountains of evidence and are well accepted without controversy by real scientists. (Scientists do indeed argue about many of the cutting edge details, but that's a normal part of the process of expanding our knowledge.)\n\nAnother commenter makes a distinction between so-called micro and macro evolution. Macro evolution (speciation) occurs as a result of a build up of many small (micro) changes (due to mutations, etc). Both are of the very same process of variations acted upon by natural selection. (If I'm not mistaken, the terms "micro" and "macro" are not even used by evolutionary biologists. Those terms come from the pseudoscience of Creationism.)\n\nYes, the Theory of Evolution must be included for anyone striving for a degree in a biology-related field!

November 24, 2010

the teaching of Darwinism in our schools appears to be one of the main reasons many scientists ignored the part of the DNA that does not code for protein, causing a costly delay in the important research of the epigenetic mechanisms.\nWe need scientists who are open-minded and deep thinkers. \nScientific discussions should use scientific terms.\nToo much time is wasted on references to Darwinism which don't provide any tangible benefit to serious scientific research. Take both Darwinism and intelligent design out of the basic science curriculum and move them to elective subjects.\nScience should stick to what it is.\n
Avatar of: Steven Pace

Steven Pace

Posts: 22

November 25, 2010

Back when people thought that all animals that ever lived, still live, they needed Darwin's simple model to bring them out of such ridiculous ignorance, but the using of evolution as a creed DID and still does narrow thinking, and delay useful research, particularly epigentics, as was noted earlier. My intuition told me that genetic evolution was not the whole story, but those aetheasists that needed Darwinism as an alternative religion, they were blinded to this glaring reality. The basics of evolution are absolutely necessary, but they can be learned by age 9.
Avatar of: simon waters

simon waters

Posts: 7

December 3, 2010

Evolution should be learned early: during a Ph.D. is too late (although better than never). \n\nThe underlying principle of the Theory of Evolution, namely Natural Selection on random variation (as demonstrated by artificial selection of engineered variation in the laboratory), should be taught in high school biology. \n\nCreationism should also be mentioned, if only to illustrate its absurdity in the light of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.\n\nKnowledge of a multitude of phyla is not required, only the recognition that many phyla exist, and that all the evidence points to their existence as a consequence of evolution driven by the process of Natural Selection on random variations.\n\nComments on the comments:\n?ridiculous ignorance? is not a valid criticism of science: it is a necessary precursor of knowledge and understanding while better answers are identified by enquiry: ?junk DNA? was a perfectly good moniker for the stuff the nature and function of which was yet to be elucidated, no ?shame? at all. Blind alleys (?huge scientific hiccup?) are an inevitable consequence of enquiry: until the blind end is found, or an alternative route, they have to be explored and damn the inefficiency.\n

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