By Teachers, For Teachers
But evolutionary biology isn’t the only area of science that’s been impacted by Darwin’s work. Evolutionary principles have revolutioned virtually every kind of life science. In honor of Darwin’s birthday (February 12th, 1809), here are four science topics for your classroom—and how each one has been transformed by Darwin’s pioneering work.
As most science teachers can tell you, the science of classifying different organisms was pioneered not by Darwin, but by Swedish physician Carl Linnaeus. Linnaeus’s fundamental ideas—creating a nested hierarchy of life-forms, establishing a consistent binomial naming convention, and organizing animals by physical relationships between them—are still in use today.
However, the science behind these organizations has been dramatically changed by Darwin’s insight that different species share common descent. Originally, taxonomists could only look at structural similarities and differences between organisms when deciding how to structure orders, families, and genera. But the principle of common descent has changed all that. A modern field of study called phylogenetics tries to determine how life forms are related to each other evolutionarily.
Using genetics, fossils, and descriptions of living animals, biologists try to understand how groups of animals are evolutionarily linked. Many taxonomists use this information to inform their classifications. A common sight today is a branching tree of life, where animals are grouped together not based on physical similarity, but by where they broke away from their nearest common ancestors.
As we learn more about the natural world, we also learn more about the ways we sometimes damage it. Darwin’s efforts to explain how Species arose are today helping us keep Species from going extinct.
Evolutionary theory also helps scientists predict how Species will respond to new threats—specifically those imposed by humans. Predicting how organisms react to new evolutionary pressures helps us figure out how best to keep them from going extinct.
As long as there has been agriculture, there have been people doing research and innovating technology to help better feed their societies. Yet, after thousands of years, we’re still coming up with amazing new insights into how to better raise crops and animals. And, as you might expect, many of the key insights of recent years depend on Darwin’s work.
Farmers have been selecting different crops for different traits since long before Gregor Mendel began studying heredity in pea plants. But Mendel’s principles of hereditary descent and Darwin’s evolutionary principles can help farmers fight diseases in their crops.
Speaking of disease resistance, humanity’s struggle to overcome the bacteria, viruses, and genetic disorders that quite literally plague us has been revolutionized by the science of evolution.
If you want to see natural selection in action, the spread of a disease is the place to look. Bacteria and viruses reproduce very quickly—and your body tries to kill them just as quickly. With every generation of new bacteria, new mutations are introduced. And as your body tries to destroy the invaders, some of those mutations are better at surviving than others. Add modern medicine into the mix, and you’re putting bacteria through a gauntlet where only the strongest survive. The result is that bacteria adapt and change quickly, becoming harder for our bodies and our drugs to kill.
Trying to keep up with bacteria as they mutate to become resistant to drugs is one of the evolutionary challenges facing doctors and scientists today. Another is dealing with quick-evolving viruses like HIV or different strains of influenza. The science of evolution helps us come up with our yearly flu shots, and understand how HIV can survive and spread despite our best efforts to destroy it. Every day, our health relies on Darwin’s insights.