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Darwin’s Legacy: 4 Topics for Your Science Curriculum

Stephen Eldridge, TeachHUB

Darwin's Legacy: 4 Topics for Your Science CurriculumThe name Charles Darwin will forever by synonymous with the theory of evolution.

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.

1. Taxonomy

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.

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2. Conservation

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.

One of the insights of evolution is the idea that genetic diversity—the amount of different genetic material in any population—can help a species survive. When a group has a lot of genetic material, it’s more resilient to threats. For example, when a disease infects the members of the group, it’s more likely some will be resistant. Those members of the group survive, and so the group evolves. With low genetic variation, it’s more likely that a whole group could fall victim to the same threat and go 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.

3. Agricultural Science

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.

For example, suppose an important crop is vulnerable to a disease. Finding other plants that are evolutionarily related can help you breed new varieties that are resistant to disease. Evolution is a framework for looking at the history of organisms, and that history can give you insights that can change the future.

Human Evolution

4. Medicine

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.

Will you be talking about Darwin in your classes this week? Let us know in the comments!

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