Real dope on human evolution

July 24, 2008

Subtitle this one, “DBQs in prehistory, paleontology, and anthropology.”

Younger son James complained yesterday about . . . well, about stuff he wasn’t taught. His questions to me were about what was available in the history textbooks on the great advances in science in the 20th century.

Very little is available, really. What had set him off was his summer reading where he’s been introduced, for the first time, to particle physics of the past 30 years. History texts may mention Einstein’s letter to FDR which started the Manhattan project. An outstanding history and science student in a U.S. high school can pass through the experience without ever learning what Einstein’s equation, E=mc², actually means, or how it pertains to his letter to Roosevelt, or when and how Einstein came up with it, how Einstein’s papers changed physics, how Einstein’s ideas were tested, how Einstein’s pacifism and Jewish heritage drove him to the U.S., and so on. Great advances in particle physics, or even in practical applications like CAT scans and PET scans, have fallen out of the books and out of the curriculum. 21st century medicine, but 20th century science texts and 19th century history texts. It’s the David-Bartonization of American education.

The stuff wasn’t covered in his AP physics or AP chemistry classes (what’s up with that?!), nor were most of the great discoveries even mentioned in any of the AP history courses.

No wonder the head of the Texas State Board of Education knows so little about science. Cue the country/western version of the story, “Been dumb as a stump so long it looks like genius to me.”** Plus, this makes it clear why the versions of curricula the SBOE head favors must be resisted.

Texas standards and national standards in history ask that students be familiar with American inventions and innovation. In reality that translates to Eli Whitney and the cotton engine, because it’s a key factor in the rise of plantation economics in the South prior to the Civil War; maybe some mention of water-powered looms; Edison and the light bulb; Ford and the assembly line; and maybe a mention of radio or television, usually with regard to the effects on culture. I know a teacher who has a great unit for Texas history on barbed wire and the Colt .45. World history mentions James Watt and the steam engine.* The Wright brothers and the airplane get a couple of sentences. Humans going to the Moon gets a few sentences, but not as much as Sputnik, because, well because Sputnik scared the bejeebers out of some of the people who yelled loudest at Texas and Florida textbook meetings, I imagine.

I’m not going to fix all of that, not right now. It’s a subject that deserves more time in the cooker, I think.

But I’m also working on plans for this next year. Pre-history human migrations, geological development of the planet — and last night I discovered a group hitting the Bathtub for information about humans and evolution. Sheesh! Another place where the history and science texts short the glorious science, where a student is more likely to be struck by lightning waiting for the bus than to get decent coverage of human evolution in the classroom. (Hey. Do you know a teacher who covers human evolution well in any subject? Put it in comments, below — I want to congratulate her, or him. I also want to steal the lesson plans.)

Here’s a quick fix, using some seminal documents that are perfectly classroom usable: Go to the Nature magazine website, and specifically look for the section, “focus on human origins.” If your administrators aren’t fully versed on No Child Left Behind, you can claim these as “research-based” (they are purely research-based; the law asks that our pedagogical methods be research-based, though, not the content, and that’s impossible; most of what we do in the classroom is tradition-based unsupported by any significant research, and federal laws and state regulations generally require the opposite of what the research says . . . don’t get me started). But I digress.

Nature is one of the premier science journals, a peer-reviewed or juried journal that is the prime place for key research findings to be published (along with Science, the other science journal giant). Most of their material is hidden away on the internet, held in proprietary sites available to scientists whose research institutions spring for expensive subscriptions (no, these journals are generally NOT available through the databases most high schools and non-research colleges purchase). Much of the best research of the last century is unavailable to high school teachers or students. This is true of chemistry, physics, biology and geology. The textbooks tend to obfuscate and cover the stuff up — or in the case of particle physics, ignore the field.

Several years ago Nature pulled about a dozen of the seminal papers in human evolution studies out of their vaults, making them available for free. These papers include some of the real classics:

Frankly, I wouldn’t expect to see these in a real DBQ in anything except, perhaps, human geography — but I can dream, can’t I? You can certainly create outstanding DBQ exercises with exerpts from these and a few other sources. Or you can simply use these complete papers in your classes. Except for a select few debate students at the upper echelons of competitiveness, real research papers fall out of the curriculum, and it’s a shame.

There is drama in these papers. Some of them shake the Earth, but in coolly scientific words. Ironically, the papers are not written so technically that they are beyond the ken of most high school readers. These papers are real history, real science, and our students deserve to read them.

Nature deserves our thanks for making these papers available. I wish other seminal papers were available, from Nature, and from other science and history research journals. Students would benefit from reading real history about the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the development of public health to fight tuberculosis. Students could mightily use to read about physics, biology, meteorology, geology, and other sciences upon which we rely to save the human race.

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* James Rowland of Woodlands High School in the Conroe Independent School District led a group of us teachers in an exercise last week at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, asking the question about who invented the steam engine and when. With six different AP or advanced world history texts, we came up with eight different answers, including two different years given for Watt’s work.

** Yes, from Richard Fariña’s 1966 novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me (finished two days before his fatal motorcycle accident), and the song (pay no attention to the Lee Hazelwood-Nancy Sinatra song, but remember the Doors’s version is probably unsuitable for classroom use).

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