Evolution: It's about us

Evolution provides "captivating opportunities for students to see that evolution is relevant to them," according to Briana Pobiner, paleoanthropologist and educator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

As a scholar of human evolution, I’m biased in thinking that our own evolutionary history is the most compelling example of evolution that teachers can draw on to engage students in learning about evolution—and counter common misconceptions.

In a time when there is so much division in our societies, the chronicle of human evolution can be the ultimate unifying narrative.

The drama of our species' near-extinction less than 100,000 years ago and the extinction of all other close evolutionary relatives of ours except for our own species? It astonishes and intrigues students. The fossil and archaeological evidence for complex behaviors in our evolutionary ancestors and cousins such as sharing food, caring for the sick, injured, and elderly, and sophisticated symbolic communication—often dating back millions of years ago? They personalize the past. Teaching future doctors or dietitians? Talk about the evolution of malarial resistance or lactose tolerance. Teaching athletes? Talk about the evolution of running. Teaching in a rural area? Talk about agricultural practices. Teaching in the mountains? Talk about high-altitude adaptation. These are just a few of the entry points that provide captivating opportunities for students to see that evolution is relevant to them.

Finally, in a time when there is so much division in our societies, the chronicle of human evolution can be the ultimate unifying narrative. We are all modern humans: we are all the same species. We are all descended from a population of people who lived in Africa around 300,000 years ago. We are all astoundingly genetically similar: on average, you are 99.9% genetically similar to any other person on Earth today, even though there are more than 7 billion of us. Chimpanzees (our closest evolutionary relatives) from different populations in central Africa living in relatively close proximity are substantially more different genetically than modern humans living on different continents, even though there are only a few hundred thousand of them left. Many outward aspects of our physical diversity, such as the beautiful continuum in shades of human skin color, evolved incredibly recently compared to the deep history of human unity—and do not separate modern humans into “racial” categories.

Evolution: it’s enthralling and empowering. Evolution: it’s real, it’s how we came to be, and it’s still happening. Evolution: it’s the grandest story of humanity.

Briana Pobiner
Short Bio

Briana Pobiner is a paleoanthropologist and educator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. She conducts research on the evolution of human diet and on how to most effectively communicate human evolution in both formal and informal learning environments.

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