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18 September 2006



Hmmm.... This issue came up a bit among some students in an undergrad course I had that focused exclusively on evolution theory. It seemed to be purely an artifact of The Way Science is Taught in American schools. It seems to me that grade, middle and high school science are taught in a very dry, facty way. A very few guys are introduced into this as Big Science Geniuses. Because they're the only people we* meet and get to know in the world of science, we become really attached to them as mostly naive students with no real knowledge of the fact that one of the great pleasures of science is all the freaking personalities in it. (Yes, it is my secret dream to write an _interesting_ auxiliary textbook for middle/high school kids.) So when we become aware that maybe there were other people in the world except these guys we're so attached to, it's kind of like a betrayal. A little lie. So we want to take them down a notch, overcontextualize? No one teaches us how to do that with science, so we either have our guy or we tear him down.

That's all I can think. I have no idea if this interpretation makes sense or not.

For my own part, I was totally pissed when I got to college and found out science was fascinating and full of weird stories. I had no idea in school -- only a vague sense left over from when I was a child and my mom dissected things with us.

*We kids of the American school system who may or may not (but probably don't) usually do a lot of science reading out of class


Gwenda, I think you're entirely right about this being related to how science is taught in schools. I have a feeling that my surprise here is mostly just a product of my having been in graduate school so long--I've gotten so used to thinking about this a certain way, I forget that it's not the way the undergraduates are going to be used to it. I think this perspective shift is another one of those things I'm learning this year.

Jackie M.

The thing is, I still feel comfortable applying the Big Genius of Science model to, say, Einstein -- even knowing that Mileva's unknown contributions to Albert's early work might be considerable, and even knowing that he couldn't proceed with General Relativity until other (smarter?) people had laid out the framework for the mathematics. It's just... such tricky work wrapping your brain around it fully, even when there's a textbook to guide you the whole way.


I find it really helpful, when I disagree with my students on something, to say: "It seems like a lot of people are having thus-and-such a reaction. Is that true? What do we think about that? Does anyone see it differently? If that does seem true to you, why?" Then, if four of them have already stated their opinion, you can say something and be one of many voices. Or ideally, one of them will make your point for you, and then you're back to the sound-engineer thing, expanding on what someone else has said.

David Moles

Hey, you should totally adopt Meghan's 5-4-3-2-1 approach!

Vance Maverick

I'm coming to this late, from the Teaching Carnival. I think Gwenda's answer points in the right direction. Darwin's contribution is not primarily a brilliant idea (though of course he had those!), but that he synthesized so many ideas, new, old, and current, into a strong whole. And picking up Gwenda's comment on "stories", I would highlight this achievement as an act of writing, of literature. This was an era when revolutionary acts of thought were effected by the composition of prose works on the scale of novels; vide Marx and Freud, and Darwin is another.

David Harmon

(r)Amen to both Gwenda and Vance.

Perhaps you could point out just how long some of those stray ideas had been kicking around, and the relevance of detailed observation. Also bring in some of the "false starts" such as Lamarck, and perhaps some of Aristotle's "incomplete" observations. (E.g., thinking hyenas were hermaphroditic shows he'd examined them externally, but not internally or behaviorally.) Sure, there were a lot of ideas floating around in Darwin's time -- but as usual, most of them were wrong! The important part isn't just *saying* something, but proving that the idea has merit.

Newton's crack about "standing on the shoulders of giants" also seems relevant....


David and Vance, welcome! Glad to see that people are coming over from the Teaching Carnival. I think I may have inadvertently misled y'all, though--it's not that I don't understand that Darwin's real accomplishment was in the synthesis, and it's not even that my students don't understand that. I was only trying to comment on the fact that my students seemed to find synthesis to be a much less impressive accomplishment than I was expecting. But it's given us a few weeks' worth of really interesting seminar discussions, in any event.

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Susan Marie Groppi

  • Susan Marie Groppi is a historian and an editor, currently living in Berkeley, California.


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