BEACON Researchers at Work: Making evolution personal

Laura Crothers

This week’s BEACON Researchers at Work blog post is by University of Texas graduate student Laura Crothers.

I used to have a little sticker in my office that said I evolution. “You can’t love evolution,” my co-worker once told me, “it’s just a thing that happens. That would be like loving time or something.” Fair enough. But the fact of the matter is that from the moment I first learned about evolution as a kid, I was hooked. Evolution is pretty mind-blowing. For example, your family is one 3.8 billion-year long unbroken line that extends back to everybody’s first grandparent, a single cell born in a primordial pond. This means your cousins include the seaweed wrapped around those sushi rolls we love to eat (contrary to popular belief, seaweed isn’t a plant) and the 2-3 lbs of bacteria that live in your intestines. And by looking through the lens of evolution, we can understand so many patterns in the world, ranging from explanations for why I get a stomachache when I drink milk while you might not, to where the weird dog breed known as the Chihuahua came from.

As many have written, the theory of evolution by natural selection is elegant in a way that few ideas are. It assumes very little, and explains so much. It can be neatly summarized. The world is a difficult place to live in, with disease, limited resources, and stiff competition. Members of a species are each a little different from one another, and some of these differences come from random mistakes in the gene copying process that goes on during growth and reproduction. If an individual inherits traits that help it survive and reproduce a little better than others in the population it can pass these traits onto its children, and over time, the makeup of the population (and the species) can change.

But over 150 years after Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace first introduced their theory, public acceptance of evolution remains frustratingly low. This is despite the fact that the most common religious denominations in the U.S. have no quarrel with evolution. So when I’m not at my day job studying color pattern evolution in poison dart frogs, I am developing ways to teach evolution to people in interactive, fun, and personally relevant ways.

Evolution can be counterintuitive

Problematically, evolution is both a simple theory and one that goes against some of our natural intuitions. First of all, it is exceptionally difficult to think about time scales in the millions and billions of years (but it’s still fun to try. Check out this excellent comic for some mind-blowing facts like “the T-Rex [lived] closer in time to seeing a Justin Bieber concert than seeing a live Stegosaurus.”).

Second, we tend to make sense of the world using an intuitive framework for thinking that leads us to believe that evolution is purposeful, that species are stable and their members all alike, or that creatures seem too complex to have been produced by such a messy, iterative process as evolution by natural selection.

Finally, many of us haven’t been taught about evolution in a way that is particularly interesting or personally relevant. It is a great injustice to teach such an awesome idea, considered by many to be the pinnacle of human thought, using only the dry, overly simplistic facts that we have been hearing since middle school and high school.

To this effect, I am involved in two projects dedicated to teaching the public about evolution. These projects are based on two observations: people like learning about evolution when it’s presented in ways that are personally relevant, and people like to hear about surprising natural history facts and evolutionary relationships.

Evolution impacts our lives in countless ways

A screenshot from a virtual tour of the “Evolution & You” exhibit. You can watch a short video of the virtual tour here.

A screenshot from a virtual tour of the “Evolution & You” exhibit. You can watch a short video of the virtual tour here.

The first project, a collaboration between UT Austin’s Texas Natural Science Center, several BEACON researchers, and the MSU Museum, has been the creation of a museum exhibit showcasing the many ways that evolution impacts our lives. You can check out a virtual tour of it here. Some questions we tackle in the exhibit include:

Why can some of us drink milk with no side effects while others’ digestive systems go into revolt after the mere sip of a milkshake?  {answer}

How is evolution to blame for why you can choke while you’re eating? {answer}

Where do flu virus strains get their names {answer}, and what was the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic like {answer}?

How can evolution experiments let us predict the ocean ecosystems of the future? {answer}


Addressing Some of the Harder Points About Evolution

A screenshot of the Clickademic! game.

A screenshot of the Clickademic! game.

Turning a fairly abstract concept like evolution into a tactile experience is not always easy. So to address some common misconceptions about the theory I’ve been working with other BEACON researchers to create two touchscreen games. One, called Clickademic! (put together by Dr. Tom Hladish), lets people see how pathogens like viruses and bacteria can drive the evolution of the creatures they infect.

A part of the tutorial for the Tree Thinking game.

A part of the tutorial for the Tree Thinking game.

The other, called Tree Thinking, which I’m working on with Ammon Thompson and a digital design company, lets
players create evolutionary trees using the information encoded in DNA. The game teaches several important but commonly misunderstood points about evolution while also feeding people’s curiosity about natural history. A few points we are trying to drive home with the game include:

1) Contemporary species are cousins of each other. For example, chimpanzees are not the ancestors of humans. Instead, we share a common ancestor (your greatx550,000 grandparent, give or take a few thousand generations), who lived about 6 million years ago and happened to be an ape.

2) Scientists use DNA to infer evolutionary relationships, and physical appearance alone can sometimes mislead us into thinking an animal fits into a certain spot on the evolutionary tree of life when it doesn’t. For example, the coelacanth is a fish, but it is more closely related to you than it is to a tuna.

3) As with wolves, Chihuahuas, and Great Danes, members of a species can have impressively variable physical appearances and DNA.

4) Finally, evolutionary trees can be used to solve problems, ranging from identifying new sources for cancer-fighting drugs, to finding the culprits in criminal investigations, to informing vaccine developers of the best virus strains to package in next year’s flu vaccines.

These projects are all a work in progress, but it is our hope that through them we might get everyone to have a “whoa, that’s crazy” moment and stoke the embers of curiosity in both young scientists-to-be and old scientists-at-heart.

For more information about Laura’s work, you can contact her at crothers at utexas dot edu.

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