The Evolution Project

A very large percentage of the people living in America (I believe it’s about 53%) do not “believe” in evolution. That’s very frustrating to me. I can’t think of any other piece of knowledge I’ve acquired that rocked my world like understanding the laws of evolution did. Well, maybe when I discovered that girls were not just for throwing things at. I guess that rocked my world too. Anyway, evolution is such a mind blowingly powerful concept that it irks me to see how widely misunderstood it is. I chose the word misunderstood quite carefully there because I have to believe that the only way you can reject evolution as an explanation is if you don’t understand it.

Certainly among people I’ve spoken to personally, there’s some gaps in what people know about evolution. Now, people don’t say “Hey, I don’t believe in evolution because I’m ignorant”. Obviously at the top of the list of things that ignorant people don’t know is the very fact of their ignorance. What they say in practice when denying evolution is one of two things. They either object to the evolutionary connection between man and monkeys or they invoke creationism to explain biodiversity.

So, this has bugged me for a while. It’s hard to elaborate exactly why it bothers me, but it does. It might be the fact that the President of the USA can spout rubbish like:

Both sides ought to be properly taught . . . so people can understand what the debate is about.

That bugs me. There is no debate. You have scientists on one side with a theory that completely explains the observed fact of evolution. On the other side you have half baked nonsense. You can’t teach this rubbish in science class because, as has been repeatedly demonstrated, it’s not freaking science!

So rather than just railing against the stupidity of Intelligent Design (Creationism in a cheap tuxedo), I wondered what could actually be done about it. My immediate reaction when people don’t understand something is simply that they haven’t been taught about it, or didn’t understand the teaching they received. So this quite conveniently allows me to dovetail two ideas I’m passionate about; Evolution and Education.

The three requirements for evolution to occur are replication, mutation and selection. I think the selection part of the equation is very conceptually easy for people to understand. The biggest, strongest, fastest, fittest, etc. creature survives. Creatures that have a survival advantage are more likely to reproduce than creatures without the advantage (those without it are more likely to get killed). Replication and mutation require knowledge of some genetics. So I’ve been wondering whether there’s an elegant way to teach these concepts. The idea has percolating around in the darker recesses of my mind for a while. Then, recently, I saw an article about a Russian project to domesticate the Silver Fox. The article struck a chord with me and a few days later The Evolution Project was born.

I haven’t clarified all the details yet, but I have a basic skeleton for the concept. I’m sure smarter people than me can fill in the gaps. The main thrust of the idea is for kids to see evolution in action.

The project’s aim is to induce evolution. The goal is evolution on a macro scale, also known as speciation. We start out with a population of mice. These mice are tagged (RFID?) and have their details recorded in web accessible database. Once all the details are recorded, the mice are allowed to breed. It is important for record keeping purposes that males be separated from breeding age females so that lineage can be reliably tracked. The males are only in the proximity of the females specifically for reproductive purposes. It will also be important that only one male is placed with a given group of females until the females give birth. This way the paternity of all offspring can be guaranteed.

The project will specify some criteria to use for selecting which animals to use for breeding. My suggestion would be some combination of size, fertility and intelligence. So for every generation of offspring, the kids involved in the project will measure and test the mice with regard to the desired criteria. The data will be entered into the national database and the best specimens will be selected as the parents of the next generation. There may be some necessity for breeding stock to be moved around the country to keep the population robust. The mice may also be transported to make an ideal match between individuals from different locations.

This simplified version of the project will be enough for kids to get an understanding of the mechanics of heredity. There are some enhancements that I think would make the project more exciting and fruitful, but they introduce complexity and a need for outside assistance.

The main enhancement I thought of was to get someone like J. Craig Venter involved. I don’t know too much about Craig, but I do know that genomes are his thing. I was thinking that with Venter’s organization helping out, the kids could organize DNA samples of their mice and have the lab process these samples. Hopefully the lab could give the kids an “difference value” for each mouse. The DV would be an indication of how difference each individual mouse’s genome is from the population average. That would allow the kids to select for maximum difference and hopefully migrate the experimental population’s gene pool away from the original as quickly as possible. My knowledge is a little lacking here, I don’t know if this is achievable. I also don’t know what sort of impact the DV would have on the animal husbandry process. Maybe continually selecting for DV would lead to a population riddled with infirmities. I guess there’s only one way to find out.

Storing the information obtained from the DNA samples has another, less obvious benefit. The DNA samples could be correlated with the data about the observed traits of the mice they came from. This would result a large collection of DNA samples with descriptions about the physical traits that resulted from the DNA. Seemingly this data could be mined to learn more about how DNA affects physical traits.

That’s all for now, I’ll revise this as I think of more things to add.


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