Planning a short evolution course for naturalists

I’d appreciate some opinions on an evolution for naturalists course I want to teach, please.

Background: Each year I help to teach a California Naturalist certification course, and there are several similar courses in my area, meaning I know many certificated naturalists trained under similar curricula. I have heard from a few of them that while evolution is touched on very briefly in the naturalist training, many students come out of these courses with little more understanding of evolution than they went in with, and many had never learned about evolution in detail.

I therefore have the impression that a significant percentage of naturalists could benefit from a quick introductory evolution course. I’ve taught evolution at the university level, so am considering offering a short online Evolution for Naturalists course this springs.

Questions for you Naturalists:
In considering and planning this course, I’d appreciate hearing some opinions from the assembled naturalists. To what extent does evolution inform your thinking about nature or being a naturalist, and what aspects of evolutionary understanding do you employ? Are there topics in evolution you’d like to understand better, or would like to see our fellow naturalists understand better? Are you, or have you encountered, a naturalist who rejects the idea of evolution entirely or in part for religious or political reasons? (Please note that I ask this so I can better think about planning a course. Please do not take it as an opportunity for futile debate about the scientific evidence for evolution, nor as disrespect for anyone’s religion.) Which misconceptions about evolution do you think naturalists most often suffer from? What might I have failed to consider, or what other thoughts do you have? Thankfully.


I met a teacher who hated evolutionists, she taught plant biochemistry.

I think more focus can be on how non-linear it is, something that breaks what school teaches you about getting more complex or just better. To point more often there’s no intention in the process, don’t use phrases that make it seem as if specimens or species make decisions on what they become.


Good points, thank you. Intention, direction, and teleology are all on my list of misconceptions about evolution to address. Explanations of adaptive functions are often phrased as teleology (this exists because it does that), or intention (the organisms want to achieve this goal, and so adopt these characteristics) which really misleads many people.


Convergent evolution and mimicry are both important to appreciating and recognizing similar animals.

It always helps to have concrete examples. Here’s a talk that discusses evolution of Penstemon species (hope the link works)


Adaptationist fallacy is also pretty common - I don’t know that it’s a huge problem per se, but the assumption that pretty much everything is an adaptation does grate on me!


Understanding the differences between science and philosophy are critical, especially if you’re addressing people who reject mainstream science or religion.

I am not, but I know a lot of people that fall all along this spectrum, and I’ve had a relatively thorough education in both religion and science. Knowing how to have good conversations is going to be highly dependent on the situation, but generally it starts with knowing how people think about things and who/what they trust. So going back to my first bit, you need to have a conversation about philosophy before you can discuss science. Start with some common ground, and always be ready to listen.


I was raised very christian religious and i held to 6 day creation through high school due to it. Uni changed that tone…I was on the policy debate team in highschool; and in college i actually met a professor who broke down my arguments (and i was starting to question the whole christian religion thing too for other reasons) so uhm theres my experience. Before that professor, no one could refute my points so I assumed I was right. I cant even remember details of debate points that was so long ago; honestly it almost feels embarrassing to admit as i was a very different person back then. But just like…to point out, i think if someone is itching for debate; offer to do it outside of class. If they are willing to debate outside of public class - so not as trying to showboat in class - they prolly have secret doubts and want convinced of things - this is just my observations of self and friends as ofc in that era all my friends were also uber christian. So if you want, take that chance!

As to what to include, yeah convergent evolution i dont think is talked near enough about so i second that. I also agree with the comment about how not all linear for better…in my general school experience its all It Diverges for Betterment All the Time!! Also, Probably poor teaching / understanding of it in middle school and high school contributed to no one knowing how to answer my questions or refute my points, so it wasnt until first yr undergrad i ran into someone who actually understood evolution to explain & quip back. So I think the idea of a course for naturalists there would be excellent for all these reasons.


It certainly is. I like to teach this by having students try to come up with adaptive explanations for differences in leaf shape among a bunch of trees in the same habitat. It usually dawns on them pretty fast that there is no reason every detail of leaf shape has to be an adaptation.

Being able to examine and change one’s ideas is at the heart of intellectual maturity, and should be central to science. It is something to be proud of.


Thank you :pleading_face:
Usually when i admit such, people just get wary of me. Especially other scientists.

But not everyone had same upbringing or opportunities. I like the saying “We do what we know, until we learn better, then we do better” :relieved: and this day in age, with so much knowledge shared far and wide, so many experiences to learn from from stories shared, once outside grip of such things in a safe place to learn, theres no excuse for not self improving.


In Germany we suffer currently from RSV. Many kids are very ill and have to go to the hospital. It’s awful. Despite experts say the immune system is not a muscle that has to be trained with heavy infections, many people have, what I would call a pseudo-darwinistic viewpoint of the immune system. Here, many people think that the immune system gets weaker, when I does not get in contact with heavy infections. I believe that this potential “myth” has its roots during the Nazi regime. Are there similar pseudo-darwinistic myths associated out there ?

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When naturalists talk about evolution, they often accidentally imply some sort of intent. Species x evolved y to better deal with z. While many people may recognize this as an oversimplification for the sake of explaining a general concept, some new naturalists may not realize that evolution doesn’t work with intent. Similarly, there is no “end goal” or “pinnacle” of evolution.

I think it’s important to have some concept of evolutionary understanding for conservation reasons:

  1. Extinctions are a big deal. Yes, species have gone extinct since the dawn of life, but evolution is a slow, slow process. If we want to maintain biodiversity, we need an extinction rate similar to our speciation rate. On average, 150-200 species go extinct every day. We do not have 150-200 new species every day.
  2. Genetic diversity within populations is important. Genetic diversity is hard to recover once lost. Natural selection only works if there are diverse traits to “select” from (air quotes added because I’m contradicting my first point about implying intent).
  3. There is not a hard line between species. The species concept is an organizational tool created by humans for humans. Too often conservation focuses on #1 of this list instead of #2, and I think our species concept is largely to blame. I’m not saying the species concept isn’t useful, simply that we need to actually acknowledge and teach it for what it is.

Additionally, while you can memorize the basic organizational structure of taxonomy with no knowledge of evolution, evolutionary understanding does make your concept of that structure more interesting/informed.

My parents both work in applied science fields and neither believe in evolution, or at least not in the same sense that I do. I’ve found that they are more willing to accept concepts if I sub words like “evolved” for “adapted”. This may butt heads with:

but my point is, using something other than their “trigger word” can help them consider the concept rather than dismissing it flat out.

You are not alone. I had a very similar experience.


I don’t see any issue with using “adapted” as a substitution for “evolved” - I do this all the time for the same reasons. I think it’s a good gateway to understanding evolution (though I do try to avoid adaptationist fallacy by stating that not everything is an adaptation/an adaptation is just a hypothesis without evidence).

And understanding evolution isn’t an all-or-nothing thing either - someone understanding that adaptation can and does occur (even if they don’t accept evolution as a process generating all current life) is better than totally rejecting adaptation and large-scale evolution. There are lots of good applications/outcomes of accepting/understanding adaptation as a current process on it’s own - understanding how organisms can/cannot adapt to climate change and other approaches to conservation are some, but there are many more!


An extraordinary convergent evolution


I think @pfau_tarleton has a great comment about evolution here, in another topic. Maybe worth including genetic drift too, where genes change randomly over time, without apparent selective pressure?

Regarding folks who may be offended by mainstream science, maybe it’s worth stating a preamble like, “I’ll be presenting an overview evolution as understood by mainstream science. For the sake of time, if you would like to discuss alternative theories, please discuss them with me after this course…” or something of that sort.

I think it’s worth considering that maybe folks who are passionate(?) about alternative facts are doing so as a community and identity function for inclusion with their family/friends/community, more than genuinely reaching those conclusions through logical inquiry.

Therefore, I think it may not be worth trying to debate the topic when you’re just trying to give everyone a thorough enough overview of evolution and debating it is unlikely to change the “skeptic’s” views. Someone who is genuinely open-minded would probably want to discuss it afterward, so I think that response leaves the door open.

Elliott’s post about the wasp-like moth reminded me of this video about cowbirds: True Facts: Parasitic Birds (warning: language).


I can tell you, I was raised the same way. For me, the transformation came from having had to read peer reviewed materials, and then trying to find any creationist materials that were written to that standard. Once you know what scientific writing looks like, you know polemic isn’t it.

As to what would most benefit naturalists’ understanding of evolution, I would say that the most important points are, in fact, the ones that led Darwin to formulate the idea in the first place:

  1. Every organism produces more seeds or offspring than will actually survive to adulthood.

  2. There is variation among these seeds or offspring.

  3. Traits are passed down from one generation to the next.

  4. In each generation the survivors succeed - that is, they survive - because they possess some advantage over the ones that don’t succeed, and because they survive, they will pass that advantage on to the next generation. Over time, therefore, the incidence of that trait will increase in the population.

As Barbara Kingsolver pointed out, “Most people have no idea that this, in total, is Darwin’s theory of


If they come to the lecture, they should be ready, so maybe it’s too much. I know people who are offended if you mention anything that doesn’t line up with Bible, they wouldn’t come to an event like that. It’s far easier to believe in such things if you just don’t know any true facts.

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And yet, I still sometimes wonder how some things make it past peer review xD

I don’t think I’d address it at all. If someone brings it up, wants to debate, or just tries to showboat, etc, (if willing) then say they are welcome to contact you outside of class but there is not time during class to discuss it. But I don’t think I would preamble with it; maybe if it was an in-person class a preamble would be worth it, but not for a (recorded?) online lecture format.

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This question looks strange. I assume you mean ‘form’ instead of ‘inform’.

The theory of evolution…is a collection of ideas which form a theory. I’ll name a reference as from the book - On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. They say the theory included a few ideas from Alfred Russel Wallace, such as in the articulation of those ideas. so they gave him credit for that. The book was revised a few times. I guess the main idea did not change much. They say there were some inaccuracies in the ideas of Pangenesis. and now they say sexual selection was part of natural selection and downgraded that a bit.
Gregor Mendel’s observations on green peas showed some implications on genetic inheritance of an organism’s traits. Since they say his work is important for science, so I’ll always have that into consideration on how organisms evolve. Not all organisms are the same so, it is one of the ways and not all.
There is the Modern synthesis theory, which I did not read what is the details. I only read On the Origin of Species from the public Library…
I’ve tried reading articles on the Double Helix of the DNA, and it is complex. That has clues of how life forms. but it is deep.
There are the viruses, which may or may not be a lifeform. But some scientists believe that viruses shaped other organisms, and there are traces of virus related materials in the DNA. so the evolution of organisms may include a virus factor.
However, to keep it simple, I’ll go with the original ideas of evolution. It is a topic which may be contentious. As it is said that there were fierce arguments in their scientific circle/ intellectual societies back in the day and that it was about the implications of religion and the implied origins of human beings.
btw, if you ever happen to discuss “Survival of the fittest” , do tell them what it really means. I mean what Darwin meant. This phrase is often misused or abused by people who don’t know evolution that well.
I’m not a scientist. Just the usual observer out there somewhere.

Not just animals but plants as well. An example for convergent evolution would be cacti and succulent euphorbias, which end up looking very similar due to adaptions for water storage and protection. Another one is tropical vs. our native pitcher plants in the US. Pitcher traps have evolved independently at least six times.

There are some great examples of mimicry in the plant kingdom as well, like hammer orchids with flowers that resemble female wasps in both form and smell (secreting pheromones) to lure male wasps into ‘mating’ with them and in the process pollinating the flowers. Just in general plant-pollinator and seed disperser interactions are a treasure trove for excellent examples of co-evolution.


Of course! Penstemon is one of the best examples for North American audiences. Slender, red flowers with glabrous staminodes when they are hummingbird and butterfly pollinated (P barbatus), slightly constricted pink and purple flowers and fuzzy staminodes for Osmia pollinated species (P secundiflorus), and enormous, rotund flowers in species like palmeri and cobaea for Bombus, Anthophora, and Xylocopa to enter. I could go on …