Evolution is not just a concept in a biology textbook: it can be applied to law, marketing, psychology and more. And the students pursuing evolutionary studies at Binghamton University want their peers to be informed.
The Evolutionary Studies Student Association (EVoS SA) is composed of undergraduates whose mission statement is to promote an “evolutionary way of thinking.” According to member Ben Seitz, a junior majoring in evolutionary studies, that’s not limited to the sciences.
“Fundamentally, evolution is the study of change,” he said. “If you break it down, you start to realize that there are only a handful of patterns that items follow in their evolution. Once you start to recognize those patterns, you can apply them to practically everything. You could even look at the evolution of Coke branding. Obviously, the way Coke brands itself is different than how it did in 1945. And there’s a reason for that.”
To pique students’ interest in the subject, the group recently conducted a survey of 100 BU students’ knowledge in the subject matter. The questions ranged from “how important is religion or faith in your worldview?” to “all people are descendants of one man and one woman — Adam and Eve,” and according to EVoS SA founder Rafi Schulman, it provided an interesting perspective to how students think.
“This is a modern university; we do all types of research,” said Schulman, a senior majoring in evolutionary studies. “But there are also cultural groups. Everyone’s coming from a different religious background. So even though we all acknowledge that science explains where we come from, we wanted to get a picture of what people really think happened. Do they really believe in evolution?”
The survey also used questions from the National Institute for Science Education and juxtaposed BU responses with national averages, as well as those from students in 400-level evolutionary studies seminars. One of these questions asked if “the only reliable way to know for certain about what happened in the past is to have a reliable historic record written by someone who was an eyewitness,” which is scientifically false.
“We found the majority of Binghamton students said false, but also quite a few were not sure,” Seitz said. “We found the same thing in ‘does evolution have actual factual evidence to support it?’ Only 51 percent of Binghamton students were able to correctly identify that answer. It’s not all that encouraging; we were a little disappointed by that.”
Having this context of evolutionary knowledge is helpful not just for its technical applications, but for the “tool kit” of information it offers those who study it, Schulman said.
“It adds a lot to whatever program you’re studying,” he said. “It transforms biology. Psychology has totally changed in light of what evolution has brought to the table. We think any scholar, in any area of study, should have some background in the subject. Having these conversations and gaining this evolutionary perspective would make them a better scientist, a better theorist or whatever they want to do.”
To promote this, the EVoS program offers a range of interdisciplinary seminars that bring speakers to discuss their take on how evolution functions. Schulman said the ways it can manifest might surprise some students.
“Last week it was a lawyer talking about free speech, and how legal conceptions of it have changed and why they’ve changed,” he said.
On a more personal level, Seitz and Schulman said the EVoS SA was also focusing on bringing a more personal touch to the program, which could boil down to grabbing nachos with a renowned evolutionary studies professor at a Downtown bar.
“There aren’t that many places in the world where there are people explicitly saying that this is a subject worth exploring,” Schulman said. “It’s a really casual setting, but it’s at least for some people the ideal version of what college or academia can be.”