The National Center for Science Education proclaims “Science education is constantly evolving!”. Leading evolution education researcher, Deborah Kelemen, runs the Evolving Minds project for teaching evolution in elementary school. Educators across disciplines and around the world routinely describe the ‘evolution’ of their own and their students’ understanding of concepts or issues. What all of these examples have in common is the invocation of a concept of evolution by well-educated educators and scientists, many of whom are charged with advancing the public understanding of evolution, without engaging students in explicit clarification about what this use of the concept actually means in the context of human cognition and culture. This article explores the relationship between the scientific and vernacular use of the evolution concept as it relates to individual and social learning processes. We argue that the systematic exploration of learning as an evolutionary process, and evolution as a learning process holds untapped educational potential, a potential that is hampered by systemic conceptual biases among mainstream evolution educators.


The discussion in evolution education science


If you are a teacher and want to use the best available evidence to improve your teaching of evolution science, you will likely turn to the significant academic research into evolution education. Evolution education research, as with the teaching of evolution in general education, falls decidedly within the domain of biology education, rather than reflecting the interdisciplinary nature of evolution science in the 21st century. So for this reason, if you turn to the literature on teaching evolution you will most often find guidance suggesting that the term evolution is used in popular discourse in ways that are different from the scientific (by which it is meant, biological) use of the concept. Therefore, it follows, the job of the biology educator is, in essence, to help students understand that this vernacular usage is not ‘real’ evolution and instead only biological evolution counts as evolution (see e.g. Van Dijk & Reydon 2010). At a surface level, this logic is reasonable. Students do often hold a range of misconceptions in relation to the standard gene-centric model of biological evolution, and the popular use of ‘evolution’ is very often quite divorced from any scientific conceptualization of the term.

We want to argue here, however, that this surface level logic breaks down if we reflect on the current state of evolution as an interdisciplinary science, and the kinds of conceptual understandings that might be of greatest value for our students. As we have outlined in depth elsewhere (Hanisch & Eirdosh 2020a,b), the gene-centric account of evolution that is at the foundation of evolution education globally is not adequate for understanding the complexities of human evolution, and carries with it a set of cognitive challenges that may be reinforcing the persistent obstacles to evolution understanding and acceptance that have plagued our field for far too long. Instead, a view of evolution centered on the complex systems that drive changes in the frequency of traits within populations provides a far more scientifically adequate model and has the advantage of connecting with the intuitive and cultural conceptions of evolution in potentially helpful ways.


Evolving a new understanding of evolution


If we can accept this trait-centered definition of evolution, we can begin to make conceptual sense of the notion that “Science education is constantly evolving!”, the neuro-cognitive implications of “Evolving Minds”, and what it means for one’s thoughts to have ‘evolved’ on an issue. Indeed, while each of these uses of evolution is intended in the colloquial sense, there are emerging, scientifically grounded conceptualizations of cognitive and cultural evolution that could support deeper learning about the core principles that make evolution the unifying interdisciplinary science that it is. This idea is not new and dates back to the earliest engagement of Darwin’s ideas by psychologists and educators (see Popp 2012; Rosenbaum 2014).

In the 1950’s behavioral scientist B.F. Skinner used this parallel between evolution and learning as a foundational principle for understanding behavior across species:

[O]perant reinforcement resembles the natural selection of evolutionary theory. Just as genetic characteristics which arise as mutations are selected or discarded by their consequences, so novel forms of behavior are selected or discarded through reinforcement. (Skinner, 1953,  p. 430)

In the 21st century, there has been a rise of both conceptual clarification and empirical work to better understand the interesting parallels between processes of evolution and learning.

Cultural evolution scientist Pete Richerson explains that:

Organic evolution updates the gene frequencies of populations based upon the fitness of alleles. Learning updates behavioral priors based upon the reinforcement of alternate behaviors. (Richerson 2019)

Evolutionists Richard Watson and Eörs Szathmáry further elaborate an intuitive deeper equivalence between processes of evolution and learning:

Reusing behaviours that have been successful in the past (reinforcement learning) is intuitively similar to the way selection increases the proportion of fit phenotypes in a population. In fact, evolutionary processes and simple learning processes are formally equivalent. (Watson & Szathmáry 2016)

Neurocognitive researcher David Rosenbaum describes that it is the transferability of evolution concepts across these domains which makes evolutionary theory so powerful:

The evolution of ideas, whether represented by words appearing in print or by neural firing patterns of individual brains, can be studied profitably in selectionist terms. Being able to analyze data of seemingly different kinds in the same general terms is the hallmark of a good theory. (Rosenbaum 2014, p.260)

Contextual behavioral scientist Jean-Louis Monestès maps the analogy in this way:

The consequences of behavior become the causes of its subsequent occurrence, in the same way as an organism’s adaptation to its current environment sets its capacity to reproduce and transmit its genetic and epigenetic organization. . . For behaviors, the reinforcement process corresponds to the survival criterion in natural selection. Depending on their consequences, behaviors differentially reproduce, that is, their future probability varies, much as the genetic pool of an organism is transmitted to the next generation through the number of offspring it breeds [and] the ongoing act‐in‐context can be selected, and can “reproduce” (can be repeated), provided that the context retains enough common characteristics with the initial context in which behavior first occurred and was reinforced. (Monestès, 2015, p. 101, 102)

All of the scientists quoted above are coming at their studies of the human condition from significantly different angles, employing different methods, and synthesizing at least partially divergent literatures, yet all come to the conclusion that there exists a deeper conceptual structure that unifies our understanding of the evolutionary processes of organismal populations and the neuro-cognitive populations of our individual minds.

We have broken down some of these core concepts and their transferability across genetic, cognitive, and cultural evolution in Table 1 below.


Concept, Process, Principle Genetic Evolution Cognitive-Behavioral Evolution (Learning) Cultural Evolution
What is the relevant level of analysis? Populations of organisms in an ecosystem Populations of concepts, mental models, and behaviors in an individual Populations of individuals and groups exchanging information
How is variation of traits caused? mutation, recombination mistakes, recombination of prior learning, trial-and error learning, reactions to new environments, creativity, social learning mistakes, recombination of ideas, trial-and error learning, reactions to new environments, creativity, between-group social learning
How does selection of traits occur higher chances of survival and reproduction selective attention, emotional strength, relation to prior learning, practical consequences higher chances of survival and reproduction (natural selection); greater reward, appeal or attractiveness of the trait (cultural selection)
How are traits inherited, transmitted, or retained? biological reproduction, mitosis/meiosis encoding into long-term memory for later retrieval social learning / imitation, teaching; technologies and infrastructure that endure


Critically, we are not suggesting the popular vernacular use of the evolution concept is always or even often accurate or scientifically adequate. Most often, in our experience, when individuals engage in the untutored use of “evolution”, they frequently do not have the conceptual toolkit to expand the analysis beyond a vague notion of “progress”. Biology educators have long noted this folk evolution understanding, but the remedy in biology education is then to emphasize to students that in evolution there is no such thing as “progress” or goals towards which biological change is moving. There is a justifiable logic here as there truly is no pre-ordained ladder of progress on which all organisms are climbing. That much is true but this emphasis in biology education misses a deeper point about the current state of evolution science and the nature of human learning.

At the level of evolution science, the intentionality of agents can motivate behaviors that shape selection pressures on populations around intentional goals (see Hanisch & Eirdosh 2020c). This is clearly the case in the domestication processes of agricultural systems, and can also be transferred to selection of valued behaviors within individuals and groups (Atkins, Wilson, & Hayes 2019). In these evolving systems, there are clear criteria for progress towards valued outcomes, as commonly reflected in the vernacular use of the evolution concept. Thus, rather than broadly instructing students that evolutionary processes are universal without direction, it may be more profitable and accurate to give them the conceptual tools to disentangle the blind and intentional processes within evolving populations at multiple levels of organization. From this view, popular usage of evolutionary language needs to be enriched and reflected upon in a scientific context rather than blindly refuted on the terms of an idealized gene-centric model of biological evolution.


Evolving the future of evolution education


The NCSE proclaims that “Science education is constantly evolving!”. We agree but would suggest that evolution education specialists go deeper into this claim to understand the complex structure of blind vs. intentional variation and selection processes at work in shaping our field at multiple levels of socio-cultural organization. The mere fact that science education is evolving does not necessarily imply it is evolving in valued directions. Even when we feel we are making progress as a subfield within education, if we do not have a view of the broader landscape of education and evolution science as a whole, we may be climbing the wrong mountain (Eirdosh & Hanisch 2020). Just as there can be natural selection for bad science (Smaldino & McElreath 2015), so also there can be natural selection of bad science education.

Evolution educators and education researchers, just like many people around the world, commonly invoke the vernacular concept of “evolution” to describe change. Unlike most others, however, these evolution specialists are then also in positions of power to evaluate and even grade the conceptual understanding of individual students in the realm of evolutionary change. As currently structured, modern evolution education is not well situated to engage with 21st-century scientific perspectives that carefully analyze the utility of evolutionary concepts beyond the classic domain of biological populations. This blind spot in our field is not simply depriving students of access to a fascinating modern scientific discussion, it may be driving deeper conceptual challenges as students attempt to reconcile their intuitive understanding of evolutionary change with the narrowly gene-centric models they are being drilled on.

We are not suggesting that all vernacular usage of the concept of evolution should be blindly accepted, but rather that the field of evolution education should engage within 21st-century science to help students carefully reflect on how the core concepts of evolution do or do not transfer across a wide diversity of contexts. Doing so may support not just a stronger understanding of biological evolution, but also of the processes of change driving the emergence and spread of new ideas, new cultural norms, new behaviors, and new understandings of the world that might move us closer to the world we wish to see.

Read the entire Evolution Education series:

  1. Evolution Education Without Borders: A Collection of Essays on Teaching Evolution as an Interdisciplinary Science
  2. Finding Purpose in Evolution Education
  3. It’s Time to Fix Evolution’s Public Relations Problem
  4. Evolving Minds: Learning as Evolution, Evolution as Learning
  5. Education is an Evolutionary Science. Why Don’t We Teach It That Way?
  6. Transfer of Learning in Evolution Understanding: A Challenge Not Just For Students
  7. Elinor’s Classroom: Developing a Connected Concept of the Commons for 21st Century Civic Education


Eirdosh, D. & Hanisch, S. (2020) Evolution education is climbing the wrong mountain – let’s change course! Nature Partner Journals Science of Learning Community.

Hanisch, S., & Eirdosh, D. (2020a). Conceptual clarification of evolution as an interdisciplinary science. EdArXiv.

Hanisch, S., & Eirdosh, D. (2020b). Educational potential of teaching evolution as an interdisciplinary science. EdArXiv.

Hanisch, S., & Eirdosh, D. (2020c). Causal mapping as a teaching tool for reflecting on causation in human evolution. EdArXiv.

Monestès, J.-L. (2015). A Functional Place for Language in Evolution. In R. D. Zettle, S. C. Hayes, D. Barnes-Holmes, & A. Biglan (Eds.), The Wiley Handbook of Contextual Behavioral Science (pp. 100–114). Wiley & Sons.

Popp, J. A. (2012). Evolution’s First Philosopher: John Dewey and the Continuity of Nature. SUNY Press.

Richerson, P. J. (2019). An integrated Bayesian theory of phenotypic flexibility. Behavioural Processes161, 54-64.

Rosenbaum, D. A. (2014). It’s a Jungle in There: How Competition and Cooperation in the Brain Shape the Mind. Oxford University Press.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and Human Behavior. New York, USA: Macmillan

Smaldino, P. E., & McElreath, R. (2016). The natural selection of bad science. Royal Society Open Science3(9), 160384.

van Dijk, E. M., & Reydon, T. A. (2010). A conceptual analysis of evolutionary theory for teacher education. Science & Education19(6-8), 655-677.

Watson, R. A., & Szathmáry, E. (2016). How can evolution learn?. Trends in Ecology & Evolution31(2), 147-157.