Evolution Basics: A New Introductory Course on Evolutionary Biology

| By Dennis Venema on Letters to the Duchess

Regular readers of the BioLogos Forum will know that over the past few years I have written extensively on various evidences for evolution, often with a focus on genetics evidence. Other posts have focused on scientific arguments put forward from groups such as the Intelligent Design Movement (IDM), or the Old Earth Creationist organization Reasons to Believe (RTB), with a view to showing why I find those arguments unpersuasive. Often these articles are deeply technical—to the point where my friends (perhaps on Facebook, perhaps in a conversation over coffee in the church foyer on Sunday) would comment that, as interesting as it looked, it was just over their heads. Now, these friends are intelligent people, and some are even interested in evolution—but they’re not folks who read extensively on the topic. Nor do they follow the IDM or RTB—they’re just average folks who would like to learn more, but need to start at the beginning and work up slowly – not jump in halfway through, with technical terms and jargon flying around. They need a context for the discussion. They need to explore the basics,  first, before building on that understanding to explore the finer details.

So, I’ve decided to try a slightly different approach for the next while—one that has these sorts of folks in mind. From time to time, you can still expect those more in-depth, technical articles, or perhaps a discussion of some new research that makes the popular press, or even an analysis of some new argument from the IDM or RTB. These will be breaks from the new routine, however. For the most part, we’re going to stick to the basics, much like you would if you took an introductory evolution course at a university. Don’t worry, though: this course doesn’t have any prerequisites! All that’s needed is a willingness to learn.

What you can expect

The goal of this course is straightforward: to provide evangelical Christians with a step-by-step introduction to the science of evolutionary biology.  This will provide benefits beyond just the joy of learning more about God’s wonderful creation. An understanding of the basic science of evolution is of great benefit for reflecting on its theological implications, since this reflection can then be done from a scientifically-informed perspective. From time to time we might comment briefly on some issues of theological interest (and suggest resources for those looking to explore those issues further), but for the most part, we’re going to focus on the science. For folks interested in the interaction between science and Christianity, I heartily recommend Ted Davis’ recent series as a fabulous introduction to the topic.

You can also expect a slow, patient pace. Since this course is intended for folks with little or no background in biology, we’re going to take our time to make sure no one gets left behind. This might be frustrating to folks who already know a fair bit about evolution. Hopefully even more knowledgeable readers will learn some new and interesting details along the way—but the goal will primarily be to help folks who are less well versed in evolution increase their understanding.

You can also expect a survey of many different areas that have some bearing on evolution. We’ll examine geology, paleontology, biogeography, genetics, and a host of other topics in order to provide a “big picture” overview. This broad-brush approach means that any given individual post will not necessarily be “convincing” to folks who have doubts about evolution. Think about assembling a large jigsaw puzzle: placing any individual piece, on its own, doesn’t convincingly demonstrate what the overall picture will show. This course will be like that. Each topic we cover will put a few pieces in place here and there, slowly building towards the final overall picture.

Since evolution is an active science, this process will also highlight where there are “missing pieces” that are still being sought by scientists. All of this is well and good, since the purpose of this course is not so much toconvince anyone of the validity of evolutionary theory, but rather to inform readers about the nature and scope of evolution as a scientific theory in the present day. My goal is to provide readers with a basic understanding of what evolution is and how it works. Given that as the primary goal, if one finds the scope of the evidence ultimately convincing (or not) is somewhat beside the point. The intent here is to provide readers with information they can use to make their own, informed decision.

How you can help

First and foremost, you can help by spreading the word about this series to folks you think would be interested in learning more about evolution in a non-threatening environment. Secondly, you can help me by asking questions in the comments. One of the challenges of being a specialist is having the ability to put oneself in the shoes of someone just starting out. What might seem obvious to me may not seem obvious to you, and I hope you’ll feel that no question is too basic or too simplistic. If you’re wondering about something, it’s almost guaranteed that other folks are, too! So, please don’t be shy. I’ll do my best to answer questions in the comments, though I hope that some of our more skilled commenters will (respectfully!) help out here, as well. Finally, you can help by letting me know what broader areas of evolution you find confusing. I have my own ideas about what areas of evolution are commonly misunderstood, but I’d love to hear from readers about what areas they find difficult to understand. I’ll use this input to shape the topics I will cover as we go forward.

Getting started

In the next post in this course, we’ll dive into the course content by introducing two key areas: how scientific theories work in general, and how evolution in particular works as the current organizing theory of modern biology. 


About the Author

Dennis Venema

Dennis Venema is professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia and Fellow of Biology for BioLogos. He holds a B.Sc. (with Honors) from the University of British Columbia (1996), and received his Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in 2003. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signaling using the common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism. Dennis is a gifted thinker and writer on matters of science and faith, but also an award-winning biology teacher—he won the 2008 College Biology Teaching Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers. He and his family enjoy numerous outdoor activities that the Canadian Pacific coast region has to offer.