International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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FRIDAY, JULY 10  /  09:00 - 10:30  /  DS-M240
Individual papers
Understanding Evolution: Pedagogy and Popularization

Visual representation of evolution in sixth grade free and nation-wide Mexican textbooks

David Akle (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico); Erica Torrens (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico, Mexico)

Interest in the role and influence of evolutionary ideas outside scientific circles has pushed the frontiers of social studies of science into the pedagogical ambit. In the field of Scientific Imaging and Visualisation, a growing interest in the role and nature of images in the teaching process and concept understanding has brought to attention the social dimension and implications of scientific images and visual knowledge in the classroom. However, studies of the introduction of evolutionary theory in the classroom in Mexico and the role of images in knowledge production are scant. The aim of this paper is to highlight aspects related to the social dimension of some of the scientific images used in the evolution chapter in the free, nation-wide textbook for sixth grade. Mexican sixth grade students who are enrolled in primary schools get a free textbook which is sometimes the only pedagogical material they use. Basic schooling is based on these textbooks and therefore may be qualified as the repository of teaching material available to students (and some teachers) across the nation. The creation and distribution of the textbooks is relegated by the Public Education Secretariat (SEP) to the National Free Textbook Commission (CONALITEG) and should be subject to scrutiny since it is material to be used for long periods of time. Merging the interest of the social dimension and implications of scientific imagery and the pedagogical connotation of using nation-wide free textbooks is the motivation of this study. Biology has been taught around evolutionary theories and cannot be understood without them. The production and delivery of these pedagogical materials as well as the imagery used to represent evolution in the textbooks used by sixth grade mexican students should be analysed in the context of social studies of science.

Public understanding of biotechnology in the age of evo-devo

Ramsey Affifi (University of Toronto, Canada)

Since the commercialization of transgenic organisms in food production in the late 1990s, the debate surrounding the potential health and environmental impacts of GMOs has featured prominently in the media. However, the issue has become very polarized with both sides presenting partial and distorted conceptions of the behaviour of genes in organisms. Anti-GMO activists highlight the interconnectedness of the genome, emphasized through gene networks as well as phenomena such as pleiotropy and epistasis. From this perspective, the genome appears to be an integrated and well-orchestrated ecosystem of untold complexity and adaptedness and any intervention likely deleterious for reasons we are not expected to necessarily anticipate or immediately detect. On the other hand, biotech's most vocal proponents often fail to discuss genomic integration entirely, presenting the genetic code as though it were, by and large, composed of completely segregable Mendelian factors, programmed to produce predictable and reliable phenotypic outcomes. The understanding of the relationship between modularity and evolvability currently emerging in Evo-Devo (Gerhart and Kirschner, 1997; West-Eberhart, 2003; etc.) is revealing a more complex and nuanced picture of the relationship between the genotype and the phenotype that sees modularity and integration as complementary aspects of biological systems. In this paper, I will highlight the implications of this emerging understanding for our assessment of the potential safety, risks, and prospects of transgenic technologies. When scientific fields such as genetics become increasingly specialized, communicating a comprehensible description of current understanding to the public requires simplification. In practice, this means foregrounding certain details while deemphasizing others, taking on gruesome caricatures on either side of the GMO-debate. This raises difficult questions on the political, ethical and pedagogical factors involved with public education.

Characterizations of modularity: An evo-devo approach to transitions of individuality

Maria Rebolleda Gomez** (University of Minnesota, United States)

Modularity is an abstract concept referring to a unit of interacting components characterized by a relative high number of internal interactions and a relative low number of interactions with other similar units. I will argue that—as an abstract concept—modularity allows us to understand general patterns and translate between disciplines. But that we also want to understand and describe the biological world at multiple spatial and temporal scales; that we care about particularities of these systems because they are the result of different evolutionary histories and ecological needs. Thus, if we also want to be able to describe this heterogeneity, we will require multiple particular descriptions of modules characterized by the type and strength of their interactions. In this paper, I argue for the productive value of the coexistence between an abstract definition of modularity and a multiplicity of particular characterizations defined by the questions, the biological phenomena of interest and scientific practices involved. I argue that this pluralism provides insight into transitions in individuality and provides a way to translate between two different research programs: one interested mainly in the description of particular transitions of individuality and their developmental machinery (e.g. the evolution of metazoans) and a second one interested in a more general model of the evolution of individuality.