Why?

by James Morris

Over the summer, I read an article called “Teaching that Sticks” by Chip and Dan Heath. Why do some lessons stick and others don’t? The authors identify several characteristics that describe what they call “sticky teaching.” One of these is curiosity. If students are curious, they engage more and tend to remember what they learn years later.

The authors caution about jumping too quickly to the answer when teaching. We all want students to reach the “Aha!” moment, the Heaths explain. But they suggest that this only works if there is a “Huh?” moment that comes first, a time when students are confused, even puzzled. Out of this confusion, curiosity arises.

They refer to a behavioral economist named George Lowenstein, who writes that curiosity comes from what he calls “gaps” in what we know. According to Lowenstein, we feel these gaps when we watch sports and read mystery novels – in both cases, we are curious to see what happens, how it will end, or who did it.

So, I decided to apply this approach to my own teaching. I began a college-level class in evolution not with what we are covering or by going over what to expect, but instead by simply asking questions. No answers, just questions.

Why, for example, are organisms so different from one another, and, at the same time, so much the same? Think about it. Organisms differ in size, shape, color, behavior, where they get their energy from, how they move about (or if they can move about), how many legs they have (or whether they even have legs). But, they all share the same genetic material, the same amino acids, and the same proteins.

Why so different and so similar?

This lichen is a partnership between a fungus and an alga.

This lichen is a partnership between a fungus and an alga.

And, if natural selection is all about struggle and competition – Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw” – why do we find innumerable instances of cooperation in nature? Insects pollinate flowers, each deriving a benefit. A lichen is a partnership between a fungus and alga (which have taken a “lichen” to each other).

Closer to home, in the human body, bacteria outnumber our own cells by a factor of perhaps 10 to 1. This team of bacteria – our microbiome – is not causing disease, not just along for the ride, but essential to our health.

Our very cells harbor the remnants of what were once free-living bacteria, but now are small organelles inside of our cells called mitochondria that harness energy. This is quite an intimate partnership.

Cooperation occurs not just between two species, but also among individuals within a single species. Bees live in colonies where most of the females, the workers, forego reproduction. Some squirrels and monkeys sound alarm calls to warn of approaching danger, putting themselves in harm’s way. Vampire bats regurgitate blood to nest-mates. And, of course, humans, though known for horrible acts of violence, are also known for tremendous acts of self-sacrifice.

If natural selection is all about competition, where does cooperation and altruism come from?

And then consider this question. Look around the world and you will find many wonderful adaptations, such as desert plants that resist drying out, or lions adapted for tracking, hunting, and capturing prey, or the human eye with all of its intricate parts enabling us to see the world around us. But look around again and you will notice just the opposite. Many traits are harmful, like cancer or cystic fibrosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Why hasn’t natural selection rid us of diseases?

Then there are traits that, while not really beneficial or harmful, don’t really make any sense. Let’s look more closely at the eye (so to speak). The light sensitive tissue – the retina – is made up of three layers of cells: one that converts light energy into electrical energy, a second that passes the signal along, and a third that sends the signal to the brain.

You might expect that the light-sensitive layer would be up front, where the light comes in. That would make the most sense. What you would not expect is to have it at the back, far from the entering light. If that were the case, the light would have to pass through the other layers before reaching the light-sensitive layer. That would make little sense.

But that’s exactly the way it is: inside out. Why?

New species arise through the process of speciation, giving rise to the enormous diversity of species we see today. How, then, can we explain their disappearances?

Why do organisms go extinct?

And there are questions that we can take from the pages of the history of science. Most of us are familiar with theScreen Shot 2014-07-30 at 10.12.30 AM famous finches of the Galápagos Islands, now often referred to as Darwin’s finches. The finches are the very icon of evolution by natural selection. Each one has a beak adapted to the food it eats, whether it’s insects, or cactuses, or even – in the case of the Vampire Finch – blood!

If the finches are one of the best examples we have of evolution in action, we might expect them to figure prominently in Darwin’s famous work – On the Origin of Species. But there is no chapter or even section on the finches.

Why did Darwin leave out the finches?

And, finally, evolution is not just the stuff of museums or relegated to the pages of history – it’s an active field of research today and relevant to many of our most pressing problems. Evolution can help us understand the emergence (the evolution) of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, one of the most concerning public health problems of our day. It can help us in our efforts to conserve what’s left of the diversity of species on this planet. It is shedding light on our recent history and how human populations are related to one another.

But, poll after poll comes up with the same result: fewer than half of Americans “believe” in evolution.

If evolution is so widely relevant, why is it so widely rejected?

Why indeed. Perhaps you are a bit curious.

© James Morris and Science Whys, 2014

13 thoughts on “Why?

  1. Suzanne Siner

    I am a bit curious. This is wonderful- such clarity in the writing and what compelling questions. Keep them coming!

    Reply
  2. Stephen A. Geller

    Thoughtfully composed and great fun to read. Looking forward to answers in future editions (e.g. why didn’t Darwin mention the finches? Weren’t they integral to his conclusions?).
    Thank you.

    Reply
  3. Sarina Tcherepnin

    Great questions! Thank you for piquing my curiosity about the mysteries of life around us. Can’t wait to read more!

    Reply
  4. Daniel

    Great, thought-provoking article.
    I agree that curiosity comes from what he calls “gaps” in what we know. Perhaps I should read George Lowenstein’s work, but it seems that gaps may be necessary but not sufficient to ‘induce’ curiosity. Doesn’t one have to recognize the gap as something s/he wants to fill with knowledge? In other words, people may have gaps but not the interest or motivation to learn how, for example, the game ended.

    On a completely different note: discussing the human microbiome in terms of the ratio of the number of microbial cells to human cells makes it sound (to me) sensationalistic. Could you please provide a ratio in terms of relative total cell masses also? A half-pound (?) of microbes in a 150 pound person sounds very different…

    Reply
    1. James Morris Post author

      Hi Daniel,
      Great points. I agree – it’s not just gaps in knowledge; it’s the curiosity and motivation to want to fill them. We all know people who can’t wait to see the final score in a baseball game, for example, and others (with the same gap) who are far less interested, if at all.

      You are also right about how the human microbiome is often reported. Saying 10 microbes for every 1 human cell is accurate, but leaves out the point that bacteria are much smaller than human cells. As a result, by mass, the human microbiome sounds less impressive. I have heard that microbes make up 1-3% of the total mass of a human. So, for a 200 pound individual, that’s 2-6 pounds of bacteria. Regardless of the numbers, I think the surprise is the sheer number (or mass) of microbes that are in and on us, and the fact that these aren’t causing disease, but important for our health.

      Reply
  5. James Morris Post author

    Several people asked me for further reading. A link to the Heath article on sticky teaching can be found here. And I recently came across this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Steve Kolowich on the role of confusion in teaching.

    Reply
  6. Clare Keller

    I never wanted to sign up for a blog before, but you’ve caught me! As many have said, the writing is clear and engaging. The gap you filled for me, that I’ll no longer forget is how to pronounce “lichen.” Thank you!

    Reply
  7. Naman Patel

    In thinking about the gap, the question, and the curiosity that ensues I can’t help but recognize those instances in which curiosity prompts even more questions, and when this questioning becomes almost a problem. Not necessarily because the questions themselves are problematic, or that the questioning itself gets in the way of retaining what what can be retained, but because the known is then rendered infinitesimal relative to the sea of questions that can be surrounded around it. And this has been productive I think in making me realize that it is us, me, an ordinary human that must embark on journeys to answer these questions, and so in the past two years I have fallen in love with academia. Darwin has impressed upon scientific discourse, and therefore my very own thought structure, and I thank him for that. But I thank him more for (and I thank you for the texts you assigned us that grounded him as a hard working human and not a science deity) the fact that he did not fear his curiosity, that he did not shy away from those questions that would disrupt the very ways of knowing. And so those people in our lives, who create gaps and engender curiosity, are great for doing so but also I think become role models, because living on the margins of that comfortable space that contains the known seems mighty uncomfortable.

    Reply

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