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Student Handout #1

Natural Selection Unit

Welcome to the Natural Selection Unit. Hopefully, you will find this unit both challenging and motivating. Over the next nine weeks, we will be struggling with some of the most conceptually rich and powerful ideas in the biological sciences. The payoff for this hard work will be a deep understanding of the types of reasoning biologists use to make sense of the diversity of life of earth.

Evolutionary biologists study patterns that emerge when one looks closely at the different types of organisms on earth (bacteria, protists, fungi, plants, and animals) and the ways that they interact with each other and their environments. For example, close observation has revealed that there is a moth species and a cactus species so dependent on one another for survival that the cactus is pollinated only by that single species of moth and the moth lays eggs only on that single species of cactus. Evolutionary biology involves trying to comprehend how a pattern like this might have developed and how it may be similar to other relationships between species that we see in nature.

To help you understand how scientists reason to address biological questions from an evolutionary perspective, you will have the opportunity to work on a variety of realistic problems. Unlike "textbook" problems, the problems you encounter in this unit will be complex and have multiple possible solutions. You will be responsible for studying these problems in small groups and presenting your solutions to your classmates. Both group problem solving and the public presentation of explanations are important aspects of working in a scientific community. The success of these activities (which make up a large part of the class) is dependent on everyone's participation and thoughtful questioning of each other's ideas. This class is all about making sense out of what we know, a process that requires people to continually question each other's understanding in constructive ways.

To understand evolutionary biology as a scientific way of knowing about the world, we will closely examine the ways that we come to know things more generally. We each have a lifetime of experiences and beliefs that help us make sense of the daily situations in which we find ourselves. However, we are rarely challenged to consider carefully how we know what we know. Is our knowledge something that we have learned from many different experiences in the real world (like how to cross a street without getting hurt) or is it something that we have taken on authority because we don't have any direct experience with those phenomena (like the idea that all matter is made of atoms)? Examining our knowledge is a difficult and highly intellectual activity. It will require you to justify statements that you make with specific arguments and to learn to question the statements of others to clarify what assumptions have gone into their thinking. A large portion of the unit will be devoted to practicing these skills in the context of constructing and critiquing scientific arguments. Although the primary focus during this unit will be to help you understand the nature of evolutionary biology and science more generally, these important skills will help you both in your other courses and in the decisions you make on a daily basis now and in the future.

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