09/01/2008 12:08 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

EvoS: Coming Soon to a College Near You

A funny thing happened to evolutionary theory on its way to transforming the study of life--the study of humanity got left out. Even though it was obvious to everyone in Darwin's day that, if true, his theory would revolutionize our conception of ourselves, by the early 20th century it was restricted to biology and avoided for most human-related subjects. Of course subjects such as physical anthropology and human genetics are based on evolution, but your average professor in cultural anthropology, psychology, economics, political science, sociology, literature, history, religion, music, and art history probably got their PhD without taking a single course in evolution or having the E-word mentioned in their classes--except perhaps as a caution about how not to think.

The reasons for this intellectual apartheid are complex and well worth the attention of social historians. In part it was because evolution became associated with political ideologies that justified social inequality. Those who opposed the ideologies tended to avoid the theory rather than challenging the connection. Another factor was the allure of reductionistic theories such as behaviorism and rational choice theory. Who cares about evolution if we can explain the length and breadth of human behavior on the basis of minimalistic principles such as operant conditioning or utility maximization?

That is now changing. Like water from a burst dam, evolutionary theory is spilling beyond biology to include all things human. A time line will illustrate the recency of events. Biologists are fond of reciting the mantra "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution," which was coined by the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky in 1973. Two years later, Edward O. Wilson published his magisterial Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which illustrated what Dobzhansky was talking about. Wilson was showing that the social behaviors of all creatures, from ants to primates, could be explained on the basis of the same evolutionary principles. His book was hailed as a momentous achievement except for the last chapter on humans, which ignited a storm of controversy. Only 33 years ago, the apartheid was still firmly in place.

It wasn't until the 1990's that terms such as evolutionary psychology, evolutionary anthropology, and evolutionary economics began to be used. Even then they exuded the smell of scandal. It wasn't until the dawn of the 21st century that nascent fields such as Literary Darwinism and Evolutionary Religious Studies began to prove themselves. In short, the apartheid has only broken down during the last ten or fifteen years.

A few years ago I decided to document the dawn of the new era by analyzing a single scientific journal titled Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS). Scientists love to quantify everything, including the impact of their journals, and BBS has one of the highest impact factors of any human-related journal. Articles submitted to BBS are subjected to a grueling review process and only the very best are accepted. If you publish an article in BBS, you have arrived. I examined the articles published during the period 2000-2004 and discovered that over 30% were written from an evolutionary perspective. Similar articles are appearing weekly in other top journals such as Science, Nature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The bottom line: studying humanity from an evolutionary perspective is not future science, or fringe science (as often portrayed) but has already arrived.

Then I sent a survey to the authors of those BBS articles asking when they became trained in evolutionary theory. I discovered that most of them received no formal training in college or graduate school and picked up their knowledge on their own. Worse, they estimated that the situation is not much better for the average college student studying a human-related subject today than it was for them.

In short, what is already happening at the level of scientific research is not yet reflected in higher education, where evolution is still being taught primarily as a biological subject . Five years ago, I and my colleagues decided to comprehensively solve this problem at Binghamton University. We created EvoS (for Evolutionary Studies and pronounced as one word), the first campus-wide program that teaches evolution as a theory that applies to humanity just as much as the rest of life. The results have been wonderfully gratifying, as I relate in my book Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin's Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives.

Now, like a single cell dividing into 2, 4, 8, EvoS is beginning to replicate. The first blessed event took place in 2006, when my colleagues Glenn Geher and Jennifer Waldo initiated a version of EvoS at SUNY New Paltz. Interest is so great that the National Science Foundation just funded the three of us to create a nationwide consortium of EvoS programs, spanning the full range from major research universities to community colleges.

Once higher education starts to reflect contemporary research, public opinion will not be far behind. Teaching evolution in relation to human affairs is a game changer, as they say in politics. What previously seemed threatening or irrelevant becomes a new positive worldview for understanding and addressing one's most important concerns. College students love EvoS for just this reason. I fully expect evolutionary theory to spill out of the Ivory Tower into everyday life, just as it is spilling out of biology into the study of humanity and out of research into higher education. The EvoS consortium will make it happen sooner rather than later. Consider joining us if you are associated with a college and tell your college-associated friends to check us out. I mean it when I say that EvoS will be coming soon to a college near you!