Ruminations from the Executive Director
DOES TWS NEED A POLICY STATEMENT ON EVOLUTION?

As a rational, science-based organization that touts the use of science in wildlife management and conservation, it is a bit surprising that The Wildlife Society (TWS) has never taken an official position on evolution.  Perhaps it’s time we do.  

Evolution is not just about dinosaurs and fossils, or about the extinction of one creature and the rise of another. Indeed, evolutionary theory is the fundamental basis for all of modern biology. It is testable using the scientific method, has strong predictive value, and is therefore highly relevant to our contemporary lives. In medicine, for example, why do those pesky disease-causing bacteria so quickly become resistant to antibiotics? Why do contemporary humans have so many problems with obesity given today’s carbohydrate and sugar-based diets, and why do we experience frequent problems with our necks, backs, knees and ankles? Why is sickle cell anemia so prevalent in people of African and Mediterranean descent, but not others? Such medical issues can only be fully understood and addressed in an evolutionary context.  

Similarly, an understanding of modern wildlife management and conservation cannot occur in the absence of knowledge about evolutionary biology. For example, when considering conservation strategies, how large does a population have to be to maintain its viability, and what units of conservation (i.e., species or subspecies) are important for us to maintain in order to conserve biodiversity?

What about ecological context?  For conservation to be successful, it is important to consider the habitat in which species have evolved and the unique adaptations that various animals have developed to allow them to survive and reproduce in particular ecological contexts. It is important to know, for example, if a species is a generalist or a specialist. Specialists are often more difficult to conserve because they have very specific ecological requirements and cannot survive in their absence.  

Examples abound in the natural world. Australia’s koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus) could not survive without eucalyptus trees, nor could the thorny devil (Moloch horridus)—a unique Australian lizard—survive without ants, as the lizards are dietary specialists that consume nothing but ants. In North America, freshwater mussels cannot survive without the host fish that carry their larvae during development. Some mussels have even evolved mantles that resemble swimming fish. These attract the host fish, so that the larvae can be dispersed and attach to the fish’s gills. As the host fish go, so do the mussels.

It is equally important to know a species’ life history strategy when considering approaches to wildlife management and conservation. Are we dealing with an animal that has many offspring but invests little in each, or is it one that has few offspring but invests a great deal in each? The latter can often pose more difficult conservation challenges as a consistent failure to reproduce can have significant population impacts. Similarly, harvest strategies would be much different for black bears than for more fecund mallard ducks.  And how do hunting practices, as a form of artificial selection, influence species? If only large animals are consistently taken, as in trophy hunting, then this could potentially result in a loss of average size in the population over the long term.

So, other than the fact that an understanding of evolutionary theory is critical to the practice of wildlife management and conservation, why should TWS consider having a policy on evolution?  First, more than 70 other scientific societies have resolved that the theory of evolution is the only current scientific explanation for the diversity of life on Earth, and therefore support its inclusion in the science curricula of public schools.  One of these is TWS’ sister society and neighbor, the American Fisheries Society. In 2008, AFS resolved that:

•    “The body of knowledge encompassed by the theory of evolution is the foundation and unifying principle of the biological and ecological sciences and is supported by a vast body of interdisciplinary evidence;

•    The theory of evolution satisfies the scientific criteria of being understood through scientific scrutiny, revision, and evaluation through testable hypotheses; and

•     The lack of scientific foundation or scientifically testable structure of faith-based doctrines make them improper for inclusion in scientific curricula.”

AFS concluded that it would oppose any policy “that would allow the teaching of creationism, intelligent design, or other political or faith-based doctrines in public school science classes ….”

Second, TWS Council recently allowed our organization’s logo and name to be displayed on Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia’s completely revised topical volume, Evolution.  Grzimek’s 18-volume set is one of the most comprehensive and frequently used overviews of the entire animal kingdom, and the new volume on evolution includes articles on the relevance of evolutionary theory to contemporary medicine, agriculture, and conservation.  After reading about Grzimek’s Evolution in the Spring 2011 issue of The Wildlife Professional, TWS member Roger Applegate wrote, “The presence of the TWS logo on this book is a source of great pride to me and should be for all members. The facts of evolution are critical to wildlife management and conservation practices, and the limited understanding of these concepts continues to create challenges in the management of our wildlife resources.”

Perhaps by taking a formal stance on this issue, TWS could add its voice and help to become part of the solution.  One does have to wonder about the failure of the U.S. educational system to provide a basic understanding of the biological sciences, especially at a time when we are facing unprecedented environmental challenges.  A 2008 Gallup poll conducted in 34 nations showed that more than 80 percent of adults in Europe accepted the concept of evolution while only 14 percent of U.S. adults thought that evolution was “definitely true,” and one-third firmly rejected the idea.  In fact, the U.S. ranked next to last in the percentage of people who believed in evolution, ranking only above Turkey, a Muslim country.  Does our nation really aspire to remain in the camp of those who reject evolution? I hope not, and I believe The Wildlife Society can and should help change some minds.

References

Anon. 2008. Resolution of the American Fisheries Society concerning the teaching of alternatives to evolution. Fisheries 33(3): 134.

Hutchins, M., V. Geist, and E. Pianka (eds.). 2011. Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia, Evolution. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, Inc.

 Jackson, J. 2008. The debate over teaching evolution in public schools: Background of the American Fisheries Society resolution concerning the teaching of alternatives to evolution. Fisheries 33(3): 135-139.

Owen, J. 2010. Evolution less accepted in U.S. than in other Western countries, study finds. National Geographic  News.Com., Thursday, October 28, 2010
 
The Wildlife Society | 5410 Grosvenor Lane, Suite 200 | Bethesda MD 20814-2144| Phone: (301) 897-9770 | Fax: (301) 530-2471