When many Americans think of the theory of evolution, images of apes, fossils and dinosaurs come to mind. Others think of the abuses associated with the concept of social Darwinism and the term "survival of the fittest."
The Evolution Institute, co-founded by the Humanists of Florida Association, intends to change that kind of simple thinking. It wants to be known as the first think tank to use evolutionary science to solve real-world problems. Leaders want reasonable people to see evolution in a positive light and understand its importance in our lives. Further, they want us to put the theory to work when we deal with issues such as governance, education, health, peace and all other public policy issues relevant to human welfare.
Many people, including those who accept the theory of evolution, will be surprised to learn that the institute uses evolutionary scholarship to answer questions in areas as familiar as early childhood development and learning, risky adolescent behavior and bullying.
Scholars with the Evolution Institute, known as EI, go beyond typical in-school disciplinary actions and judicial practices to get to the root of why, for example, middle school students are disruptive, why adolescent boys fight, sometimes to the death, over girls, and why so many kids experiment with drugs and alcohol.
In an essay for the current issue of the Florida Humanist Journal, Meredith Small, a trained primate behaviorist and a professor of anthropology at Cornell University, writes that the evolutionary view of teens' behavior is more than theory. It involves "understanding ancient human history, genetics, and biology along with the influence of upbringing, environment, and culture on the thought processes, decisions, and behaviors of our adolescents."
Currently focused on how biology and culture influence parenting styles, Small said that what our culture sees as adolescent "risky behavior" might be behavior that is in synch with the evolutionary needs and goals for humans in this age group.
"Parents and society think of the teen years as an aberration along the way to adulthood, but this stage actually serves many evolutionary purposes," Small said. "Given the long human life history, adolescence is the necessary staging ground from which little humans begin to navigate their own relationships. It also is the time during the life cycle in which the human animal matures sexually. Humans are designed to pass on genes — as all organisms are — and they begin to do that during the adolescent years as the brain is reorganizing, the body is becoming reproductively active, and young adults are building social networks for themselves."
EI scholars produce research showing that the adolescent brain is unique and undergoes profound changes. "The adolescent brain is not a child's brain, and it's not an adult brain, either," she said. "That's how evolution has designed the system."
The results of such research can be seen in how enlightened judges and legislators are beginning to view adolescents who commit violent crimes or who are present when violent crimes are committed. Science shows that as adolescents grow older, they change, many maturing into different people altogether.
Florida lawmakers are considering a bill, the Second Chance for Children in Prison Act, that would be less punitive. The U.S. Supreme Court is examining whether life in prison for juveniles is cruel and unusual punishment. The court already banned the death penalty for juveniles.
"From where we stand in adulthood, teens also seem short-sighted — oblivious of the long-term consequences of their behavior," Small writes. "They take recreational drugs, abuse alcohol, and act in impulsive ways that land them in trouble, jail, or dead. They are inordinately victims of accident, violent acts, unplanned pregnancy, socially transmitted sexual diseases, and homicide.
"But it's not mindless or risky behavior. From the teen's point of view, risky behavior often makes sense in terms of status, attention from the opposite sex, or belonging. And it appears that teens are not as fearless as they appear. Evolutionarily based research shows that teens are just more motivated than adults to take risks in spite of their growing fears of the world. They apparently focus more on the benefits of their behavior rather than the risks."
I think the time has come to earnestly consider evolutionary science to solve real-world problems. Too many of the old methods and conventional ways of thinking have been inadequate, often just plain wrongheaded. The institute has co-sponsored successful workshops with the University of Miami, the University of Arizona and Duke University.
Evolutionary approaches to various issues, such as adolescent behavior and middle school students, will be discussed at the Humanists conference, April 30 through May 2, Holiday Inn Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. For more information, contact info@FloridaHumanist.org.