Teaching resource

Darwin today: ideas for discussion topics and video links

From:
BBSRC
Published:

Use these topic ideas and videos to help students discuss the continuing importance of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection in research today. To be used with the Darwin Today articles.

Evolution and society (article pages 1 to 6)

Watch the Darwin Today Podcast 1 on YouTube

Suggested discussion topic

What has evolution got to do with society?

Humans affecting other species (article pages 7 to 14)

The human species, Homo sapiens, has been incredibly successful and colonised much of the earth, from the freezing tundra to the tropical rainforests and the searing desert. But what has this meant for the other species we share this planet with, and in turn what does that mean for us? This topic explores some of the research that is trying to answer these, and other, questions.

Watch the Darwin Today Podcast 2 on YouTube.

Suggested discussion topics

Can extinction be a good thing? Do unstable environments create niches for new species to evolve and therefore encourage new diversity?

Does it matter which species become extinct? Hawaii, aptly named as the extinction capital of the world, has lost half of its 140 recorded native bird species. But does this really matter? Many would argue yes, as any reduction in genetic diversity is likely to weaken ecosystems and deplete the natural resources available to us. However, a big dilemma facing conservationists is whether people should prioritise their efforts towards protecting certain key species or try to protect all biodiversity on an equal footing.

How has global warming influenced evolution in the past? We know that stable environments tend to provide fewer opportunities for new species to emerge. Fossil evidence from past extinctions show that the disappearance of some species created a niche for new species to flourish.

A recent discovery has rewritten our understanding of how we evolved on this planet. New research suggests that the ancestors of all mammals on Earth diversified as a result of global warming. It contradicts the previously accepted theory that a mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago prompted the rapid rise of the mammals that we see today. The research team worked for over a decade to compile a ‘tree of life’ from existing fossil records and new molecular analyses. Andy Purvis from Imperial College London explained:

“Our research has shown that for the first 10 or 15 million years after the dinosaurs were wiped out, present day mammals kept a very low profile, while other types of mammals were running the show. It looks like a later bout of global warming may have kick-started today’s diversity, not the death of the dinosaurs.”

Directed evolution (article page 15)

Like natural selection, in which the fittest individuals pass on their genes, so scientists are using artificial selection to direct evolution.

For millennia humankind has bred animals and plants to suit our needs, from corn and carnations to pigs and pit-bulls. Modern molecular biology techniques have allowed this principle to be taken forward. Now scientists can evolve individual genes in the lab to suit a particular task.

Suggested discussion topics

What are the moral implications of this technology?

Is directing evolution playing God?

Evolution of resistance (article page 16)

Often compared to the Cold War arms race, the evolution of competing organisms is a constant struggle for supremacy. Pathogens must constantly adapt to overcome their hosts and hosts must constantly change to resist the onslaught of diseases. This topic explores how resistance has evolved and is evolving today.

Suggested discussion topics

What happens when we run out of antibiotics?

Will we ever be free from disease?

What is a species? (article page 17)

Suggested discussion topic

‘The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ is Darwin’s most famous book. But what is a species?

Page viewed: 8:19 am on 20 May 2022

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