Photo by Richard Lee, used under Creative Commons licensing. Photo by Richard Lee, used under Creative Commons licensing.

Reposted from the Chasing the Red Queen blog with permission. More than anything, Chasing the Red Queen is about health—human health as well as ecosystem health—and the interaction between the two is important for us to understand. Agriculture is the support system for humans and it’s difficult to imagine anything more critical for the maintenance of our lives than the health of the systems that support agricultural productivity. And it isn’t just an understanding for farmers or even politicians, but something every person should understand. It’s really a matter of being connected to our support system and making sure we care for it in the long-term sense. As a college professor, my responsibility is to make science and current research understandable to students. The university is the one place in our society where everyone should feel that new information is being interpreted in as unbiased a way as possible and where alternative interpretations can be offered and heard. Sometimes new information contradicts old information and this is part of the process. Unlike many parts of our society, new information that makes us reevaluate our beliefs and understanding is welcomed in the university. I teach Environmental Life Science and primarily to Education majors. This is possibly the most important group of students in the entire university, in my opinion, and the group that I most need to connect with. These students will be the vanguard of public education for the next 30 or more years. Their appreciation and understanding of science, in particular, will shape the next two generations of citizens and voters in my area. It is imperative that they, among all others, feel comfortable explaining science, discussing the latest discoveries, and imparting an appreciation, if not love, of science and discovery to their students. It’s my goal to help them overcome their own anxiety about science, often the anxiety that their own elementary teachers managed to impart to them. It is no secret on college campuses that most non-science majors would rather have a tooth pulled than take another science class after high school. But two lab science courses are required at my school. So, the tendency is to search out the easiest science courses possible and try to survive them. It is unlikely these students will ever be exposed to science in a structured way again. So how important is it to make the last impression be the best possible? As a professor at a teaching-focused university, I think it is the most important thing in my profession. And to accomplish that, I have to establish a reputation for having an interesting class, even if it isn’t necessarily easy. But learning is easy if you are interested in the subject matter. Chasing the Red Queen was written for this group of students and the public in general. My goal was to keep the language non-technical and to use examples from every person’s life to illustrate important issues, and to explain those issues with the science underlying them. Another goal was to avoid drowning the reader in facts. I love facts, but I’m always frustrated when reading fact-dense books knowing that I can only remember a fraction of the information. But knowing the facts and understanding a process is not the same thing. Knowing the concept means understanding the framework that the facts fit into and that is far more important than memorizing facts. In the life sciences, there are certain concepts that are used to explain important processes and if a person understands the concepts, many facts can then be interpreted, they make sense, and this makes knowing them even better.
Drawing by Mark Vermeij, originally printed in Trophic Cascades. A reef in Fiji shows how the absence of fish can affect coral even though the fish do not eat the coral, they eat crown-of-thorns starfish. Drawing by Mark Vermeij, originally printed in Trophic Cascades.

For example, if we understand how predators control the abundance of their prey, then we can explain how a green pond becomes clear after predatory fish are put into it. We know that the large fish reduce the numbers of small fish, which means the zooplankton they were eating will increase in number and that will result in a decrease in the abundance of the green phytoplankton, which the zooplankton eat and which were clouding up the pond. In other words, if we grasp how direct interactions work, we can understand how indirect interactions work, and how adding large fish reduces algae even though large fish don’t eat algae. If we grasp this concept, we can also apply it to understand other systems even if we aren’t experts on the other systems. In my classes, if the students understand the basic premises of natural selection, they can easily grasp the problem of pesticide resistance even if they know nothing of the pests or the insecticides. Knowing that fundamental concept, they can easily see that the flushing of modern medications into our sewer systems (e.g., for birth control, blood pressure, pain, erectile dysfunction, or cholesterol) will result in strange interactions with wildlife. They can easily comprehend how giving constant uniform, and unnecessary doses of antibiotics or growth hormones to livestock can potentially change the quality of the foods we eat. With this basic understanding of a single important concept that governs all of life on Earth, students can use new information to understand what’s going on in their world. The facts that bombard them daily take on a new dimension. No longer are facts just frustrating evidence of an increasingly incomprehensible world. No longer do people need to shrug their shoulders and sigh because the complexity of the world is passing them by. Knowledge of the basic concepts that underlie the workings of the natural world means new information fits into understandable patterns and this provides insight and further understanding. This knowledge is power and this is the mission of education.