Evolution as Aesthetic Experience

Aesthetic experience affects the senses, emotions, and intellect. It’s often associated with works of art, like paintings, dance, or music. Such experience is unique and personal; it depends not just on the artwork itself, but on the meaning that we attach to it and the feeling that this generates.

picVan Gogh’s painting, Starlight over Rhone, has personal significance for me. The scene depicted reminds me of the nighttime view of Cape Breton Island from mainland Nova Scotia–a view that was familiar to me as a child. For me, the painting comes with poignant memories attached. Because these memories are uniquely mine, however, I wouldn’t expect others viewing it to have the same response. Such is the nature of aesthetic experience: an object with a single set of objectively identifiable features produces a unique experience for each observer.

While the role of subjectivity is well recognized in the artistic realm, art isn’t exceptional in its ability to create aesthetic experience. Such experience could be created by multicolored autumn foliage or an expansive view of the night sky. It can also be created by immaterial entities, like concepts.

Evolution is one such concept. By evolution, I mean “the scientific theory of evolution”–that concept that creates controversy in non-scientific circles despite an abundance of supporting evidence. Just as with a piece of art, we can present evolution to a group of people and they may each respond differently. Evolution comes with strings attached–preconceptions, associations, and implications. People’s perception of evolution isn’t shaped just by empirical facts, but by the meaning and feeling that they attach to it. Their response will be influenced by their worldview, personality traits, and a host of other factors.

It shouldn’t be surprising then that acceptance of evolution isn’t entirely dependent on comprehension and knowledge of evolution. Studies have shown that we can significantly improve people’s understanding of evolution without having much of an effect on their acceptance of it. A 2003 study of undergraduate biology students found no relation between knowledge and acceptance of evolution1. A later study showed that increasing biology teachers’ knowledge of evolution had little effect on their views on the teaching of antievolutionary ideas2. Despite improved understanding, the majority of teachers still favored the teaching of antievolutionary concepts. Understanding evolution and accepting it are not the same thing. It follows that improving acceptance of evolution requires strategies that aim beyond improved understanding.

Subjectivity can be problematic in science. The scientific process requires that we reject or retain hypotheses on the basis of empirical data. It doesn’t permit rejection of an hypothesis on the basis of a scientist’s emotional response to it. But we aren’t all philosophical or even methodological naturalists. Many people will reject scientific theories for reasons that aren’t based in empiricism.

Scientific emphasis on empiricism may obscure the importance of subjective elements in shaping attitudes. To the scientifically-minded, it might seem that solid evidence and factual information should be sufficient to persuade any rational person. But no one is entirely rational, and experience, even of empirical facts, often isn’t limited to the intellectual domain. People may have a great deal invested in antievolutionary conceptual frameworks. For example, for a person who belongs to a creationist family, acceptance of evolution may mean loss of family support. Reasons for rejecting evolution may not be empirical, but they are nonetheless important to the rejecter.

Evidence and appeals to reason aren’t likely to change attitudes that aren’t based in reason to begin with. As Carl Sagan put it, “You can't convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it's based on a deep seated need to believe”. Attempts at changing beliefs and attitudes must address the most significant reasons for them. The key to convincing others of our perspective may lie not in emphasizing the reasons for our perspective, but in understanding and addressing the reasons for theirs.

When it comes to changing people’s attitudes, there’s a wealth of applicable knowledge in fields like marketing and psychology. Creationists have made good use of this. Last year they involved Kirk Cameron in an effort to dispense adulterated copies of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Free books function in much the same way as free samples–the free gift inspires a sense of appreciation and reciprocity3. Because they’ve generously given you a book, it seems only decent to take a look at it and consider what they have to say. The celebrity endorsement also helps. People who find Kirk Cameron attractive or likeable will tend to attach these feelings to the ideas he endorses.

For the empiricist, it might seem objectionable to approach the issue in this way. The very idea of persuasion might seem shady to some people. Ideally, we should all evaluate ideas and products on their own merit. It would be nice to think that our choices aren’t influenced by advertising, that an attractive model in a commercial doesn’t influence the way we feel about the product. But this simply isn’t the case. Whether we pay attention to the likeability and attractiveness of people associated with a given idea, we are affected by these things.

Of course, a degree of discretion is required here. I’m not suggesting that biology teachers should enlist the help of sexy models when they present evolution–though it might help. Principles of persuasion can be adapted to the situation. For example, people are more likely to be persuaded by authorities and people they respect3. With this in mind, biology professors might want to include their CVs on their websites. They might also mention their academic credentials and accomplishments at the beginning of the course.

For a large-scale campaign, we might want to choose a spokesperson who is attractive (not necessarily in a physical sense) to the people we’d like to persuade. Though it might seem counterintuitive in the case of a campaign to promote a rational perspective, a rock star might be a better choice thaYoung darwinn an intellectual.

The aesthetic nature of evolution has important implications. In the classroom, it means that instructional methods should aim to engage more than just the intellect. Videos, animations, and computer games may be helpful. There are also classroom exercises that teach evolutionary principles in ways that are fun and appealing to the senses. There are exercises that incorporate games4, jelly beans5, and M&Ms6. There’s also an exercise that illustrates the concept of deep time using a roll of toilet paper7.

Even complex processes can be approached in fun and appealing ways. My high school biology teacher had us create skits to depict protein synthesis. Students in the class might not remember the details of protein synthesis years later, but they probably retain fond memories that they associate with it. When it comes to shaping attitudes, maybe fun is more important than detail.

People may also view evolution more positively if they perceive it as relevant to their own lives. EVOS Magazine, an online magazine about evolution, sets a great example. The magazine’s aim is to “show how the statement ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’ can be expanded to include all aspects of the human experience.” It covers a wide range of evolution-related topics in addition to biology, like health, addressing environmental problems, and empowering urban neighborhoods. It helps people realize how important evolution is–not just for scientists, but for everyone.

Facebook groups and blogs can also be helpful. In addition to interesting articles, they tend to collect evolution-related photos and videos that appeal to a wide variety of interests. Evolution has much greater appeal when it’s presented in a fun context. The beauty of these resources is that they are free and very accessible. The Darwin Facebook Project even offered a free online lecture series last year that featured great speakers like Sean Carroll. His lecture wasn’t just interesting, but very entertaining.

Perhaps the best example of an aesthetic approach to promoting evolution is Baba Brinkman’s Rap Guide to Evolution. He presents evolutionary concepts in a way that appeals to both the intellect and the senses. Science Magazine described his show as “A mesmerizing performance, one that would probably do more to convince school children of evolution's validity than any BBC or PBS special could.” It works the other way too–evolution enthusiasts who aren’t fans of rap music might just change their minds.

The experience of evolution can be enriched in a variety of ways: by addressing preconceptions and implications, by borrowing techniques from marketing and psychology, and by making use of internet resources, computer games, and even rap music. Since the experience of evolution has a significant subjective component, not everyone will respond positively to a traditional approach. If we want evolution to be accepted by everyone, we may need an approach with a bit of everything.

Evolution is best treated as an aesthetic entity. By the time students encounter it in science classrooms, many have already formed an attitude toward it. Outside the scientific community, the topic remains controversial and emotionally charged. More so than other scientific concepts, it needs to be presented, as opposed to just explained. Like a work of art, it needs to be properly framed and cast in an appropriate light. The aim should not simply be that people understand evolution, or even that they accept it, but that they appreciate its grandeur.


1) Sinatra GM, Southerland SA, McConaughy F, Demastes JW. Intentions and beliefs in students’ understanding and acceptance of biological evolution. Journal of Reserach in Science Teaching. 2003;40(5):510-528.

2) Nehm RH, Schonfeld IS. Does increasing biology teacher knowledge of evolution and the nature of science lead to greater preference for the teaching of evolution in schools? J Sci Teacher Educ. 2007;8:699-723.

3) Cialdini RB. Harnessing the science of persuasion. Harvard Business Review. 2001:72-79

4) Dickinson WJ. Using a popular children’s game to explore evolutionary concepts. Am Biol Teach. 1998;60:213-215.

5) Lauer TE. Jelly Belly jelly beans and evoluiton principles in the classroom: appealing to students’ stomachs. Am Biol Teach. 2000;62:42-45.

6) Staub NL. Teaching evolutionary mechanisms: genetic drift and M&M’s. Bioscience. 2002;52:373-7.

7) O’Brien T. A toilet paper timeline of evolution. Am Biol Teach. 2000;52:578-82.