Big Ideas

Charles Darwin

Like all scientific disciplines, the field of evolutionary biology continually evolves over time. New discoveries fuel new ideas, providing an ever-increasing understanding of how populations and species change over time in response to a changing Earth. But of the overwhelming number of observations and principles that form the foundation of evolutionary biology, what is essential for every person to understand?

All too often, curricula are too ambitious and, as a result, risk failing to cover topics in any substantial depth. An alternative approach is to build one's curriculum upon a foundation of focused, interconnected “Big Ideas.” A well-designed set of Big Ideas can provide an all-encompassing conceptual framework for any discipline, including evolutionary biology. Developed by scientists and biology teachers, here is a set of Big Ideas that illuminates what is fundamental to the study of evolution:

These ideas are designed to cover the breadth of any evolutionary biology curriculum, but they require elaboration to build deep understanding. Each idea is essentially bottomless; that is, although a meaningful understanding of these ideas is readily attainable, the details contained within are endless. Each of the ideas can be understood, but the depth of understanding can vary greatly.

Introduction of these Big Ideas also invites discussion of the nature of science. As curricula are designed and implemented, the traditional topics of evolutionary biology should be complemented with ideas on how we come to know what we know about the natural world.

Each of these ideas are explained briefly in the pages that follow, and are discussed in detail later on in this Guide.