BOX 12-8
Examples of Students’ Critiques of Their Own Darwinian Explanations

On the first day of class, students were asked to explain how the carapace of Galapagos tortoises may have changed from the dome shape to the saddleback shape. As part of the final exam for the class, students were asked to critique the explanation they had given on the first day. Below are the original explanation and critique offered by one student.

Original Answer

The saddleback carapace came into being due to the need of migrating tortoises to adjust to a new environment. On Albermarle Island the domed shaped carapaces served well for shedding rain and eating ground vegetation. However, when the tortoises began to migrate to a smaller, drier island with less ground vegetation, they had to adapt in order to survive. The majority of the food was now higher up and the domed shell served as a hindrance. Over time, the saddleback carapace developed to allow the neck to extend further, thereby allowing the tortoises to reach the fleshy green parts of the prickly pear cactus. This evolutionary process created a new species of giant tortoise that could live successfully in a new environment.

Critique on Final Exam

In my original answer, I used an almost exclusive Lamarckian definition of evolution. In my introductory statement I stated that the saddleback carapace came into being due to the need of the tortoise to fit its environment. I needed to acknowledge the existence of variation within the tortoise population of the shape of the shell. My original explanation makes the evolutionary process sound like a physical change taking place during the life of the tortoise and then being passed on to the offspring. I now know that variations that are advantageous give animals a better chance of survival (survival of the fittest!) and allow them a better chance of passing on their advantageous trait to their offspring. In my original explanation I also touched on ideas of use and disuse to explain how the saddleback carapace came to be, this is a Lamarkian model of evolution which is incorrect. I did explain how the saddleback carapace was an advantage because it allowed the tortoise to eat higher vegetation. Since I didn’t understand evolution through the generations, I wasn’t able to describe how the species changed over time. Overall, I would say I had a basic but flawed understanding of evolution but I lacked the tools to explain evolution from a scientific and Darwinian perspective, until now.

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