In the Classroom: Evolution Movie Binge!

Long summer days mean lots of extra hours for resting, relaxing, and well, maybe a little exploring. For some of us that means finding cool new hangouts around town, trying different restaurants, or traveling somewhere exciting. For others, that means browsing Netflix and binge watching way too many shows.

I confess I'm a member of the latter. I even spent the greater part of today’s work day binge watching movies. But this was a productive binge-watching indulgence. Instead of House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, Mad Men, or Game of Thrones, I binged on the HHMI BioInteractive’s collection of short videos. After my day of power-viewing, I put together a short list of what I consider HHMI’s top three videos on evolution.

1.  Great Transitions: The Origin of Humans

Before I fully understood what evolution was, I had to rely on this summary adults offered: “We all come from monkeys.” While it is true that Homo sapiens are most closely related to chimpanzees, saying humans come from monkeys is a big misconception. Monkeys do not turn into humans. (And yes, chimpanzees are more precisely “apes” than monkeys.) Great Transitions: The Origin of Humans does a fantastic job of explaining the journey of the hominid lineage from the time of our common ancestor with chimpanzees to the present. It describes how humans differ from other primates, how each of these differences evolved and the relative order in which they evolved, and how scientists came to these conclusions. Great Transitions is actually a series of similar videos explaining the evolutionary history of many species, but I picked this short film about humans because I'm not all that interested in lizards and birds. (Yes, I’m species centric—so sue me!)

2. Making of the Fittest: Natural Selection and Adaptation

Making of the Fittest: Natural Selection and Adaptation is about the specific ways pocket mice have adapted to life in The Valley of Fire in New Mexico. I chose this video because it gives a concrete example of natural selection in action. The film documents how the pocket mice of New Mexico adapted to a different environments in response to a specific selection pressure. It also dives into the genetics of the adaptation, explaining how a mutation in one pocket mouse can spread through an entire population. Some students understand the basic concept but carry the misconception that evolution happens to individuals, rather than to populations over generations. This video is especially helpful in clearing up this confusion. (For more information, check out Stephanie Keep’s review of the film.)

3. The Biology of Skin Color

This video played out like a good detective show. The Biology of Skin Color follows the Dr. Nina Jablonski’s step-by-step thought process as she unearthed the mystery behind what she refers to as “the sepia rainbow” that makes up human skin tones. This video not only teaches students about an important human adaptation, it demonstrates how scientific methods are carried out in real life research. By the end of the video Dr. Jablonski discovers that skintone adaptations have resulted in response to a balancing act between two selection factors: folate production and vitamin D synthesis. At the very end, Dr. Jablonski takes a moment to point out that a person’s skin tone is linked to the sun exposure of their ancestral home and nothing else. Skin color is not related to or indicative of athleticism, morality, or intelligence. While Jablonski’s final point is not strictly related to evolution, finding a new way to say that a person’s character cannot be judged by their skin color never hurts.

These are my top choices of the HHMI videos. Check them out if you have some free time over the long weekend. Share your favorite HHMI movies in the comments section below.

To peruse BioInteractive, go to https://www.hhmi.org/biointeractive, click the “Resource Types” tab, then click “Short Films.”

It’s worth mentioning that our very own Stephanie Keep, who spends half of her work life on curriculum development for outfits like HHMI, contributed to the resources that accompany the three films I have written about here. If you’re a teacher, check them out! There are film guides, worksheets, activities, animations, and more. Have any comments? Feel free to send Stephanie an email at keep@ncse.com.

Yayla Sezginer will be a second year undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley this fall. She is studying Molecular Environmental Biology (MEB) and hopes to pursue a double major in MEB and Marine Science.