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Darwin's Mad Dream

What Error and Invention Tell Us about How Science Works

Dr. William F. McComas
Parks Family Endowed Professorship in Science Education, University of Arkansas

ABSTRACT: Darwin’s “Mad Dream” as he put it refers to pangenesis, an idea he proposed to describe the rules of inheritance and explain the source of new variation. These conceptions were vital to evolution by natural selection. Beyond historians of biology, few others are familiar with pangenesis because it was ultimately shown to be inaccurate and represents one of Darwin’s few errors. The case of pangenesis is not interesting because it was incorrect, but because the account of its development provides an interesting case study into how science works and offers a rare glimpse into Darwin’s thinking and personality. Pangenesis can illustrate important “nature of science” ideas such as the need for empirical evidence, the use of inductive reasoning, the creative component of science, the role of bias and subjectivity, social and personal influences on science, and the notion that scientific knowledge is tentative but durable, and ultimately self-correcting.

THE SPEAKER: McComas is widely involved in many areas of science education. He has served on the boards of directors of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the International History, Philosophy and Science Teaching Group (IHPST), the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) and the Association for Science Teacher Education (ASTE). He is a recipient of the Outstanding Evolution Educator and Research in Biology Teaching awards from NABT, the Ohaus award for Innovations in College Science Teaching and the ASTE Outstanding Science Teacher Educator award. He is interested in the improvement of laboratory instruction, evolution education, the intersection of the philosophy of science and science teaching, science for gifted students, and science instruction in museums and field sites. McComas was recently a Fulbright Fellow in residence at the Centre for the Advancement of Science and Mathematics Teaching and Learning (CASTeL) at Dublin City University in Ireland.

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