I’m preparing for my first trip to New Orleans. The occasion is the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America. Steven Austad, a University of Texas biologist, asked me to come give a talk in a session he’s organized next Monday. Austad studies the evolution of aging in the hopes of finding ways of slowing the aging process. (I wrote about him in 2007 in the sadly defunct Best Life magazine–read the article here or here.) In the face of an anti-evolution education bill passed by the Louisiana legislature, Austad decided to use his trip to the state next week to organize a session on the important of a good evolution education.

My task is to discuss “how understanding evolution allows Americans citizens to formulate more informed decisions about societally important matters.” I like this assignment, because it’s an interesting twist on the standard question about the value of evolutionary biology. Typical answers to that question include the cosmic–how it helps us see our place in the history of the universe–and the practical–how it can help in our search for better health and happiness. (See here, for example.)

The question I’m addressing is a bit different. How does a good understanding of evolution better prepare us to make decisions as citizens?

I’ve got a few ideas of my own, but this seems like a good question to throw open for discussion. If I crib any of your suggestions for my talk, I will thank you profusely when I deliver it. You’ll be able to check for yourself next week, when I’ll post a recording with slides.


Update: The stars align! A couple hours after I posted this request, Ed Yong posted his excellent write-up of evolutionary trees in the courtrooms.

Originally published November 15, 2010. Copyright 2010 Carl Zimmer.