The Changing Face of Biology
By Simon Bliss, Teacher of Biology

It would be difficult to deny that biology has been around for a long time although the term itself was probably only introduced in around 1800. Unsurprisingly, we have always had to take an interest in our surroundings. From our hunter-gatherer beginnings our ancestors needed to identify organisms as sources of food, medicine and materials for constructing shelter or providing fuel for fires. There was, and still is, a great variety of living organisms (the current estimate is approximately 9 million different species). It was perhaps Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, who formally tried to organise and classify living things in the 1700s. If this was a milestone in the history of biology then other milestones might be the development of microscopes by Robert Hooke and Anton van Leeuwenhoek in the mid 1600s, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection published in 1859 and the determination of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick in 1953.

Since then the changes have come very quickly. Cloning technologies have developed enormously since Dolly the Sheep. Cloning had actually been around for a while but Dolly hit the headlines since she was the first mammal cloned from a non-reproductive, somatic cell. It was actually twenty years ago that the human genome was mapped. In addition to the range of useful spin-offs from this data in medical research we also now have the technology to sequence the DNA of organisms very quickly. This is useful for many things from determining evolutionary origins of organisms to vaccine production for emerging diseases. Techniques that were once in the realm of science fiction, such as gene therapy, are now regularly in the news.

It isn’t just our knowledge that has changed but also the way that science is done. The current COVID pandemic has given us an insight into the way vaccines are developed and all the associated complexities of clinical trials. That’s all a far cry from experiments such as Friedrich Kuchenmeister’s feeding of tapeworm cysts to condemned criminals or Edward Jenner’s variolation of eight-year-old James Phipps with smallpox to test his theory of vaccination.

It might look as if biology has gone all biochemical but this is far from the case. Biologists are also having to look at truly global problems such as climate change, pollution and feeding the growing human population.

This got me thinking about whether these changes have been reflected in the teaching of biology. When pupils sat O-level exams rather than the GCSE exam we have today, the exam paper would have fitted on a single piece of A4 paper. The questions would have been based more on factual recall such as this example from a 1957 paper, “Give an account of the life-history and economic importance of either the mosquito or the house fly”. You would have half an hour to write your answer to that one. Today we have less emphasis on simply learning factual content and more emphasis on developing certain skills such as application of knowledge and what could loosely be described as “scientific methodology”.

The study of the world around us is struggling for a place in the curriculum. With so many recent developments in the subject, something has to give when courses are developed but this can have consequences. A 2013 BBC survey of 27,500 children came up with some startling statistics about how little awareness they had about where our food comes from. It isn’t just the pupils who are getting out of touch with their surroundings. There have also been some worrying studies that have shown that teachers can do little better at identifying common animals and plants in their local area.

Biology has changed enormously but fortunately the curriculum appears to have kept pace. A quick look at UCAS will also show the huge range of related courses that are now on offer to continue the study into further education – a far cry from the days of choosing between botany and zoology. We are also treated to a wide variety of wildlife and nature documentaries on television which inspire and promote interest in a wider audience. So what of the future? I personally don’t think it looks too bad.

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