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Evolution Education Trust PhD project: How should we teach evolution? The pitfalls of goal-directed thinking

   Department of Life Sciences

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  Prof Matthew Wills  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (UK Students Only)

About the Project

The University of Bath is inviting applications for this PhD opportunity based at the Milner Centre for Evolution, a unique, cross-faculty research centre bridging biology, health and education. The Centre is dedicated to a broad range of fundamental research questions relating to evolutionary biology; from in deep time to the micro-evolutionary dynamics of a disease outbreak. We have a strong focus on public engagement and outreach. We are located in a dedicated multi-million-pound building that opened on the University campus in September 2018.

Intended Supervisory Team:

Lead Supervisor:

  • Prof Matthew Wills, University of Bath, Department of Biology & Biochemistry, Milner Centre for Evolution


  • Dr Tiffany Taylor, University of Bath, Department of Biology & Biochemistry, Milner Centre for Evolution
  • Dr Alex Jeffries, University of Bath, Department of Biology & Biochemistry, Milner Centre for Evolution
  • Dr Ronald Jenner, Natural History Museum
  • Dr Dan Wormald, Natural History Museum

Project Overview:

What prevents people from grasping core evolutionary ideas, as well as the concept of Deep Time? In this project between the Milner Centre for Evolution (Bath) and the Natural History Museum (London), you will devise better exhibit, outreach and accompanying materials for students and teachers.

You will focus on two Lamarckian pitfalls that were once mainstream in evolutionary biology, and superficially resemble Darwinian ideas. These pitfalls are teleological arguments that seek to explain biological form and function in terms of purpose, and finalist arguments that make similar errors with respect to goal-directedness. A typically teleological argument might be “birds evolved feathers in order that they could fly” which implies intent on the part of the birds or some other agency. However, feathers functioned for insulation and sexual signalling long before they facilitated flight. Hence, a finalist error would be to say that these were intermediate functions “in order that flight could evolve”.

Unfortunately, teleological thinking is strongly intuitive and difficult to dislodge, not least because of its superficial similarity with neo-Darwinian thinking. Moreover, two genuine evolutionary phenomena often used for teaching may exacerbate the problem. The first, evolutionary convergence, can be misinterpreted as implying that evolution is directed towards certain optima or goals. The second, evolutionary trends (e.g., size and complexity), can be misinterpreted in progressive terms. 

You will work closely with members of the Milner Centre and the NHMs outreach and education staff to devise materials that can be trialled with some of the Museum’s 5M annual visitors.

Candidate Requirements:

Applicants should hold, or expect to receive, a First Class or good Upper Second Class Honours degree (or the equivalent) in a relevant discipline. A master’s level qualification would also be advantageous.

Non-UK applicants must meet our English language entry requirement.

Enquiries and Applications:

Candidates are encouraged to discuss the project directly with Prof Matthew Wills before applying (email address: [Email Address Removed]).

Formal applications should be made via the University of Bath’s online application form for a PhD in Biology.

On the application form, quote ‘Evolution Education Trust’ in the Finance section and the supervisor’s name and project title in the ‘Your research interests’ section. If applying for more than one project, quote the projects in order of preference and upload a separate personal statement relevant to each one.

Your application must be complete when you submit it to us. Incomplete applications cannot be considered. Please ensure you have completed all fields on the application form and supplied the contact details of TWO referees willing to provide us with a reference when requested (one must be from your most recent place of study). Also, you should ensure that you have uploaded all the required documents. See our website for more information.

Funding Eligibility:

To be eligible for funding, you must qualify as a Home student. The eligibility criteria for Home fee status are detailed and too complex to be summarised here in full; however, as a general guide, the following applicants will normally qualify subject to meeting residency requirements: UK nationals (living in the UK or EEA/Switzerland), Irish nationals (living in the UK or EEA/Switzerland), those with Indefinite Leave to Remain and EU nationals with pre-settled or settled status in the UK under the EU Settlement Scheme). This is not intended to be an exhaustive list. Additional information may be found on our fee status guidance webpage, on the GOV.UK website and on the UKCISA website.

Exceptional Overseas students (e.g. with a UK Master’s Distinction or international equivalent and relevant research experience), who are interested in this project, should contact the lead supervisor in the first instance to discuss the possibility of applying for supplementary funding.

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion:

We value a diverse research environment and aim to be an inclusive university, where difference is celebrated and respected. We welcome and encourage applications from diverse backgrounds and under-represented groups.

If you have circumstances that you feel we should be aware of that have affected your educational attainment, then please feel free to tell us about it in your application form. The best way to do this is a short paragraph at the end of your personal statement.

Funding Notes

Candidates applying for this project may be considered for a 3.5-year fully-funded Evolution Education Trust Studentship which will cover tuition fees at the Home rate, a tax-free maintenance allowance at the UKRI Doctoral Stipend rate (£15,609 for 2021/22) and a generous budget for research, training and outreach expenses. Eligibility criteria apply – see Funding Eligibility section above.
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