The Braille Monitor                                                                                              March, 2004

(back) (next) (contents)

Science, Blindness, and Evolution:
The Common Theme Is Opportunity

by Geerat J. Vermeij

Geerat Vermeij
Geerat J. Vermeij

From the Editor: Geerat Vermeij is the renowned blind marine biologist who teaches at the University of California at Davis. His fascinating autobiography, Privileged Hands, is available from the National Library Service. Recently Dr. Vermeij called to offer the Braille Monitor an article that was first published in the Journal of Science Education for Students with Disabilities, 10 (1): 1-3. The article was based on a talk delivered on March 29, 2002, at the National Science Teachers Association convention in San Diego, California. Considering the NFB's new initiative on teaching science to blind students, I accepted the article with delighted thanks. Here it is:

It was late in the afternoon on a day in the early 1970's when I sat down with a blind woman to talk about her interest in studying biology. Her state agency for the blind was balking at paying for her studies in this field, in the fear—quite probably justified in her case—that she would be unable to find suitable employment. At that time I had become fascinated with leaf shape, and so our conversation turned briefly to the prickly leaves of hollies. The prickles, it turns out, are not distributed evenly around the leaf margin. In cultivated varieties the left edge typically has a different number of prickles from the right. Moreover, the numbers and positions of prickles vary in peculiar ways among leaves even on the same tree. I wondered aloud why this should be so, and why holly leaves are spiny at all. These are the kinds of questions that start me thinking about the larger puzzles of science. They are tiny unknowns, things that make no sense, things that might or might not be key to larger questions.

The woman interrupted my ramblings with a simple question. "What do holly leaves look like?" she asked.

Was I taken aback? Yes and no. Momentarily I thought to myself how astonishing it was that this woman didn't know what a holly leaf looked like. But then I realized that her ignorance, however trivial, is symptomatic of a vast problem that affects everyone, but most especially those who lack one or another of the major sensations: there is a pervasive lack of observational experience. Perhaps some well-meaning soul thought it best to spare a blind woman the experience of handling a holly leaf; after all, she could hurt herself. More likely the well-meaning soul—parent, sibling, teacher, or fellow student—would not have stopped to think that a blind person does not encounter things unless the latter can be heard, felt, tasted, or smelled. The blind person cannot see the everyday things if they must be seen at a distance or as pictures. Like everyone else a blind person needs a stream of data, the raw material for making sense of the world, for asking questions and seeking answers about how the world works, how it develops, how it evolves.

Here, then, is one of the great impediments to the forging of a scientific frame of mind. In school people learn that doing science comprises observation, hypothesis, experiment, and theory; but we tend to emphasize the latter three steps at the expense of observation. Yet observation is critical to all the rest. Observation—taking in the world through our senses with our minds turned on—leads to asking questions, which in turn leads us to propose explanations that we can then evaluate with additional evidence gathered by experiment or by comparisons, all eventually organized into coherent explanatory theory.

The skill of observing—and it is a skill, to be honed and perfected—must be taught and encouraged. It is something that every science student must possess, but perhaps this aspect of science education is particularly important when the student is blind or otherwise deprived of one of the sensations. A conscious effort must be made, all the time and everywhere and by everyone, to acquaint a blind person with those aspects of the environment that cannot be heard, smelled, or easily grasped by hands and fingers. And even those things that can be observed must be pointed out. Most people can hear birds sing, but for most blind people I know, birdsong and all the interesting questions it raises are part of the background noise until attention is drawn to them.

I want to make two more points about the holly leaf. First, the leaf is--or should be--something familiar. It may in fact be so familiar that it is taken for granted. We don't wonder about it because it does not appear to require an explanation. Yet there is much about such an everyday thing as a leaf that we don't understand. How and why did the network pattern of venation in the leaf evolve? After all, geologically ancient plants have an open system of venation, not the interconnected system that is so characteristic of hollies and many other flowering plants. Who among insects, mammals, and other potential consumers eats these leaves, and how and when are the leaves attacked?

I could go on and on. My point is that, by beginning with the objects and phenomena of everyday experience, we can lead people down an inviting path into more unfamiliar territory, all the while remembering that we are trying to stimulate a state of curiosity as well as to instill a style of thought that allows us to understand the world around us. Most people—indeed, many teachers—perceive science as complex, abstract, foreign, unapproachable, and difficult. Science demands systematic, rigorous, usually quantitative thinking, objectivity, and a willingness to analyze. Students are quick to pick up on these fears and to assimilate them in their own perceptions.

And that brings me to the second point. Implicitly or otherwise, the educational system has diminished expectations of the blind. If science is hard for me, a sighted adult might reason, it must be doubly hard for a blind person; therefore let's go easy on that person so as not to hurt self-confidence or to enhance a sense of inferiority. But with that relaxed attitude we are withholding the most powerful method yet devised to comprehend the world, to explain and make sense of our surroundings. Not least we are depriving the student of a profound source of intense pleasure and accomplishment.

Science and the scientific way of thinking are activities that mirror precisely the process and mechanisms of evolution. In evolution forms of life are adapted to, and in important ways create, their surroundings. They are hypotheses about their environment, hypotheses that are daily tested. The best hypotheses—those that, given the limitations of technology and information of the living things in question, are met with success in survival and reproduction—persist in a competitive environment replete with opportunities, challenges, and uncertainties.

The evolutionary search for better hypotheses requires an organizational infrastructure that efficiently sifts the wheat from the chaff, a system that does not have to evaluate every single possibility, and that can quickly identify potentially useful adaptive improvements. But none of this will yield improvement unless the environment nurtures opportunity and experimentation and tolerates initial imperfection. New traits start out as very imperfect approximations to the well-adapted state. Only when novelties are tested in a richly competitive environment in the presence of opportunity will real improvement occur. Orchid flowers did not begin their evolution as perfect mimics of female bees that are attractive to male pollinators; they began by being just good enough to attract at least some insects long enough to be pollinated.

The key to evolution, to teaching science, and to teaching the blind about science or anything else is opportunity. In the case of education, opportunity means lots of hands-on experience and can-do attitude on everyone's part, a flexibility of mind that looks for alternative methods when standard procedures and protocols don't work.

Blind students benefit from physical models and from specimens. They may be unable to carry out the physical tasks of laboratory experiments or to observe behaviors and reactions directly, but they can perfectly well be shown the equipment and be required to do the necessary calculations, to make inferences, and to write reports. Yes, there is much visual material in science, but low-tech methods exist to make many of them easily accessible. Take a standard sheet of paper, place it on a soft, yielding surface, and then with a sharp pen trace an illustration by pressing firmly while drawing. On the back side of the sheet a mirror image of what you have drawn will emerge in a raised format.

What does a blind person need to succeed in science or simply to gain acceptable familiarity with the most powerful mechanism of learning known to humanity? Opportunity, curiosity, intelligence, and a willingness to work hard come to mind as the four requirements. These requirements are, of course, precisely the same as they are for anyone. It is in the implementation of these requirements that the recommendations become specific. And here, as I pointed out, active show-and-tell together with a flexible attitude complement the more generic elements of education. We teach science by putting the theory and methods of science into practice and by letting opportunity, observation, hypothesis, adaptation, and the power and beauty of scientific explanation do their work.

(back) (next) (contents)