Natural Selection and Graffiti - Dan Bergholz

Published: April 6, 2017
Bergholz poses with some paintings at a museum.

In middle/high school, I got C’s and D’s in just about everything except biology. I was a bad student and a delinquent. However, I was always the curious type and I maintained a broad spectrum of interests. After sleeping through a day of high school classes, I would usually come home and teach myself whatever I actually wanted to learn. It was immature and certainly came with consequences, but I’ve ultimately benefited from that diversity of experience. With a boost from some promising test scores & essays, CU ignored my GPA and offered me the opportunity to come here from Chicago and study Ecology & Evolutionary Biology in the honors program. My thesis advisors, Dr. Nancy Emery and Dr. Andy Martin, have helped me integrate my informal adolescent education with the structured academic approach necessary for a quality honors thesis. I have worked hard the last 4 years, in part, to prove that CU made a good bet on me. Hopefully, they will see my story and continue extending opportunities to students like me who did not benefit from or thrive within the bounds of a traditional middle/high school curriculum. In large part, my thesis an attempt to reform that curriculum: it is an education module that will ideally make the principles of evolution more accessible and relevant to all students. This module will focus on a creative and cross-curricular approach that uses the cultural evolution of graffiti as a model instead of more traditional methods (e.g., beak evolution of Galapagos finches). Thank you for reading, and feel free to explore an outline of my thesis below:

Tl;dr: The overarching goal of my thesis is to evaluate the persistence and change in graffiti using models of evolution by natural selection in the context of a learning module that targets high school students in urban classrooms.

In nature, every living thing competes for space or resources - the same is true for graffiti, a form of urban art that relies on public space for its survival. The notion of cultural evolution is well documented in the literature, even going back to Darwin himself. In my research, I have assessed which characteristics of a graffiti piece affect its “fitness” as mediated by competition between artists. Using phenotypic selection analysis to quantify the patterns and strength of selection on those characteristics, we can quantitatively describe the evolution of graffiti culture through the lens of evolutionary biology.

Additionally, I am developing a creative educational module for urban high schools that will use graffiti as a model for exploring the principles of evolution by natural selection. Teaching this concept using a cultural model before introducing more traditional methods (e.g., beak evolution of Galapagos finches) will help students grasp the fundamental concepts that underlie the measurement of natural selection before introducing biological complexity. The education module is expected to increase relevance and retention of the material while encouraging further creative approaches to the subject.

The educational module will also be able to reach students in places where observing “natural” natural selection in model systems isn’t feasible or may seem irrelevant, such as schools in large cities. The unit will be a cross-curricular approach to teaching evolution involving art, biology, data management, statistics, programming, and teamwork. Ideally, it will also aid in restructuring the science curriculum to lean toward a more socially conscious and inclusive form of learning by emphasizing a local urban context.