The life history theory of the Lord of the Rings: a randomized controlled trial of using fact versus fiction to teach life history theory



Abstract Does asking students to apply concepts from evolution to a fictional context, compared to a novel biological context, improve their understanding, exam performance or enjoyment of the material? Or does it harm their education by taking time away from true biology? At our institution, we sometimes ask students to apply life history theory to species from fictional movies, television shows or books. Previously, we had used a factual article on life history theory, to supplement our textbook. We wrote an alternative introduction to life history theory (included in the additional files for educational use), using Tolkien’s fictional species from his Lord of the Rings books. We also introduce the biological species definition, sexual selection, sexual dimorphism, kin selection, and the handicap principle, as those concepts arose naturally in the discussion of the fictional species. Life history theory predicts strong correlations between traits affecting reproduction, growth and survival, which are all shaped by the ecology of the species. Thus, we can teach life history theory by asking students to infer traits and aspects of the ecology of a fictional species that have never been described, based on the partial information included in the fictional sources. In a large, third year undergraduate evolution course at Arizona State University, we randomized 16 tutorial sections of a total of 264 students to either read our article on the life history theory of Lord of the Rings, or the factual article we had used previously in the course. We found that the exam performance on life history questions for the two groups were almost identical, except that fans of The Lord of the Rings who had read our article did better on the exam. Enjoyment, engagement and interest in life history theory was approximately a full point higher on a 5-point Likert scale for the students that had read the fictional article, and was highly statistically significantly different (T-test p
Date made available2022

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