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

Carlo C. Maley, Sareh Seyedi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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 < 0.001 for all questions). There was no difference between the two groups in their familiarity or enjoyment of The Lord of the Rings stories themselves. Reading the article that taught life history theory by applying it to the species of The Lord of the Rings neither helped nor harmed exam performance, but did significantly improve student enjoyment, engagement and interest in life history theory, and even improved exam scores in students who liked The Lord of the Rings. Using fiction to teach science may also help to engage non-traditional students, such as world-builders, outside of our institutions of education. By encouraging students to apply the scientific ideas to their favorite stories from their own cultures, we may be able to improve both inclusivity and education.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number2
JournalEvolution: Education and Outreach
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2022
Externally publishedYes


  • Kin selection
  • Life history theory
  • Lord of the Rings
  • Sexual dimorphism
  • Sexual selection
  • Species definition
  • Tolkien

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Education


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