Teaching to the enemy

Countering ignorance of evolution in the front line of America's university classrooms

Rob Carey 18 August 2008

Two camps: not all evolutionary non-believers are alike

Unless scientists as a group become more effective at promoting education below the college level, ignorance will persist

I have given up on wiping up the dust.

In the high deserts of Southwest Wyoming, dust is ubiquitous, and I have surrendered to its inevitable coating on all my belongings that have the bad luck of sitting outside.

Besides dust, the sagebrush steppe has other resources to offer. Oil and natural gas, for instance, causing a booming economy. And scientific ignorance. Lots of it.

When I took a job teaching freshman general biology in Wyoming (the least populous of all 50 US states, nestled in the Rocky Mountain West), I had no concept of the public’s lack of acquaintance with science. Sure, the teaching demo had been about evolution, and the search committee had asked whether or not I would bring religion into my classroom. Sure, I had seen the poll results about a large proportion of the US population not accepting evolution. The red flag that should have gone up in my mind at this point did not. This was surely due to years of traveling in academic circles, primarily in the field of molecular evolution, during my graduate education. I was soon to find out how little academia and the “real world” have in common.

Freshman general biology is a survey course. That is, we cover a lot of topics in not much depth. As a big believer in Dobzhansky’s statement, "Nothing in Biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution”, I pepper all the topics in the course with evolutionary theory, and include a more intensive study of the topic in the second half of the course, after we have covered some basic genetics for example.

In the course of doing this, something became apparent almost immediately: a good proportion of my students (many of whom are the first in their family to attend college) had an aversion to learning about evolution. These fell broadly into two camps. The first, and by far larger group, were uninformed about evolution, but were pretty sure it somehow contradicted their religious faith. The second group was actually misinformed (presumably by creationist propaganda) about evolution and was sure it was a scientifically untenable hypothesis, thrust upon society by an atheistic scientific elite.

These two groups manifest themselves in different ways. The first group shows their ignorance through questions like “How does an ape decide it needs to evolve?” or “How could a monkey give birth to a human?” The second group has issued challenges to me about the “hoax” of Ernst Haeckel’s recapitulation theory (apparently confusing a failed hypothesis with fraud), or about the Cambrian explosion (mistakenly believing there are no pre-Cambrian fossils), or the claim that speciation cannot be observed, or that mutations cannot generate new “information”. Others in this group seem more preoccupied with philosophy than science, with one particularly memorable student insisting that humans were not animals because they were created in God’s image. Sometimes religion gets more directly involved, as with the student who tried to use Noah’s flood as an explanation for extinctions. You get the idea.

To a scientist, or indeed, to any scientifically literate American, all of this may sound very disheartening. Fortunately, I bring good news! The cure, as ever, for ignorance is a simple one: education. I have changed the way I teach evolution, with what I consider great effect. To get skeptical students to listen, I engage in some seduction. I tell them that if they want to oppose evolution, they will need to understand it thoroughly to argue effectively. Then, instead of glossing over the evidence for common descent and diving straight into population genetics and allele frequencies, as I did when I was a novice instructor, I now spend a lot of time reviewing the evidence for evolution. After all, they have never heard it before.

For the first, much larger group of skeptics, this is nearly always sufficient to win them over. Memorably, I had a 40-something, nontraditional student come up to me after class, awash in excitement. Apparently, she and her husband had always found evolution to be problematic. They had often discussed the idea that if humans came from chimps, why weren’t humans wandering, presumably dazed and confused, out of the jungle today? Now that she understood how it really worked, she was breathless to get home and share her newfound understanding with her partner. It still puts a lump in my throat to think of her. This reaction of understanding, followed by acceptance and (if necessary) reconciliation with religion is typical. It should make everyone hopeful that even a very brief exposure to the overwhelming evidence for evolution will bring nearly everyone around. Ignorance is certainly responsible, in my opinion, for a good chunk of those unfortunate poll respondents in the US.

The second group of more aggressive skeptics is a tougher case. I fear that I don’t sway very many of them. While it is true that religion and evolution are not irreconcilable, there is no denying that evolution does conflict with literal Biblical interpretation. “Intelligent design” is an empty suit in my experience. Nearly all of these students come from a young-earth creationist point of view. I would point out, however, that these are a very small minority of the students I encounter.

So who is the “enemy” that hampers evolution education in the US? Creationist organizations and propaganda (shame on you, Ben Stein) are certainly a factor, although more so, I suspect, in the case of the hardcore skeptics. But where does the more prevalent ignorance come from? To put it simply, it comes from a general failure of science education in America. A middle school teacher recently wrote an article for my local newspaper about how the theory of evolution is full of holes and, thus, he teaches creationism in his science classroom. With a paucity of educational integrity like that, what chance do the students have? Even more unfortunate is that, unless these students go on to college, this will never be corrected. The faculty at my institution wrote a letter to the editor of the paper, calling attention to the irresponsibility of teaching religion in science class, and offering information to anyone interested in evolution. It’s a start. Certainly, scientists like Ken Miller (interviewed on LabLit here) do an excellent job of defending evolution in the public sector, but unless scientists as a group become more effective at promoting education below the college level, ignorance will persist. In a sense, I have seen the enemy, and it is us.

Unlike the dust from the desert, however, it is not impossible to be rid of scientific ignorance. I’ll not give up on wiping it out in this beautiful part of America I now call home.