Evolution has a public relations problem. By that, we do not so much mean the well-known problem of evolution acceptance on religious grounds – a problem that the evolution education community has been grappling with for decades and which is still a major focus of much research and discourse. Instead, we refer to another evolution acceptance problem, one which includes not only religious but secular and scientific communities alike. This is the problem of accepting the relevance of evolutionary theory for understanding the human condition.
This acceptance problem comes both in moralistic and scientific varieties. Some deny the relevance of evolutionary theory on the grounds that it implies or promotes an immoral social code, others deny the relevance on the grounds that evolutionary theory is not capable or helpful in explaining the complexities of our species. We argue here that both strains of denial are rooted in deeply held misconceptions about the current state of evolutionary anthropology, and that current practices in evolution education are not adequate to address the chronic public relations problem plaguing our field.
Does evolution science imply an immoral human nature?
Consider a commonly referenced study in the evolution education literature (Brem et al., 2003) which asked US undergraduate college students about their perceptions of the personal and social consequences of evolutionary theory in five potential areas of impact. Among other items, students were asked to rate to what degree they found evolutionary theory makes it harder or easier to justify selfishness, to justify racial and ethnic discrimination, or that evolutionary theory increases a sense of purpose and self-determination. Overwhelmingly, students held quite negative attitudes towards evolution regarding these notions. Furthermore, knowledge about evolution did not differ significantly between students across nine identified belief groups (from strong creationist to non-theistic evolutionist), and the extent of negative perceptions was strikingly similar across these belief groups.
The authors of the study conclude: “While we would hope that knowing more about evolution would lead to a richer understanding of complicated issues, these results suggest that the more a person knows about evolution, the more negative they become.”
What is going on here? On the one hand, and of critical importance, what does it mean in this context to “know about evolution” according to the study, or according to evolution educators more generally? How can students be at once categorized as “knowing about evolution” or having a correct understanding of evolution, and at the same time be found to hold misconceptions about the inferences that evolutionary theory implies? We suggest these claims demonstrate an inherently flawed, or at best, inadequate concept of ‘evolution understanding’ that is broadly pervasive in our field.
One could argue that this study is perhaps just an isolated phenomenon, not representative of currently held notions of most people today. After all, less than 200 US students participated in this study, and it is almost 20 years old. Our own work suggests something different.
Are humans a cooperative species?
In our day-to-day educational outreach efforts, we very routinely encounter a similar angle of this “public relations” problem as it relates to conceptions of evolved human behavior in classrooms in Germany. We developed a lesson in which we present students and teachers with a series of comparative behavioral experiments that explored the abilities of pairs of 6-year-old children and pairs of adult chimpanzees to work together around a shared limited resource (Koomen & Herrmann, 2018a, b). After learning about the experimental design, we ask students and teachers to make predictions about the outcomes of the study, particularly, which species they think would be more successful in cooperating around the shared resource and why.
Without fail, the majority of participants – from 6th graders to practicing biology teachers, tend to argue that chimpanzees must be more successful in cooperating in this experiment, offering explanations such as “chimpanzees must live in groups in nature and they know that they must share”, “chimpanzees know that resources are limited”, “chimpanzees will negotiate and coordinate”, “children are humans, and humans are selfish”, “humans are greedy animals”. Indeed, we have found the tendency to respond in this fashion seems to increase as participants gain more biology education (with some practicing biology educators universally responding that chimps, not humans, are the cooperative species).
When we show these student and teacher conceptions to evolutionary anthropologists, we also get a predictable reaction – a kind of shocked gasp about what the public seems to think about our ability to cooperate, compared to chimpanzees. As all practicing scientists in our field rightly predict about this experiment, it is the human children who more often engage their evolved prosocial preferences, language, and rule-making abilities in order to become increasingly successful in this task, compared to the devolving dominance driven cooperation dynamics found in our closest evolutionary cousins.
It would seem here that if students (and teachers) “knew more” about this line of evolution science, then by definition they would be less inclined to answer as the respondents in the Brem et al. (2003) study did.
Why do these negative connotations persist?
If modern evolutionary anthropology actually yields clear insights into the relative capacities and tendencies for prosocial cooperation among our species compared to other great apes, then why do these negative connotations about our field persist within the public imagination?
We argue that a handful of norms and conceptualizations within mainstream evolution education prevent more full engagement with 21st-century evolution science as it pertains to the human condition, and may simultaneously sustain or reinforce popular misconceptions (see Hanisch & Eirdosh 2020a,b).
In our on-going and extensive review of teaching materials, textbooks, and assessment tools in evolution education, we frequently find that the framing of causality and focal traits used for explanatory examples may be problematic in terms of helping students to really understand evolution at a conceptual level, particularly the evolution of our own species. Importantly, there is a wide variation in teaching practices in evolution, so we offer a few examples here that frame a relative emphasis of certain conceptions at the expense of others, which we have found to be significantly pervasive across the U.S. and German evolution education communities.
One example of problematic conceptualization is a more or less explicit emphasis on purely genetic causation of phenotypes (often regardless of the trait!), which may reinforce a notion that the kinds of human traits that students and humans are often most interested in or concerned about (such as our capacity for self-determination of thoughts and actions), are merely the result of genetic predispositions. This leads to rather unhelpful and problematic framings of human traits in evolution education materials, such as “Only a fraction of our genome is responsible for everything ‘human’ ” (Linder, 2017, p. 321), or “Some scientists believe that language came about ca. 40 000 years ago through a mutation” (Jaenicke & Paul, 2004, p. 434). In both of these cases, it is our human genome that develops within a sea of complex cultural conditions that results in the continuously evolving characteristics of our species. What students need instead of these broad and overly strong claims about genetic causation, are clear conceptual tools for understanding the relative interplay of multiple streams of inheritance in the developmental causation of diverse traits, analyzed on a trait-by-trait basis.
Similarly, we commonly find a more or less explicit emphasis on individuals being passively selected by an environment (often framed as fully external to the organism), which may reinforce a notion that organisms and their behaviors have no role to play in evolution, and so our sense of purpose or self-determination may seem to not fit into this conceptualization of evolutionary change. Evolution education has been fighting hard to weed out any such language invoking goal-directed behavior as a teleological misconception having no place in the biology classroom (see Eirdosh & Hanisch 2020; Hanisch & Eirdosh 2020c). What students need instead of these broad and overly strong claims about the passive blindness of evolutionary change, are clear conceptual tools for understanding the relative interplay of random and goal-directed processes in the evolution of organisms with more or fewer capacities for goal-directed and intentional agency.
Finally, a more or less explicit emphasis on competition between individuals, at the expense of cooperation, may reinforce a notion that evolution is largely about the “survival of the fittest”, and so selfishness may be conveyed to or construed by students as being the most adaptive trait across the board. By logical extension, when we see the evolutionary success of our species, surely it must be because we humans are the most selfish of all! For example, in one often used evolution assessment tool (Anderson et al., 2002), we find the item “organisms work together (cooperate) and don’t compete.” which is meant to be a distractor item indicating a misconception. Framed as a hard-and-fast generalization, this would seem highly problematic and not helpful in developing an understanding of how evolution operates.
In another evolution understanding assessment tool focusing on human examples (Nettle, 2010), a question is:
“How, in general, would you expect a person to behave?
- A) In such a way as to benefit the species;
- B) In such a way as to gain the maximum benefit for him or herself.”
This seems to be a choice between two problematic answers since neither of them encapsulates the group structures that humans have evolved to sustain the benefits of cooperative action. The “correct” answer that is targeted here is option B – arguably reinforcing a notion of human as rational and selfish fitness-maximizers (Homo oeconomicus), a long dismissed model, more representative of chimpanzees than humans (Henrich et al. 2001). Importantly, neither of the two choices actually encapsulate the targeted concept of inclusive fitness – which aims to explain the adaptive value of behaviors that do not necessarily or exclusively result in the maximum benefit to the organism performing the behavior, but also to others in the group who are affected by the behavior, such as related others or cooperating members of social groups. What students need instead of these broad and overly strong emphases on individual-level benefits as contrasted with species-level benefits, are clear conceptual tools for thinking about the variously adaptive advantages and challenges of interacting with others over different scales of time and social organization.
And so it is no wonder that students, but also many evolution educators themselves, are wary about the use of evolution to explore human behavior, cognition, and culture. The human traits we tend to hold dear and that tend to define our everyday experience – from our sense of community and self-identity, moral intuitions like fairness, empathy, and liberty, to language and thought, to music and art, to our goals and values – do not seem to lend themselves to evolutionary explanations as offered by gene-focused accounts and unidirectional organism-environment relationships. At best, evolutionary theory would seem irrelevant to understanding these traits, and at worst, evolutionary theory would seem to imply that such traits can not be a part of the rational individual nature of our species.
How to fix evolution’s public relations problem?
Nothing in current evolution science prescribes these relative emphases in evolution education on simple genotype-phenotype relations, on the passivity of organisms, or on competition over cooperation – in fact, quite the opposite! Among the most important advances in evolutionary science in the 21st century are precisely those related to the recognition (and often a re-recognition, forgotten during the rise of gene-centrism) that genes are but one information source involved in the inheritance and shaping of behavioral and cognitive traits, that organismal behavior may play a very important role in the shaping of evolutionary trajectories, and that social interdependencies shape selection pressures for cooperative traits in many species and on various levels of organization. All of these insights and processes seem to be particularly relevant in the evolution of our own species over historical time scales and need to be invoked for a proper evolutionary explanation of human behavior in the modern world.
We argue that the only way forward for evolution education in terms of fixing the public relations problem, and hence to advance evolution understanding and acceptance, is to systematically engage with the 21st-century science of evolution. Maybe we need to redefine and reassess what evolution understanding means in light of modern thinking in evolutionary anthropology. Maybe then, evolution “understanding” will not be mysteriously correlated with misunderstanding. Maybe then we will find that the more a person knows about evolution, the more helpful their conceptions of themselves and their fellow humans become.
Anderson, D. L., Fisher, K. M., & Norman, G. J. (2002). Development and Evaluation of the Conceptual Inventory of Natural Selection. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 10(10), 952–978. https://doi.org/10.1002/tea.10053
Brem, S. K., Ranney, M., & Schindel, J. (2003). Perceived consequences of evolution: College students perceive negative personal and social impact in evolutionary theory. Science Education, 87(2), 181–206. https://doi.org/10.1002/sce.10105
Eirdosh, D., & Hanisch, S. (2020) Finding purpose in evolution education. Evolution: This View of Life. The Evolution Institute. https://evolution-institute.org/finding-purpose-in-evolution-education/
Hanisch, S., & Eirdosh, D. (2020a). Conceptual clarification of evolution as an interdisciplinary science. EdArXiv. https://doi.org/10.35542/osf.io/vr4t5
Hanisch, S., & Eirdosh, D. (2020b). Educational potential of teaching evolution as an interdisciplinary science. EdArXiv. https://doi.org/10.35542/osf.io/7md3v
Hanisch, S., & Eirdosh, D. (2020c). Causal mapping as a teaching tool for reflecting on causation in human evolution. EdArXiv. https://doi.org/10.35542/osf.io/y62jw
Henrich, J., Boyd, R., Bowles, S., Camerer, C., Fehr, E., Gintis, H., & McElreath, R. (2001). In search of homo economicus: behavioral experiments in 15 small-scale societies. American Economic Review, 91(2), 73-78.
Jaenicke, J., & Paul, A. (2004). Biologie Heute entdecken. SII. Schroedel Verlag.
Koomen, R., & Herrmann, E. (2018). Chimpanzees overcome the tragedy of the commons with dominance. Scientific Reports, 8(1), 10389. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-28416-8
Koomen, R., & Herrmann, E. (2018). An investigation of children’s strategies for overcoming the tragedy of the commons. Nature Human Behaviour, 2, 348–355. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0327-2
Linder, H. (2017). LINDER Biologie SI – Nordrhein-Westfalen: Schülerband 2. Schroedel Verlag.
Nettle, D. (2010). Understanding of Evolution May Be Improved by Thinking about People. Evolutionary Psychology, 8(2), 147470491000800. https://doi.org/10.1177/147470491000800206