Charlotte1 was an amazing student, great at science, skilled at finding ways to make the most complex concepts fun and easy to understand, but she, like many others felt a tangible discomfort with evolution. Five years ago, Charlotte was a student of mine, truly one of the brightest and best of her cohort. Looking at her work, her major in science, and hearing her talk, I would have never known that she struggled with the concept evolution. Yet before she ever stepped foot into her own classroom, her mind was on edge about whether and how she would address this topic in her teaching. Upon learning about my research, she came to speak with me about her struggles and hear more about my journey surrounding science and beliefs. The person that knocked on my door was but a shadow of the outgoing, scientifically brilliant young woman who I had become familiar with seeing in my labs and she carried with her the weight of the “controversy” that has become a true taboo in many facets of American culture.
Charlotte came from a family deeply engaged in an evangelical denomination of ministry. Like so many of us around the South, she had been taught from a young age that evolution was a direct contradiction to the teaching of the Bible, which she held to be the literal and infallible “Word of God”. To question any one part was to question it all, with the end result being loss of a favored place in Heaven. Complicating things further was the evangelical dogma itself, holding that the individual is not only responsible for their own soul but for the souls of all others with whom they have contact in their lifetime. How could she possibly teach evolution when she could hardly speak about it? She knew the content, she understood how it worked, and she felt it was logical, but at the same time it was eating her alive from the inside because she felt that it was contradictory to the beliefs that had framed her entire life. She purposefully kept her beliefs quiet in her science classes because comments made in passing by other students and openly by some of her professors suggested that her beliefs were not welcome in those spaces. One professor even went so far as to call out religion in an upper level biology course to the point that she never spoke with that professor again because she felt that she would be attacked for being a Christian.
She could not talk about her beliefs at university and could not talk about evolution at home but she was supposed to somehow talk to her students about all of this in her classroom? What if, by teaching evolution, she led others away from their beliefs instead of being a witness for them? What if, by talking in any way about beliefs, she ended up in trouble with the law? How could she manage to navigate the expected backlash and obstacles from students, parents, and administration and still approach the standards laid forth in curriculum and in the field itself? For her, and many others, this represented a no-win situation. The resulting choices are to teach at your own peril and risk your salvation and that of others at worst and at best experience a great conflict with the community or not teach evolution and avoid the problem altogether, even if it means not teaching to the standards. For so many, it is much easier to just walk away, or to gloss over in quick passing. It is very hard, if you do not come from a place where beliefs represent such strong cultural currency, to understand this as so much more than a passing choice. For so many this experience is a hard reality and one that, for them, is perilous and all too real. The end result is a large portion of the population, whose only formal science experiences come in high school, having a gap in understanding of the unifying theory of biology but also an even more enhanced sense of controversy surrounding that field of study.
There has long been a discussion in the scientific and science education communities about the dismal state of evolution acceptance in the United States2. For those not aware, the United States presently ranks second to last in terms of acceptance of evolution among all other first tier nations worldwide3. In fact, the only nation that has lower acceptance rates is Turkey, a country where the national education governing body has, just this year, presented new national standards for education that are noticeably missing their previous coverage of evolution4. In one of the longest running Gallup polls, the poll on evolutionary thinking in the United States has shown little change in people’s ways of thinking about evolution across the three decades it has been administered5. This is a frustration point to many in the field, as traditionally the more we learn, the more evidence there is for something, the more likely people (namely the public) are open to receiving it as scientifically accurate. This is not true of evolution and research in the area has shown patterns of very low statistical relationships between knowledge of evolution and acceptance6. When it comes to evolution, it is not how much you know that determines whether you accept. It is possible to be highly knowledgeable and reject evolution for reasons beyond evidence, just as it is highly possible to have little factual knowledge of evolution and be widely accepting of the theory7. This is especially problematic when considering that a major portion of the approach to the evolution “controversy” over the last century has been focused on providing more evidence but without consideration of the many other factors that come into play.
What I do is focus on those intersections of science and society, exploring the spaces in-between and how we can bridge the gaps between the two. One way I am doing that is by collecting and exploring the stories of acceptance and rejection in the region of the United States most widely known for its anti-evolutionary actions, the South. A quick online search on anti-science legislation and state actions will bring up a long list of court cases, House Bills, Resolutions, and other evidence of attempts to ban, disclaim, and circumvent the teaching of evolution8. This is a region where students are 10x less likely to receive any instruction on evolution and where 84% do not receive accurate or detailed evolution instruction9. When taken in tandem with the fact that a large number of people in the United States receive their only formal science instruction in high school and many are receiving instruction that perpetuates a “controversy” that is non-existent in scientific circles, it is no surprise that our public perceptions of evolution are so skewed10. What is pivotal in changing those perceptions is fostering a deeper understanding of the reasoning behind why so many people actively reject evolution, even when they may know a great deal about it, and why so many refuse to even talk about it. In the South, evolution represents a true taboo, hence the reason for that timid knock at my door so many years ago.
When we talk about the evolution “controversy” many people have in their minds a stereotype of the kind of person who does not accept evolution, what they look like, what they believe. It is all too common to hear comments about how those who buy into the very idea of a “controversy” are ignorant of the evidence or lack understanding of the basics of science, but those stereotypes and conceptions are as much a part of the issue with improving evolution acceptance as the anti-evolution literature and sentiment that is spouted on the other side of the aisle. Charlotte represents so many of the people with whom I have talked in my research. People young and old who are in fact interested in science and open to most of the science to which they are exposed. They do not see science as a conspiracy, they do not think that science is made up or represents a hoax. They are most often highly intelligent, well-versed, passionate, and eloquent people. They also happen to be a part of a system of beliefs that can represent strong contradictions between science, the physical explanations of physical events in nature; and the supernatural dogma attached to many of those same events.
I would argue that far more of the population is open to the idea of evolution than what most expect11. I frequently liken the situation to the bell curve, with resistant anti-evolutionary thinking on one end and pro-evolutionary acceptance on the other. The greatest percentage of the population falls somewhere between the two, meaning that they could fall in either direction in the course of their lives. Sadly, what I see is that too many fall away from the scientific understandings, but for reasons different from what you might think. While it is easy for some to place all the blame for anti-evolution sentiment on beliefs, which admittedly do impact how people view evolution12, the greater problem lies in how scientists are seen to view those beliefs and the perceived dichotomy between people of science and people of religion. To state very clearly here, I am in no way advocating for intelligent design or any other blending of evolution with religious accounts. What I do advocate for is greater understanding, appreciation for diversity, and space for people who have beliefs to coexist with their understandings of evolution, for goals that center around science literacy and understanding as the outcomes for all students. To reach that level, to get to a point where we are no longer in this holding pattern with public understandings and acceptance, we must rethink our approach, seek greater understandings of the worldviews and reasoning that are not in agreement with our own, and actively work to bridge those gaps. I choose to be a voice for my science and the culture in which I grew up, actively working on bridging the gaps in between. I could not be more excited about the great potential I see in the many who share that goal, in making a difference for the future of evolution education.
1 Pseudonym used
2 Glaze, A. L. and M. J. Goldston (2015). “U.S. Science Teaching and Learning of Evolution: A Critical Review of the Literature 2000-2014.” Science Education 99(3): 500-518.
3 Miller, J. D., et al. (2006). “Public acceptance of evolution.” Science 313.
4Kingsley, Patrick. “Turkey Drops Evolution From Curriculum, Angering Secularists.” The New York Times. June 23, 2017. Accessed July 14, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/23/world/europe/turkey-evolution-high-school-curriculum.html.
5 Gallup G. American beliefs: evolution vs. Bible’s explanation of human origins. 2006. http://www.gallup.com/poll/21811/american-beliefs-evolution-vs-bibles-explanation-human-origins.aspx. Accessed 2 Nov 2011.
6 Glaze, A. L., et al. (2014). “Evolution in the Southeastern USA: Factors Influencing Acceptance and Rejection in Pre-Service Science Teachers.” International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education 13(6): 1189-1209.
7 Sinatra, G. A., et al. (2003). “Intentions and beliefs in students’ understanding and acceptance of biological evolution.” J Res Sci Teach 40.
8“Court Cases.” Court Cases | NCSE. Accessed July 14, 2017. https://ncse.com/learn/court-cases
9 Bowman, K. L. (2008). “The evolution battles in high-school science classes: who is teaching what?” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6(2): 69-74.
10 Long, D. E. (2012). “The politics of teaching evolution, science education standards, and Being a creationist.” Journal of Research in Science Teaching 49(1): 122-139.a
11 Glaze, A. L. (2013). Evolution and pre-service science teachers. Dissertation.; Glaze, A. L., et al 2014, 2015.
12 Glaze, A. L. et al (2014); Rissler, L. J., et al. (2014). “The relative importance of religion and education on university students’ views of evolution in the Deep South and state science standards across the United States.” Evolution: Education and Outreach 7(1): 24.