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Randy Moore
Sehoya Cotner
 on January 22, 2013

Evolution and Creationism in America’s Biology Classrooms

High school biology courses have a strong, lingering impact on students' views of evolution and creationism, yet statistics show that many high schoolers are receiving a sub-par science education.


Although the evolution-creationism controversy has been one of the most abiding controversies in America during the past several decades, public attitudes about evolution and creationism have changed relatively little during that time. Indeed, since 1982, Gallup has consistently reported that 40-47% of Americans endorse young-Earth creationism, 35-40% believe that humans evolved but that God guided that process, and 9-16% believe that humans evolved but that God had no role in the process (Gallup, 2011). Similarly, a Harris Poll reported, “many more people believe in miracles, angels, hell and the devil than in Darwin’s theory of evolution” (Harris Poll, 2009).

These facts persist in the face of educational guidelines in most states that mandate the teaching of evolution, court decisions that have declared the teaching of creationism as unconstitutional and having “no scientific merit or educational value as science [because it] is simply not science” (McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, 1982), thousands of scientific papers and books that document evidence for evolution, direct observations of evolution, and countless endorsements of evolution (and rejections of creationism) by professional scientific organizations. Decades of costly science education reform have not reformed popular acceptance of evolution: most of the public continues to see religion and mainstream science as diametrically opposed, and when presented with that choice, most will choose the supernatural over science, even when it means rejecting the foundations of modern biology. Why?

Many factors – for example, the media and religion — influence people’s beliefs about the evolution and creationism, as well as their acceptance of science. One of these influences is education. What are students taught about evolution and creationism?

Evolution and Creationism in High School Biology Courses

Students have widely variable introductions to evolution in their high school biology courses. Although most states have educational guidelines that mandate the teaching of evolution, only about 70% of students entering college report that their high school biology courses included evolution (in some form) and not creationism. Although educational guidelines provide important support for teachers wanting to teach evolution, these guidelines are irrelevant to many biology teachers and administrators.

For a detailed account of how skeptical Christian college students navigate the many social and religious concerns to reconcile their faith with evolutionary creation, see Mark Winslow’s series.

Approximately 20% of students are taught neither creationism nor evolution in their high school biology courses (Moore, 2007). Another “cautious 60%” of biology teachers want to avoid controversy, and neither advocate evolution nor explicitly endorse nonscientific alternatives (Berkman and Plutzer, 2011). Even when teachers do teach evolution, they often cover the topic in a trivial or disparaging way (Bandoli, 2008, and references therein), thereby perpetuating a cycle of ignorance reinforced by popular opinion (Berkman and Plutzer, 2011). When these students arrive on college campuses, they are predisposed to remain skeptical of evolution, for their perceptions and prior knowledge strongly influence their learning. This is especially important for evolution, for many students view evolution as negative and undesirable (Brem, Ranney, and Schindel, 2003) and sense an “overlap of some ideas that the theory [of evolution] advocates with other social, epistemological, and religious beliefs” (Hakoyem and BouJaode, 2008).

The Creationists Down the Hall

Most Americans reject evolution, and most biologists have grown accustomed to headlines such as “Four in 10 Americans Believe in Strict Creationism” (Gallup, 2010) and “In U.S., 46% Hold Creationist View of Human Origins” (Gallup, 2012). However, most biologists are less familiar with the fact that creationism is thriving among undergraduate biology majors (Verhey, 2005; also see above), biology graduate students (Gregory and Ellis, 2009), and former students who have become biology teachers (Berkman, Pacheco, and Plutzer, 2008; Moore, 2007, and references therein).

Despite their training, many biology teachers are creationists. Indeed, fully one-sixth of biology teachers are young-Earth creationists (Berkman, Pacheco, and Plutzer, 2008), and a presentation of young-Earth creationism as legitimate science would presumably confuse students about the basic tenets of science in general, and of evolution in particular. Because teachers’ personal views about a subject affect their teaching of the subject (Carlesen, 1991; Grossman, 1989), and because teachers with strong religious convictions accept evolution less often than their less-religious peers (Trani, 2004), it is not surprising that many of today’s biology teachers explicitly teach creationism in their biology courses. Although few biology teachers in public schools teach creationism without mentioning evolution, 20-25% of today’s biology teachers teach evolution and creationism in their courses (Moore, 2007, and references therein). Although a handful of creationism-based biology teachers are confronted for their malpractice (e.g., Rodney LeVake; see Moore, 2004), most are tolerated — and sometimes even encouraged — to teach creationism, possibly because of pressure from the public and administrators to ignore evolution and/or teach creationism (Cavanagh, 2005, Verango and Toppo, 2005). As Don Aguillard, the lead plaintiff in Edwards v. Aguillard(1987) noted in 1999 (Moore, 1999), “Creationism is alive and well among biology teachers.”

When Biology Teachers Teach Creationism, What Do They Teach?

When biology teachers teach creationism, they usually present only a particular version of the Judeo-Christian creation story. Moreover, these stories are often presented as a scientific alternative to evolution (Moore, 2008), despite the fact that creation science has “no scientific or educational value as science [because it] is simply not science” (McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, 1982). Relatively few biology teachers who teach creationism present it as religious idea, philosophical idea, or as part of a survey of several religions (Moore, 2008). They do not “teach the controversy,” in other words, but present the relationship between modern evolutionary biology and their faith as one of self-evident conflict, assuming (and teaching) that their version of creationism is the only true alternative.

Does It Matter When Biology Teachers Teach Creationism?

Yes—high school biology courses have a strong and lingering impact on students’ views of evolution and creationism (Moore and Cotner, 2009). Students who were taught creationism in high school know significantly less about evolution when they enter college than do students who were taught evolution in high school. Similarly, students who claimed that most of their knowledge of evolution came from non-school sources (e.g., the media, church) knew less about evolution than did students who claimed that their primary source of knowledge about evolution was their high school biology class (Moore, Cotner, and Bates, 2009).

Solving the Problem?

Several studies have claimed that additional evolution-related training will help improve the teaching of evolution in high schools. We are not nearly as optimistic. Although workshops and short-courses presumably help and encourage teachers willing to consider teaching evolution, focused instruction about evolution often does not affect students’ or teachers’ acceptance of evolution (Alters and Nelson, 2002; Chinsamy and Plaganyi, 2008). Moreover, these workshops will not reach creationism-based biology teachers who are dedicated to substituting their religious beliefs for science in their classes.

In our experience, these teachers rarely attend such workshops, even if they are paid to do so, and even then their acceptance of evolution is unaffected. After all, these teachers have access to and know the evidence for evolution – it’s widely available, including in the textbooks that they adopt and use in their classes – and they are not convinced by that evidence. We know of no evidence that the availability of such solely science-focused workshops, seminars, and other forms of evolution-related education will significantly affect what creationism-based biology teachers teach. Since the impediments to better teaching of evolution are primarily the philosophical and religious views of biology teachers, programs that do not address the more personal, “non-science” issues of science educators directly and effectively are likely to have little impact on what students learn in high-school biology classrooms. Instead, if further fact-based instruction in evolution is part of the answer, it is likely to be most effective with young children, who are developmentally primed to seek explanations for natural phenomena. However, evolution instruction is essentially absent prior to high-school biology; by high school, a student’s teleological demands have likely been met by supernatural explanations, creating a cycle of adults who know little about evolution and teach creationism-flavored biology.

Creationism has long been popular among biology teachers (Moore, 2007), and there is no evidence that improved state educational standards, proclamations by professional organizations, and decades of science education reform have made much difference. As John Scopes commented almost 50 years ago, “I don’t think the world changes very rapidly” (Anonymous, 1966).

About the authors