“Do you find, when you're teaching, that your students have any particular difficulties in understanding the "nuts and bolts" of how evolution works?... Could the misconceptions [about evolution] be due to evolution being genuinely difficult to understand on a purely technical level?”
This question, posted on the BioLogos Forum last Fall, intrigued me. As a biology professor who teaches evolution to college freshman, I too used to wonder why evolution seemed so much more difficult for students to learn than other biology topics. And like this commenter wondered, how is it that so many “really bad arguments against evolution get so much traction? Arguments such as ‘if we evolved from apes then why are there still apes?’ or ‘what use is half an eye?’ or about cats turning into dogs, or about crocoducks, or about Scrabble tiles being dropped on a table and producing Shakespeare, and so on.”
I too often encounter questions about cats turning into dogs and other such misunderstandings. And yes, I do know these ideas come from statements made in the young earth-creationist literature, but why do students so easily accept these outlandish “refutations” of evolution, yet have such a difficult time with actually understanding evolutionary science?
In 2013, I began researching how students learn—or sometimes don’t learn—evolution in an effort to identify best practices for promoting evolution understanding and acceptance among Christians. Since then, I’ve identified a few probable causes for the challenges students have learning evolution, and it’s not because evolution is “technically” more difficult to understand than other biology topics. Below I explain a couple of my findings, and what I do during my first days of evolution instruction to try to minimize barriers to understanding and acceptance.
Acknowledge the Influence of Learners’ Conceptual Ecologies
Like most topics in science, understanding abstract concepts, making sense of new terminology, and connecting multiple levels of organization can be challenging. Evolution is no different. A deep understanding of the theory of biological evolution requires one to understand and integrate a variety of biological fields including genetics, molecular mechanisms, stochastic processes, population interactions, and ecosystem influences, just to name a few. But many biological topics require the same level of interdisciplinary integration, yet learners don’t harbor an overabundance of misunderstandings for these other topics in the same way that they do for evolution. Why?
Education research studies tell us that a number of factors influence students’ perceptions of and disposition towards evolution, which ultimately affects their understanding of evolution, or lack thereof.1 This combination of factors is referred to as a learner’s “conceptual ecology,” and includes a person’s worldview, religious and epistemological beliefs, views about the nature of science and religion, and contextual factors such as religious background and pressure from parents. Many or all of these factors are in play when students learn about evolution. And due to perceived conflicts between biblical teaching and the claims of science, evolution is among the most divisive and emotionally charged science topic for learners.
This list of social and psychological influences explains why after traditional instruction, learners still harbor conceptions about crocoducks and dogs turning into cats (or is it cats turning into dogs?). Most approaches to evolution instruction assume that if learners could just see the abundant, consistent, and convincing evidence for evolution, they wouldn’t be able to reject it. And when they do, we just give them more data. But employing cognitive-only approaches to evolution instruction ignores the issues that interfere with and even hinder one’s ability to consider the data in the first place. So how can we address and mitigate these other influences?
To address the conceptual ecologies of my students, I start the first day of instruction by bringing “the elephant out” in the room and stating that it’s normal to have anxiety about this topic because of all the caricatures of evolution conflicting with faith. I then directly address the most common fears Christian students seem to have. First is the notion that accepting evolution means you can’t believe in a creator. I dispel this idea by providing a clear definition of biological evolution to show that it is completely neutral about whether a higher power is behind it. I discuss the origin of the belief that science proves that God and the supernatural realm do not exist—philosophical naturalism—and explain that this is a belief system, not a scientific conclusion). Just because we can describe something in scientific terms does not leave less room for God in the process.
Second, I address the fear that accepting evolution puts you on the “slippery slope” to rejecting the whole Bible. I explain that for me and other evolutionary creationists, studying evolution allows us to marvel at God’s creative and majestic processes. I assure my learners that there are thousands of biblical scholars, theologians, and pastors that have found a way to bridge their faith and biological evolution. In fact, viewing evolution through the eyes of faith has increased their belief in God, not diminished it.
By helping learners develop an awareness of the power their fears have on their attitudes towards evolution, I help them dispel their anxiety so that it’s not a stumbling block to understanding. And once the fear is mitigated, I can then address their defensiveness more effectively.
Minimize the Defensive Posture
In many Christian settings, when evolution is first mentioned, a whole suite of negative emotions are activated. This leads to a defensive disposition. And as we’ve already seen, one’s disposition towards a topic affects the ability to learn just as much as the complexity of the topic itself. In fact, there is research that suggests that the relationship between disposition and acceptance is magnified for controversial topics, and that simple “openness to changing one’s beliefs” is correlated with acceptance of evolution. While these claims may seem obvious, how does one cultivate more open dispositions?
In my college evolution course, one way defensiveness about evolution manifests itself is an over-inflated sense of confidence in one’s knowledge about the topic. Consequently, I try to deal with this on the first day of my evolution unit by having the students respond anonymously to a question that asks how confident they are in their knowledge about the evolution and faith dialogue. More than 70% of the students each semester choose “knowledgeable” or “very knowledgeable” about the topic. It’s only after I ask a handful of follow-up questions that students realize they really don’t know much about it at all. For many of the students, this simple 10 minute activity helps them to be more open to hearing more about evolution. But for the most resistant learners, I know it may take the whole semester, or even longer. So I intentionally provide activities and scenarios each week in which one’s initial thoughts and ideas turn out to be incorrect.
Another common, but often unconscious factor that activates a defensive posture toward evolution is an implicit awareness that if I accept evolution, this means I will be disagreeing with my family or peers or those in my “in-group.” Psychology research tells us that humans have a natural tendency to quickly sort individuals as members of one’s own group (in-group) or another group (outgroup) through a process of social categorization. Groups give us a sense of social identity: a sense of belonging. As such, in-group favoritism can lead to discrimination and aggression against members of outgroups. If learners think that their ingroup rejects evolution, then holding a different view can affect their self-image and create feelings of insecurity and anxiety. In the classroom, these feelings manifest as defensiveness.
It can be very unsettling to consider a viewpoint that differs from your in-group. What most learners don’t realize is that it is a myth that everyone in their in-group thinks the same way they do. In psychology, they even have a name for this, the “false-consensus bias.” People in our in-group do not all think the same way about issues. So one of the first things I do with my students or in a workshop with Christians is to conduct a survey to show that the participants in the room—those in their in-group—hold a variety of views about evolution. My research with students in my evolution courses revealed that the most influential activity that helped them be more open-minded towards evolution was learning about the spectrum of positions one can hold regarding evolution while still maintaining one’s Christian faith.
Intellectual integrity and intellectual humility are traditional Christian character development goals. But when it comes to controversial science issues, many Christians respond in decidedly non-Christian ways—ignoring or avoiding information, responding unkindly to others, and prioritizing “faith” to the exclusion of truth. In our passion to stand for our faith in an often-hostile culture, we have lost sight of the graciousness and humility that is supposed to define Christian character and witness.
I find it tragic that, as a Christian biology educator, I must spend so much effort dispelling false ideas and perceptions about evolution that have been largely propagated by members of my own faith. Teaching that there is no evidence for evolution (even though there is), and that evolutionary biologists can’t have a real faith in Christ (even though there are many Christ followers who accept evolution) can be damaging in many ways, but most importantly, because it pushes people to either “accept science or the Bible.”
In my evolution classroom, some students experience a faith crisis when they learn the truth about evolution. But when they look to their parents, their peers, and their church for help, instead of being tossed a life preserver, too often they are given judgment, guilt, and scorn. The Church must do better. We owe it to our youth and to everyone in our congregations to have transparent and intellectually honest engagement with the findings from the sciences.