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Politics Professors: How to Reduce Evolution Denial

Jonathan Wells


Despite several generations of relentless indoctrination, funded by hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, some high school students — and even some college graduates — still doubt evolution.

They don’t doubt evolution in the sense of minor changes within existing species. In the 1930s, evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky called this "microevolution," and nobody doubts it. But many people doubt what Dobzhansky called "macroevolution" — the evolution of all living things from common ancestors by unguided processes such as random mutations and survival of the fittest.

The American educational establishment is dominated by people who not only believe in macroevolution but also bemoan the fact that they have failed to instill their belief in all of their students and teachers. From time to time, someone proposes ways to remedy this failure.

The latest proposals come from two professors of political science at Penn State University, Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, who want to reduce the persistence of "evolution deniers." Quoted by Science Daily, Berkman said that "evolution is fundamental to biology, but more importantly we think that when you are communicating a skepticism about evolution you’re communicating a skepticism about science generally."

Berkman and Plutzer held focus group sessions with 35 teacher trainees from four colleges and concluded that — instead of avoiding controversy — teachers should openly discuss the difference between religious faith and the science of evolution. First, however, teacher trainees should become better grounded in the science of evolution by taking more science courses.

Berkman and Plutzer’s findings were reported in the March 6 issue of Science. The report was accompanied by a photo of a biology classroom, with the caption "Poorly prepared science teachers often leave U.S. high school students with a shaky grounding in evolution." In the foreground of the photo are several copies of the textbook being used in the classroom: Kenneth R. Miller and Joseph Levine’s widely used "elephant cover" book, Biology.

I have a copy of the 2000 "elephant cover" textbook, which features (1) a drawing of the 1953 apparatus used by Stanley Miller and Harold Urey, accompanied by a caption stating that their experiment "first demonstrated how organic matter may have formed in Earth’s primitive atmosphere" (p. 344); (2) drawings of vertebrate embryos that look most similar in their early stages, showing that they evolved from common ancestors (p. 283); and (3) photographs of light- and dark-colored peppered moths resting on light- and dark-colored tree trunks, illustrating a story about natural selection in action (p. 297).

But these icons of evolution misrepresent the evidence. Among other things, the "atmosphere" used in the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment was almost certainly unlike that of the early Earth; vertebrate embryos actually look very different from each other in their early stages; and peppered moths rarely rest on tree trunks in the wild. The moth photographs were staged.

The Miller-Levine textbook misrepresented other evidence for evolution, as well. Maybe teachers and students continue to doubt evolution because they know more than Berkman and Plutzer think they do…

Image: � shock / Dollar Photo Club.

Jonathan Wells

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Wells has received two Ph.D.s, one in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and one in Religious Studies from Yale University. A Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, he has previously worked as a postdoctoral research biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and the supervisor of a medical laboratory in Fairfield, California. He also taught biology at California State University in Hayward and continues to lecture on the subject.