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Should Students “Accept” Evolution – Or Think Critically About It?

student with DNA

How should evolution be taught in public schools? It depends on who you ask. Discovery Institute advocates teaching the scientific controversy over evolution. I have detailed in the past what that looks like.

I would like to take this opportunity to clarify our position in light of a recent study in PLOS Biology,Teaching genetics prior to teaching evolution improves evolution understanding but not acceptance,” and the accompanying interview with one of its authors.

The authors advocate a genetics-first approach. That sounds great! If schools teach genetics correctly, and teach evolution correctly (citing mainstream sources, including Third Way views and ideas about alternative mechanisms to neo-Darwinism). We want students to understand more about science and evolution, not less.

The main finding of the study is that lower-ability students who learned genetics first demonstrated better understanding of evolution. Corresponding author Laurence Hurst notes:

There appears to be a tendency to consider evolution as a separate and distinct subject and so teach it in isolation. In some cases we found teachers rather marginalize it, teach it last and prefer not to give it much attention. This seemed very odd to me. To my mind microevolution is simply a branch of genetics. If you understand DNA, you can understand mutation and the concept of the allele. It is then a very small leap to understanding that alleles change frequency and, bingo, you have arrived into population and evolutionary genetics. This logical order is also there in “On the Origin of Species” although Darwin, naturally, was rather fuzzy on the genetics. In addition, there had been a news piece in Science that mentioned in passing that understanding of evolution was correlated with understanding of genetics. Naturally there could be many explanations for this, but it laid a seed of curiosity in my head. [Emphasis added.]

Unfortunately, the extrapolation from micro- to macroevolution is in fact fraught with difficulties – a theme of Tom Bethell’s recent book, Darwin’s House of Cards.

Hurst also focuses on whether students agree with evolution:

Why do you think there is a weak correlation between understanding and acceptance of evolution? What were some of the factors that you found might increase a student’s acceptance of evolution?

LH: We were very struck by this result. Indeed, in our pilot survey the correlation between evolution acceptance and understanding was negative! In our experimental data set the correlation is positive but weak, both before and after teaching. Indeed, genetics understanding is a much better predictor of acceptance of evolution. In short, we found students who understood evolution very well but didn’t accept it and others who accepted it but didn’t understand it all that well. The qualitative data repeatedly pointed to a role for authority figures with both tacit approval by teachers and parents being important. But external figures, be these TV personalities such as David Attenborough and religious figures, were also important to some. Indeed, in one school the teacher reassured the class that the pope approved of evolution and students told us what a relief this was. For some schools, a simple word like that might help.

What struck us most, however, was that while many students accepted the scientific view of evolution (over 80 percent after teaching), few could provide the evidence when quizzed in focus groups. We wonder if the act of teaching the subject in a scientific context by trusted people who provide tacit approval (i.e., teachers), is actually more important than understanding per se. In the primary school context, a study we are currently in the middle of, our analysis to date suggests that teacher acceptance of evolution is the only class-level predictor of student improvement in understanding. This fits with the notion of tacit approval/disapproval from the teacher as being a key parameter. This is a worry for countries were [sic] many teachers reject the scientific view of evolution.

I find myself slightly confused by the alternating use of the terms “understanding” and “acceptance” here. He speaks of the role of influence, and of course, there is no way to completely remove this factor from education.

However, it’s strange to speak of “acceptance” of a scientific theory, as if it were something very different, like a religious doctrine. Evolution should stand on its own like any other theory. It should not require monitoring for “acceptance.”

It would be more fruitful to inculcate critical reasoning skills in science classrooms. That’s why Discovery Institute advocates teaching the scientific controversy about evolution in public schools.

Schools would do better to consider teaching the role of genetics, and its limitations, in neo-Darwinism. Thinking like scientists, taking strengths and weaknesses of the evidence into account, will help prepare young people for success in whatever field they choose to pursue.

Image: © Viacheslav Iakobchuk —