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“Acceptance Is My Goal”: Reporter Spills the Beans on True Goals of Evolution Education


As David Klinghoffer recalled yesterday, back in 2015 we reported on the Smithsonian’s Traveling Human Origins Exhibit. It was touring the United States promoting an evolutionary view of human origins. An article in Undark Magazinereposted at the Smithsonian’s website, tries to paint the exhibit as nothing more than a friendly exercise in science education. David pointed this out, but it’s so interesting it bears some further discussion.

Reporter Rachel Gross writes, in the version published at Undark:

This project was funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, a wealthy group that backs efforts to bring religion and science into harmony, as well as the Smithsonian’s Peter Buck Fund for Human Origins Research. Part of the stated goal was straightforward science education. After all, evolutionary theory is the backbone of chemistry and biology, the through-line that makes sense of all the sciences. Human evolution is also “one of the highest hurdles — if not the highest hurdle — to science education in America,” says [Rick] Potts [curator of the Smithsonian Human Origins Exhibit], a 64-year-old with wire-rim glasses and a gentle demeanor.

But merely teaching evolutionary science wasn’t the point. Potts was going for something more subtle: Not conversion, but conversation.

“Our goal is to lower the temperature,” he says.

But the article admits that in many cases the exhibit failed in that goal as it faced some quite negative reactions from visitors. As we explained here in 2015, the reason for this was obvious: the Smithsonian’s exhibit was stridently one-sided in favoring Darwinism, and refused to acknowledge any scientific problems with the standard evolutionary account of human origins:

First and foremost, the traveling exhibit is absolutely 100 percent pro-Darwin and gives no discussion whatsoever to non-Darwinian views of human origins. … The exhibit completely fails to acknowledge the distinct break in the fossil record between the ape-like members of Australopithecus and the very human-like members of our genus Homo. … And unsurprisingly there are no mentions of the population genetics problems with Darwinian explanations of human origins. … The exhibit claims to seek only to start a “conversation” with the public about human origins. But guess which views are allowed in that “conversation”? That’s right: Only those that support Darwinian evolution and shared ancestry between humans and non-humans.

Moreover, the article by Rachel Gross spills the beans about something we knew already: that the real goal of most evolution educators isn’t simply to start a conversation about evolution. Rather, the aim is conversion, that is, convincing the public to “accept” evolution. Note these unusually candid admissions about the true goals of Darwin educators:

“Acceptance is my goal,” says Jamie Jensen, an associate professor who teaches undergraduate biology at Brigham Young University. Nearly all Jensen’s students identify as Mormon. “By the end of Biology 101, they can answer all the questions really well, but they don’t believe a word I say,” she says. “If they don’t accept it as being real, then they’re not willing to make important decisions based on evolution — like whether or not to vaccinate their child or give them antibiotics.”


These groups recognize that cultural barriers, not a lack of education, are what’s preventing more Americans from accepting evolution. “I never want to downplay the importance of teaching our students evolution, I think it’s the most important thing we do,” says Elizabeth Barnes, one of the co-authors of the biology education paper. “But it’s not enough if we want students to actually accept evolution.”

Even Rick Potts is described as saying:

Of course, he’d like to see a society that more readily accepts the science of evolution. “But my philosophy about that is that acceptance has to come from within,” he says. “It doesn’t come from an external effort to gain acceptance.”

If you totally buy that, then we have an island in the Galápagos to sell you.

Usually when evolutionists talk about pushing evolution on the public, they are careful to guard their words and not say that they want the skeptical public to “accept” evolution. More typically, they use coded language about “improving science literacy,” stressing the importance of “evolution education” or simply helping students to “understand evolution.” These are all good things, properly understood, but as this rare article goofs in making clear, no matter how much they pretend otherwise, what they really mean is that they want students and everyone else to “accept evolution.”

Hot in Here, Isn’t It?

So how could the Smithsonian’s exhibit have done a better job of “lowering the temperature”? Here’s some advice for Darwin educators.

As a 2005 study in BioScience reported, evolution education is more effective when you teach students about multiple viewpoints. Now the study uses all manner of scholarly sounding language to demean intelligent design and other non-Darwinian views, offering multiple false statements about ID that we’re not going to go into now. What’s most interesting is its finding that talking about intelligent design actually helped lower the temperature dramatically and led to a better understanding of science among students.

Here’s how an editorial by biologist Craig Nelson in the same issue of BioScience described the paper’s results:

Steven Verhey’s article (p. 996) provides powerful evidence. Strong emphasis on evolution alone produced almost no change in students’ conceptions. In contrast, discussions comparing “intelligent design” with mainstream evolution, with a focus on the nature of science, produced extensive change toward more scientifically viable views.

The abstract of Verhey’s article summarizes his findings:

Efforts to force educators to include material on “intelligent design” theory are causing widespread concern in the science education community. I report here the effects of a modified approach to a majors-oriented college introductory biology course. The course was modified to connect with the experiences, knowledge, and beliefs that most students bring to college, with the intent of engaging prior learning about creationism and evolution and of emphasizing the nature of science. The effects of this approach on student creationist or evolutionist attitudes were compared with the effects of two other sections of the same course that were taught by different instructors during the same academic quarter. The modified approach produced more attitude change than the other approaches. It included some material whose use has been discouraged by science educators, including discussion of creation myths and use of an intelligent design–oriented book as a foil to a mainstream book on evolution in seminar discussions.

They are excited because this approach yielded a shift towards pro-evolution viewpoints — something that Darwin lobbyists will probably want to take note of. But Craig Nelson’s editorial tells us why this shift occurred:

Advocates of teaching intelligent design or creationism along with evolution assume that each alternative will be taught as equally valid (or that evolution will be critiqued and the alternative will not). That is clearly wrong, factually and morally. Verhey’s approach, like those shown to be effective in physics, helps students compare alternative views. If intelligent design is presented, it must be critiqued scientifically. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, if you feel “factually and morally” compelled to attack intelligent design and present it in a harshly negative light, then students’ views are shifted towards evolution. What an amazingly unexpected insight! If you do nothing but bash any idea, controversial or not, most likely you’ll find that people’s views shift away from it.

A Genuinely Interesting Result

Important note before going further: we strongly recommend against pushing intelligent design into public K-12 school instruction, and the studies discussed here took place at the university level. Got that?

Good. Because what really is an interesting finding is that talking about intelligent design and evolution was more effective in shifting college students’ views than simply talking about evolution. That’s a result that contradicts much wisdom among evolution-educators, and certainly counters the philosophy behind the Smithsonian’s Traveling Human Origins Exhibit.

Why does this method induce a shift in viewpoints? Probably because many students already accept intelligent design, so if you don’t address it, then you won’t get anywhere in your goal to get them to “accept evolution.” This explains why the Smithsonian’s Traveling Human Origins Exhibit faced pushback. As science writer Michael Balter once asked in the New York Times, “Could it be that the theory of evolution’s monopoly in the classroom has backfired?” The answer, it seems, is yes.

But even under Steven Verhey’s method, censorship is still going on because intelligent design is being presented negatively, and these university students aren’t allowed to learn about pro-ID rebuttals to counterarguments. What would happen if intelligent design and evolution were both presented objectively and students were exposed to the best arguments both for and against the two viewpoints? This question has not yet been tested. But if evolutionists are so confident they are correct, why not try teaching the topic in an environment where the outcome isn’t rigged? That results would be interesting to everyone.

Photo credit: Welcome to the 2015 “Exploring Human Origins: What Does It Mean to Be Human?” exhibit, Milpitas Public Library, Milpitas, California, by Casey Luskin.