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For Selling Evolution, a Little Knowledge Is a Glorious Thing

Jonathan Witt

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The authors of a recent Bioscience paper say their survey research shows “that Americans’ views on evolution are significantly influenced by their knowledge about this theory.” Many Americans reject evolution, the paper suggests, because they’re uninformed. 

But there are problems with the survey and the conclusions drawn from the results. I’ll get to those in a bit, but first I want to confess that I was suspicious of the paper’s claim from the outset because in my experience, many Americans accept evolution because they are uninformed. That is, they have heard the popular arguments for the theory but have encountered little if any of the strongest evidence against it. 

Even many highly educated evolutionists betray a curious ignorance of evidence against evolution, evidence that sits in plain sight both in and beyond the peer-reviewed literature. Jonathan Wells details a recent instance of that here. 

To be sure, one can know various facts that make trouble for evolution and still accept it. But the more of this eyebrow-raising information you know, the more mental gymnastics you’ll need to perform in order to embrace modern evolutionary theory — contortions that many Americans are either unable or unwilling to perform. 

Rendering evolution palatable for those Americans means serving them just the right concoction of evolution ed. — not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Call it the Goldilocks zone of evolutionary pedagogy. 

This, I think, is why the pro-Darwin lobby resists our recommended policy of teaching public high school biology students more rather than less about evolution — the evidence not only for it but also against it. 

Evolution Porridge

Like baby bear’s porridge in the Goldilocks tale, it’s just right to know that evolution is not a purely random process — that natural selection plays a clever role. But it’s too hot to know that studies of microbes such as E. coli suggest that there are severe limits to how far the random mutation/natural selection mechanism can evolve an organism, even given millions of years.

Pro-evolution educators also regard it as just right to know that beak size has “evolved” among the finches of the Galápagos Islands, a tidbit that regularly pops up in high school biology textbooks. But it’s not helpful to know — and thus rarely mentioned — that their beaks vary only within a narrow range, or that finches long viewed as separate species actually interbreed. 

Again, it’s just right to know that the vertebrate eye is wired “backwards,” creating a tiny blind spot in our eyes, something one might neatly explain by reference to the trial-and-error process of evolution. Darwinists love to mention this. But too hot to touch is the knowledge that specialists in the vertebrate eye have shown decisively that the so-called “backward wiring” is actually a clever engineering solution to the vertebrate eye’s high demand for oxygen.

It’s also just right to know that the fossil record suggests that the history of life on Earth moves from microbes to larger, brainless life forms on the ocean floor, to sophisticated sea creatures in the Cambrian, to land animals and now humans. But it’s too much to further learn that the pattern of the fossil record is one in which new animal body plans appear suddenly. It’s equally unhelpful to learn that even some leading paleontologists view this as a major unsolved problem for evolution, not something to be blithely waved away be vague talk of an incomplete fossil record. 

This problem is so unhelpful for selling evolution that Darwinists in Texas tried to remove it from the state biology standards last year. (I know, because I was there during the hearings.) This information about the pattern of the fossil record, you see, makes for papa bear porridge — too hot for impressionable young minds to taste. 

So that’s my experience. And that’s the experience of scientists such as Michael Behe (professor, Lehigh University), Douglas Axe (former postdoc researcher at University of Cambridge), Jonathan Wells (PhD, UC Berkeley), and others. Time and again they’ve had their nuanced arguments against blind evolution reduced to unrecognizable strawmen, the better to blow the arguments over. 

Wells, in fact, has written two books on the Darwinists’ zeal for what I’m calling Goldilocks pedagogy. Both detail how evolutionists obsessively recycle debunked factoids about evolution, and resist including updated information in textbooks that would show why these icons of evolution collapse under scrutiny. 

The Survey on Evolution Acceptance

So, now let’s return to the new survey reported on in the journal Bioscience. Do the results really demonstrate that knowing more about science and evolution increases a student’s willingness to accept evolutionary theory? What follows are some things that heighten my skepticism.

First, the study’s conclusions run counter to some earlier studies. That doesn’t mean the study is wrong. But somebody got it wrong, and it might just as easily have been these researchers as the other ones. 

As for the survey itself, some of the wording, and some of the reasoning used to interpret the survey results, suggest to me that the authors are uninformed about important contours of the evolution debate. 

To be fair, there is one promising moment early on in their Bioscience paper describing their survey. “Extant surveys … may not fully capture Americans’ views about evolutionary theory,” they write. “For the current study, we therefore developed a new measure of acceptance.” 

Good! A lot of the older evolution surveys are simplistic, missing key options among the set of multiple choice answers.

The authors of the new study underscore the problem, citing one prominent older poll, then explain how they tried to fix things:

[The Gallup] poll asks which of three options comes closest to respondents’ views on the origin and development of human beings: (1) human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process; (2) human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process; and (3) God created human beings pretty much in their current form in the last 10,000 years or so. Because this question offers three possible answers, it is better than most. However, these three options do not allow for any nuance about God’s role in evolution; the “guidance” could take many forms. We thus added a fourth answer option, reflecting a deistic view: God set up the laws of nature, which then unfolded on their own.

That’s a step in the right direction. Many contemporary biologists fall squarely under this new deism option, while nevertheless styling themselves theistic evolutionists. Why? I hesitate to guess at motive, but many of them are church-going Christians, so it’s possible they want to minimize the difference between their deistic picture of origins, and orthodox Christian theism’s picture of a cosmic maker getting his hands dirty at multiple points in his fashioning of the world. 

The authors of this latest survey noticed the difference nonetheless. Good for them. It’s a better survey question thanks to the addition.

The Survey’s Big, Big Gap

Unfortunately, the researchers left out one major option. Call it option five: God made various plant and animal forms in a series of discrete creative bursts over many millions of years. God created human beings pretty much in their current form. Some microevolution, and some mass extinctions, occurred in the history of life, but there was no macroevolution giving rise to fundamentally new biological forms.

That is a major option to leave out of the survey! Some prominent intelligent design thinkers have made arguments that place them squarely in the option five category. Their work has put them in the national spotlight at times, and landed at least one of the books on the New York Times bestseller list. 

That this new survey doesn’t even offer a multiple choice option for this prominent view is telling. It tells us the survey makers either don’t understand, or don’t care to capture in their survey, this prominent part of the ID/evolution landscape. It also tells us we should view the survey and its results with a healthy measure of skepticism.

This is only the first of several things that get muddled in the survey. At another point the researchers write that “we asked people to choose which of the following options best described how they think animals and plants came to exist on Earth.” They give four options. The latter three represent deistic evolution, theistic evolution, and materialistic/naturalistic evolution respectively. What about the first of the four options? It reads: “Animals and plants were created by God in more or less their current form.”

But what if you reject the latter three options but don’t like this first option either. What if you are convinced that many creatures made directly by God have gone extinct? What if you think that all dog breeds are descended from wolves? Many people might consider it a real stretch to say that a wiener dog and a wolf have “more or less” the same form. What if you think that some pretty distinct cat species share a common ancestor, but that cats and dogs do not share a common ancestor? I’m describing a significant swath of the American public here, but there’s not a single answer option for them on this multiple choice question.

Those are glaring problems. There are subtler but still significant problems at other points in the survey. 

Conflating Understanding and Acceptance of Evolution

The authors ask if there’s a positive relation between acceptance of evolutionary theory and knowledge of the theory. They answer in the affirmative. But some of their questions conflate acceptance and understanding, thus invalidating any statistical results on this score.

One of the multiple choice questions reads:

Bats’ wings and dogs’ legs are made up of the same kinds of bones in the same arrangement. Scientists think this is because:

  1. Bats’ wings and dogs’ legs work the same way.
  2. Bats descended from dogs.
  3. Bats and dogs descend from a common ancestor.
  4. This arrangement is the best possible for all mammals.

This portion of the survey purports to tease out how well the respondent understands the theory of evolution, separate and apart from whether she actually accepts it. But any skeptic of modern evolutionary theory dialed into the debate knows that scientists do not all think alike on this matter. 

Most biologists would check off answer c, but thousands of scientists, including some biologists, reject option c. If you know this, you may bridle at this survey question. It smacks of the “science says” bluff that pro-evolution lobbyists habitually indulge in. (That suspicion is reinforced by the fact that none of the alternative options capture the standard ID position in an accurate, non-tendentious way.) 

So, if you came to this survey question and bridled at its slanted language, how might you respond? You might take a deep breath and remind yourself that the survey question is designed merely to determine if you know what evolutionists think is the right answer. Or you might be sufficiently annoyed by the misleading language that you refuse to fill in the answer c bubble, even knowing that this is what most biologists think.

Another set of questions tries to see if you are a slave to authority or, instead, are willing to think independently. But a slave to which authority? What if you view the authority of the “science says” and “scientists think” lobby as suspect? What if you insist on thinking independently about all that, too?  

If so, you might also bridle at this survey question:

Scientists think that DDT resistance evolved in mosquitos because:

  1. Individual mosquitos learned to avoid DDT and passed that ability to their babies.
  2. Individual mosquitos that did not have a resistance to DDT died, so only those that were resistant to DDT had babies. 
  3. Individual mosquitos became resistant to DDT because they needed to be.

Answer b is right, taken in isolation, but it doesn’t quite fit the setup. The setup asks what caused DDT resistance to evolve in mosquitos. But under answer b, the DDT-resistant mosquitoes have already evolved. They already exist. All that happens in c is that they come to dominate a mosquito population. Recognizing this, a respondent could view all three answer options as flawed.

The respondent might then go fishing for the least wrong answer. Well, hmm, a dilemma. Option c might be referring to a random mutation event that conferred the DDT resistance. It incorrectly frames it as something the mosquitoes were striving toward, but at least option c mentions, however obscurely, the mutational event that generated the DDT resistance in the first place. So perhaps that’s the least wrong of the wrong answers, the respondent might conclude, and so pick option c. 

For this more nuanced and knowledgeable reflection and response, the respondent would get dinged as less knowledgeable.

Question Why One Might Question Authority

As for the section measuring your attitude towards authority, there is cause for concern here as well. A series of questions are designed to see if the respondent has a slavish regard for authority, which would compromise his ability to do science and therefore presumably mean he was less likely to accept evolution. Is it more important, this series of questions asked, for a kid to be “respectful of their elders or independent,” “creative or well behaved,” “good-mannered or curious,” “self-reliant or obedient”? 

The survey found that those who accept naturalistic evolution tilt away from the respectful/well-behaved/good mannered/obedient set of options (β = –1.68, p < .001). But is this because such people have been schooled in the scientific virtues of creativity, curiosity, independence, and self-reliance and so are better equipped to appreciate evolution? Maybe, but as every first-semester student of statistics or logic learns, correlation isn’t causation. 

And there is another possible cause the survey makers appear to ignore. Atheist Richard Dawkins has said that Darwin’s theory of evolution made it possible to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Some people may be attracted to evolutionary theory precisely because they want to cast off the authority of a religious upbringing, and of a father God they view as morally constricting. Such people, particularly if they were raised in a religious home, might well put less stock in being “obedient” and “respectful of their elders.”

I am not advocating here for one cause over the other. My point is more modest: The survey makers should have considered both possible causes and not merely assumed the one over the other. 

What we are advocating for is more evolution education in our schools — exposing students to evidence not just for modern evolutionary theory but also to evidence from the peer-reviewed literature that challenges aspects of the theory. Let students grapple critically with the evidence pro and con. That’s good science education. 

Photo credit: Gellinger, via Pixabay.