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Biology teachers often dismiss evolution

evolution.jpgAlmost a century after the famed Scopes Monkey Trial, battles over teaching evolution versus creationism in US public schools persist – but they have shifted to individual classrooms where teachers have a vast influence over whether evolution is present, a new study finds. In the courtroom, advocates for creationist thinking, or its re-packaged equivalent “intelligent design”, have lost nearly every major case in the last 40 years. While this has undoubtedly helped set a high scientific standard for state curricula, the study finds that a majority of public high school teachers are either uncomfortable with teaching evolution or doubtful of its accuracy.

“The official state content standards actually have very little impact on the way teachers teach in the classroom,” says Eric Plutzer, a political scientist from Pennsylvania State University in University Park, who co-authored the paper, which appears 27 January in Science. The major factors affecting what teachers taught were their own personal values and beliefs as well as the values and culture of their community, he adds.

Plutzer and his co-author, Michael Berkman, also of Pennsylvania State University, used a nationally representative sample of 926 public biology instructors and found that less than a third of teachers consistently crafted their lesson plans around evolution. At the same time, about 13% of teachers spent an hour or more of class time presenting creationism “in a positive light”.


In the most conservative school districts, nearly 40% of teachers do not personally accept human evolution (compared to 11% in the least conservative districts). But the majority of US teachers, approximately 60%, were not advocates of either evolutionary biology or nonscientific alternatives.

These “cautious 60 percent” generally teach a watered down version of evolution and often disassociate themselves from the content, says Plutzer. Many were not well trained in basic evolutionary biology and did not feel themselves equipped to answer controversial questions from students, parents, or school board members, he says.

Some of these teachers avoided teaching the more controversial macroevolution, which describes new species arising from old ones, while still describing microevolution, which can explain how bacteria develop antibiotic resistance. Others taught evolution in order that their students could pass standardized tests, though they did not believe in it unequivocally. Finally, a large number of this group exposed students to all positions in the hopes that they could make up their own minds.

Since evolution is the fundamental concept unifying biology, it is surprising how many high school biology teachers are unaccepting or uneasy with it, says William Wallace, the Washington D.C. representative of the National Association of Biology Teachers. “It’s like a math teacher not believing in algebra,” he says. Better instruction during a prospective biology teacher’s college training could help mitigate this fact, he says, a position the researchers advocate for as well.

In addition, most biology teachers are not trained at universities with faculty engaged in cutting-edge biology research, says Plutzer. Scientists could provide outreach to these non-research universities in order to give new teachers a sounder footing in evolutionary theory, he says.

“Once teachers are in the classroom, they can get set in their ways,” he says. “Instructional support needs to start sooner.”

Image: latvian on Flickr

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  1. Report this comment

    Louis Morelli said:

    These teachers in whole world, as in Brazil, are right. The supports for Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, like the process of VSI (Variation, Selection, Inheritance), biogenesis theory, the fossil record, etc., are not sufficient for to fit the gaps that arises from a serious reflection. So, since that the input of a world vision into a child’s brain is something that involves a lot of responsibility, it is rational what they are doing.

    The problem with neo-Darwin’s theorists is that they separated Biological Evolution from Cosmological Evolution because the cosmological models must be wrong or non-complete.

    The Matrix/DNA Theory is the unique known attempt to link these two blocks of universal macro-evolution, but, then, it has find that there are more 4 variables than the merely 3 (VSI). This new models of evolution could be the solution for these teachers since that it keeps the scientific data and the possibility that everything is ruled by a divine entity.

  2. Report this comment

    2011 said:

    “Scientists could provide outreach to these non-research universities in order to give new teachers a sounder footing in evolutionary theory.”

    Very true. The sooner the better, I would say.

  3. Report this comment

    Mike said:

    I do research, have been involved in the evolution wars for 30 years, briefly taught in high schools and community colleges, and keep up with the anti-creationism current events and blogs. I’m completely convinced that the reason actual science has such a poor impact in the science classroom is that large segments of the scientific community absolutely insist on drawing sweeping theological conclusions from biology that they feel strongly impelled to proselytize. This feeds the popular prejudice in the US that science is violently opposed to religion. As a result, the biology teacher is put in an uncomfortable position. This is all entirely unnecessary and unfortunate. Science has absolutely nothing to say about the supernatural, and scholarly theology has long ago moved on from positions of opposition to modern science. The situation will not get any better until proselytizing “New Atheists” back off of misusing science as a cudgel in their culture wars and allow organizations like Biologos to have the intended affect on the cultural understanding of the difference between science and religion. New Atheists are unfortunately convinced that they’re on a God given mission to push us into a New Enlightenment, and many really could not care less about the state of public science education.

  4. Report this comment

    rudy said:

    Everyone keeps forgetting that it is the theory of evolution. Theories are tools used to predict or explain things as part of the scientific process. If teachers take the time to explain the nature of science, they should feel safer addressing controversial ideas, and they don’t have to agree with it to be professionals and teach what the scientific community at large accepts.

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    James said:

    Evolution Theory is pushed too much. Stick to teaching facts not theory. At this point it is evidently an irreligion indoctrination.

  6. Report this comment

    Brenton said:

    All left-indoctrinated teachers know that a knowledge of evolution leads to an understanding of regional genetic differences. Better then to go into denial in the first place.

  7. Report this comment

    Laura said:

    You may want to say that evolution is just a theory, but this is really not the case. There is plenty of evidence that proves that evolution occurs, and the only reason that people cling to it’s “theory” status is because they know nothing of this evidence themselves.

    If I were to write a scientific paper and concluded that the reason that a particular phenomenon occurs is because of “intelligent design” there is no way that it would be accepted by a peer-reviewed journal, because you cannot prove it empirically. However I have read many papers on the evolution of different organisms in journals that ARE published, because they give empirical evidence to support their statements.

    I do understand that before we (the human race) became scientifically enlightened, a concept was required to explain the formation of the earth and everything around us. This concept being variously called God, Jahweh, Allah, Mother Nature etc. However nowadays this is unnecessary because we have mathematics, the scientific method and sophisticated means with which to detect the structure of the things we see around us.

    Please try to remember: Good science is based on proof, while religion is based on faith. It is never the other way around.

  8. Report this comment

    Benn said:

    Nothing can be held up as absolute. Facts are changeable things, subjective things, not always true. Or at least not forever. Yesterday’s fact becomes today’s quaint archaic notion. Some facts are just plain dumb ugly brutes but so big and intimidating that they can rule the playground of human knowledge for ages without their authority ever being questioned. Once upon a time, in the fairy tale known as objective truth, the biggest, dumbest, ugliest, strongest fact in the world was the one that stated that the earth was the center of creation and this was the Undeniable Irrefutable Truth. Anyone who questioned it was cornered behind the alchemy lab and beaten to a bloody pulp by self-righteous bullies dressed in purple robe and hood.

    If someone is uncomfortable teaching the theory of evolution they should not be teaching biology in the classroom. Evidence (“facts”) support theories and it is a “fact” of life that we (not just scientists) can never be 100% certain what is right. The theory of evolution has an enormous body of evidence supporting it but is harder to “prove” than say the theory of gravity. (Jumping off a cliff proves gravity well enough). Just because not everything can be explained as easily as “God did it” does not mean that the theory of evolution is not worthy of consideration in the classroom. It is not “pushed”, it is presented. A good teacher will know the difference.

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    Brian Scanlan, MD said:

    The serious creationist should be sitting down with colleagues to determine which one of the many creation myths to teach, rather than monkeying around with theory,hypothesis,evidence and other artifacts of the Age of Science. I suggest a title for a new guide to biological diversity for intelligent designers: “The Origin of Specious.”

  10. Report this comment

    Sloan said:

    I think it’s helpful to note that evolution is “just a theory” in the same sense and to the same extent that gravity, or the atomic nature of matter, or the quantum mechanical model of the atom, are “just theories.” A theory, in science, is a conceptual framework that is used to explain the facts. And right now, evolution by natural selection is the best explanation we have for biological diversity on this planet. Perhaps some day someone will come along with a better explanation; until then, biology teachers (of which I am one) have an obligation to teach the current scientific consensus, just as much as chemistry teachers are obligated to explain the nature of matter in terms of atoms and molecules and the forces that control their interactions.

    In short, it’s no good arguing that evolution is “just a theory”…not when it’s backed by such a voluminous amount of data, from multiple disciplines, all of which points to the same conclusion.

    And I concur with Mike’s critique of the New Atheists. They’re not helping at all; they’re just reinforcing, in the minds of the public, the misconception that science and faith are irreconcilable.

  11. Report this comment

    Gary Williams said:

    I get so tired of the assertion that evolution is “only a theory”. No. That’s a mis-statement of the facts. What is a theory is the method through which the process is driven…natural selection. But the full name of the so-called “theory” is “the theory of evolution through natural selection”, with natural selection being the theoretical portion of the statement, not evolution itself.

    I think where so much of this intransigence over accepting facts comes from the false belief that evolution is the mechanism responsible for producing life on earth itself. This rather than the mechanism which life used to evolve itself once it had become a reality. A

    s such, they believe it substitutes for, and therefore makes into a liar the Bible recording of a Creation event.

    But again, they are operating on a failed understanding of evolution. (Theoretically…lol) God could still have created life itself (admittedly the superior event of the two !) then evolution could still be the mechanism through which that original creation was split into separate organisms, eventually becoming the biological spectrum that science describes to school children today! What’s the problem with that you say?

    Well. A strong correlation between conservatism (RWA), supernaturalism, and how they display a psychological-cognitive trait of refusing to integrate info that threatens to force (via a logic dilemma) they must reassess the supernatural framework their worldviews are frequently based on. LJust as with Global Warming and conservatism, the veracity of the science involved in both concepts has little or nothing to do with their rejection of it, but rather its the fear of reassessing long-held beliefs about the “rightness” of free-market capitalism that prevents cognitive recognition of reality…typical RWA behavior btw.

  12. Report this comment

    Phillip Shuler said:

    Science is the study of what is reproducible. Microevolution is reproducible and qualifies as science (i.e. the mutations of retroviruses, etc.) Macroevolution is not reproducible and never will be. It is based on unverifiable assumptions about a time period when none of us were alive. There are well known and respected scientists on both sides of the argument. Neither Evolution nor Creation can be proven by the scientific method, both must be accepted by faith. The teaching of science to our children should stick to science, it should not attempt to answer such a question as “Where did we come from.” A question like that is best left to philosophy or religion, better yet, to parents. Neither Evolution nor Creation should be taught in public schools, parents bear the responsibility of teaching children their own faith, whether that faith is in Evolution or in Creation.

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    DaveW said:

    Is evolution the fundamental concept that unifies biology? I don’t think so. Genetics is.

    But, statements like that, which overstate the importance (and our understanding) of evolution, are the reason that people are skeptical.

  14. Report this comment

    Jeffrey said:

    I’m surprised so many teachers are reluctant to teach evolution. As the article mentions, it has been defended for many years and upheld in every major court case. I also echo the sentiments of the people that say that scientists should reach out to give others a sounder understanding of evolutionary theory. Plus Rudy gives a great definition of a theory, and that should ease the fears of many teachers.

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    Mike Strauss said:

    I agree with Phillip up above: “Science is the study of what is reproducible. Microevolution is reproducible and qualifies as science (i.e. the mutations of retroviruses, etc.) Macroevolution is not reproducible and never will be.” Additionally, how are evolutionary processes in effect for the many variety of trees, plants, etc… How does natural selection work with them? Surely many species of plants have no activity that would alter their specific genotype. So how do they get so much variation. Some other natural mechanism or God is causing all of this.

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    SecondLawIsDead said:

    The dichotomy between creationism and Darwinian evolution is completely imposed, when in reality they are both wrong. I doubt the writers of the bible had n in-depth understanding of the fossil record and I believe they wanted to use it as an allegory rather than a political attack on science. Darwinian evolution as it is described is completely ridiculous, especially when you study what fossils have been recorded and the time frame they appeared in. There is no evidence that traits were mutated and then randomly spread, rather there has been what seems to have been intention behind every evolutionary upshift. For instance, the development of feathers was not an isolated incident but actually spanned the entire biosphere and manifested in many ways. The birds we know today emerged after the KT extinction along with mammals as if a blossoming theme had emerged after a long process of trial.

    The point being that by saying your either with God or your with Darwin you are missing the benevolence of the creator, one which gave us a universe which continually becomes better, and even better yet, one that gave us the power to understand it.

    http://larouchepac.com/node/19452

    http://larouchepac.com/node/19467

    these guys seem to get it, check it out.

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