Earlier this year, an interesting survey of first-year science students was conducted in the University of Cape Town, South Africa. A questionnaire was distributed to test their "knowledge and opinions of what they thought about evolution". Then came a course of 16 lectures on evolution, covering "the concept of evolution, the mechanisms of evolution, and dealt with hypotheses to test whether evolution occurred". After the course, the students were re-tesed with the same questions. The authors report that they "discovered no statistically significant change in the views of students before the evolution course and thereafter, for questions that challenged religious ideologies about creation, biodiversity, and intelligent design."
The authors frequently compare their findings with other studies, mainly to point out that the pattern is much the same wherever you go.
"Interestingly, the smallest change in Before/After responses to any question was the response to an ID argument, namely that "Organisms are incredibly well designed. This is proof that they must have been created by God." An impasse on this point mirrors the findings of others around the world."
There is a notable tension in their thinking about the relationship between evolutionary theory and Theism. On the one hand, they say that evolutionary theory does bring challenges:
"[D]espite scientific advances in evolutionary biology, evolution is often seen as contentious and "troubling". This is because evolutionary biology intersects and often challenges religious beliefs and values, which lead to an intellectual and spiritual dilemma. Thus, diplomacy and discussion become key in smoothing the interface between science and society."On the other hand, towards the end, they fall back on sphere sovereignty (Gould's NOMA approach).
"[T]he biggest challenges evolutionary biology faces is that evolution is often equated with atheism, and students often feel that they need to choose between religious convictions and the credibility of evolution [. . .]. It is therefore important that students recognize that science and faith have separate domains, and that there are many scientists who are theists, and accept evolutionary theory as an explanation of the natural world."Nevertheless, the authors do not appear to be completely convinced about these separate domains, as the write in their conclusions to say:
"We concur with Demastes et al. (1995) that because evolution often challenges preexisting conceptual ideas, a supportive classroom atmosphere is essential to ensure an understanding of evolution, even if this conflicts with cultural belief systems."
This vascillation between "separate domains" and "challenges [to] preexisting conceptual ideas" is a significant problem for educators. What is needed is an open debate about such matters, where evolutionary biologists interact with others advocating either Intelligent Design or Creationism to explore these issues in depth. The problem we face at present is that the science forums that are organised on this topic select their panels very carefully and dialogue and/or exposure to counter arguments is totally missing.
A further insight emerging from the survey is found in this paragraph:
"We further suggest that because students seem amenable to changing their views when presented with "facts", lecturers should ensure that they give examples of experimental evolutionary studies, and there should be strong emphasis on the scientific method of inquiry. [. . .] It may be equally important to simultaneously focus discussion on what constitutes a scientific theory and an empirical test, thereby equipping learners with the necessary tools and understanding to appreciate where ID fails and evolutionary theory holds from a scientific standpoint."
This is very interesting, because this emphasis on presenting "facts" is exactly in line with ID thinking (although the word "evidence" would probably be used to make the point). ID biologists welcome the opportunity to critically scrutinise the evidence, to find out what Darwinian mechanisms can and cannot do, to discuss the potential contribution of evo-devo to explain the diversification of living things and whether there is a route here to build complexity. We seek more evidence-based teaching, and less flag-waving statements like: "It is well recognized by scientists that evolution is the unifying theme that underlies the biological sciences" (which happens to be the first sentence of the paper). ID advocates are similarly keen to promote dialogue on what "constitutes a scientific theory and an empirical test", and the quotation above shows that this is clearly needed!
Anusuya Chinsamy and Eva Plaganyi
Evolution, 62(1), 2008, 248-254 | doi:10.1111/j.1558-5646.2007.00276.x
Poor public perceptions and understanding of evolution are not unique to the developed and more industrialized nations of the world. International resistance to the science of evolutionary biology appears to be driven by both proponents of intelligent design and perceived incompatibilities between evolution and a diversity of religious faiths. We assessed the success of a first-year evolution course at the University of Cape Town and discovered no statistically significant change in the views of students before the evolution course and thereafter, for questions that challenged religious ideologies about creation, biodiversity, and intelligent design. Given that students only appreciably changed their views when presented with "facts," we suggest that teaching approaches that focus on providing examples of experimental evolutionary studies, and a strong emphasis on the scientific method of inquiry, are likely to achieve greater success. This study also reiterates the importance of engaging with students' prior conceptions, and makes suggestions for improving an understanding and appreciation of evolutionary biology in countries such as South Africa with an inadequate secondary science education system, and a dire lack of public engagement with issues in science.
Educators guide to dealing with "intelligent design", Internal Memorandum, Ivory Tower University, Department of Natural Sciences, no date.
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