Evolution and college students

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Troubling article in the February 10th issue of Science about teaching evolution to college students.
  • About 30% of Cornell introductory biology students believe that God created humans within the past 10,000 years.
  • Only slightly over half the introductory biology students at Minnesota have been taught evolution in high school.
  • Worst of all, college classes don't seem to make much of a difference. Before an intro bio class at WVU Parkersburg, 37% of students didn't accept common ancestry of humans and apes. Afterward, 29% didn't. (see below).

According to this article the big sticking point is the evolution of humans. It's easy to see why this is counterintuitive--it's just hard to visualize how something as complicated as humans could have evolved. Still, it's disappointing that the overwhelming evidence for evolution isn't more effective at getting people past that intuitive barrier. It's also a problem for many on religious grounds--the Adam and Eve story is obviously a key part of many people's theology--but plenty of religious people have managed to integrate evolution into their belief structure so this obviously isn't an insuperable obstacle.

11 Comments

Another point seldom mentioned is that we don't like to think of you, or ourselves as only a fancy sort of monkey.

I just have a hard time seeing how somebody could believe evolution gave us monkeys but not humans. Monkeys are still incredibly complex.

Jim's point is what I've always thought of as why people don't believe humans were evolved.

Can you actually prove something like evolution? It strikes me more as a useful concept to disprove other theories but not necessarily provable itself. (I don't deny it, I am just curious whether there can be evidence in a situation like this). How exactly would one go about disproving evolution (as opposed to coming up with an Intelligent Design theory)?

Pete, we have observed speciation events where the only forces we've seen operating on the lifeforms in question are mutation, selection, and something that separates the population. That's all you need to know to prove that evolution happens _in some cases_. To extend that to explaining the entire diversity of life, well, we have the fossil record, which, while imperfect, does suggest gradual changes in lifeforms over time, and we have the genetic and structural similarities between currently existing species. Which is perhaps not enough for absolute logical proof, but provides a very strong inferential case for evolution, particularly in the absence of another theory which accounts for the evidence we have.

To disprove? In the specific case, I guess you'd have to show another force acting upon the lifeforms that we couldn't see before was responsible for them changing in ways that made them different enough to no longer interbreed.

In the general case, it's harder. You can't prove anything about species coming from nowhere from the fossil record-- fossilization is rare enough that we can't prove anything by the absence of a fossil. I suppose the existence of a species with sufficiently different genetic and physical structures would do the job, so long as there wasn't a good explanation for how it got that way that jibed with evolutionary theory.

If you see a vehicle with an engine in front, four wheels, about 8' x 20' in size with an open box bed in the rear for cargo, you call it a pickup truck unless you just wanted to argue.

When we see living things change whether by breeding, by the fossil record, by stuctural comparisons or by other related things, we call it evolution unless someone just wants to argue.

Evolution is a name we apply to a class of observations much like pickup truck is a name we apply to a class of vehicles.

Yes, evolution also happens to also be a theory because it ties together many observations and leads to experiments that allow testing those ties. But proving or disproving evolution is in the same league as proving or disproving the validity of using 'pickup truck' as the name for a class of vehicles.

Well, there are people who would like to disprove the existence of the pickup truck, and not just the name. Who want to be able to say that a class of vehichles with an open bed cannot exist. Which I suppose is theoretically possible. Just not in the world as we know it.

In the typical characterization of the scientific method, you can never truly prove a theory. You can only find evidence that supports a theory. We have a lot of that for evolution.

Note that you can _disprove_ a theory. In fact, one of the qualifications to be considered a theory is that it be disprovable. Many have tried with evolution. The consensus among evolutionary biologists is that they have not done so. They have succeeded in greatly refining the details of how evolution may have led to current organisms.

I wonder if the numbers mean what they seem to mean at first glance. I wonder if the Cornell students taking this introductory biology class might be for some reason much more likely than the average Cornell undergrad to be creationists / fundamentalists? Perhaps it's a prereq for a common creationist career goal (e.g. maybe creationists commonly want to be veterinarians) or maybe because it's so elementary it's a common gut course to satisfy a science requirement, and creationists eschew harder science but still need to fulfill the requirement?

I also wonder if the results would show a big difference between first-years and seniors. I suspect that many more first-years than seniors are likely to be holding onto creationist beliefs held since childhood.

but plenty of religious people have managed to integrate evolution into their belief structure so this obviously isn't an insuperable obstacle

Sure, but why is surprising that people don't switch around their belief systems in the space of an hour?

This finding is not surprising to me.

A study[*] I used to work on has tracked Americans' opnions about the bible (and many other things) since 1984.


The specific question was this:


Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible?

READ FIRST THREE STATEMENTS [(a)-(c)]
ONLY. CIRCLE ONLY ONE CODE.

a. The Bible is the actual word of
God and is to be taken literally, word for word

b. The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word

c. The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men

Consistently, between 29 and 41% of the respondents selected the first choice.


As an aside, this particular survey is administered in person, by trained interviewers, so it is not as if the respondents would have been able to stop after reading only one choice.

[*] The General Social Survey (Google it)

(@Nagendra: I think you nailed it.)

1. I was of the assumption that the survey was conducted before and after the entire run of the course, not a single class.

2. Noticing the difference in sample size, did only half the students finish the class? Or did half of them avoid the exit survey? I really wonder how the opinions of the missing half would have swayed the survey.

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