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Teaching evolution in a country where many don't believe in it

How should you teach evolution when pupils in your classroom see it as a test of faith?

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How should you teach evolution when pupils in your classroom see it as a test of faith?

"Evolution is absolutely false."

That's what approximately one-third of US adults believed a decade ago, according to a 2006 Michigan State University study. Recent debates around the issue suggest that those numbers haven't changed much, which means that the US retains the questionable honour of having the highest percentage of Darwin sceptics in the developed world.

So how do you teach a scientific theory that so many people reject?

Fortunately, I live in a community that overwhelmingly accepts that scientific theories should be taught in science classrooms. Although that might seem obvious, many American teachers have had to defend the practice of teaching evolution and keeping non-scientific "alternatives" out of science lessons.

In some cases, the battle has made it into the courtroom. In all instances, the courts have sided in favour of evolution and science.

Face the facts on Darwin day

But in US classrooms, it is not uncommon to hear comments such as: "I don't know what evolution is, but I don't believe in it."

What should a teacher do in that situation?

Although students who reject evolution and natural selection on theological grounds are unlikely to change their beliefs, they should at least understand what the theory states – and what it does not state.

After explaining the definitions of evolution and natural selection, I discuss and correct some of the many common myths, such as the following:

Myth: evolution states that humans evolved from monkeys or apes. Fact: evolution states that humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor.

Myth: evolution and religion are incompatible. Fact: only some religious beliefs, such as Young Earth creationism, are incompatible with evolution.

Myth: evolution states that the complex human body exists through random chance. Fact: while the mutations may be random, the resulting traits that survive and evolve are not at all random.

Counter misinformation

Many of these myths are likely to persist thanks to innocent misunderstanding, but it is quite possible that some are perpetuated in a deliberate attempt to misinform and to strengthen incompatible religious beliefs. As a science teacher, it is not my purpose to determine or change a student's personal beliefs but to teach them how to use logic and evidence to answer questions.

After we discuss and correct many of the common myths and misconceptions, we explore the evidence behind evolution and natural selection. By this point in the school year, students should have a good understanding of genes, chromosomes and heredity. Students know how they have inherited certain physical traits and that a mutation is a change in a gene. This allows them to understand how organisms can steadily evolve as mutations in genes cause slight variations in each new generation, which lead to huge changes over millions and even billions of years.

We also discuss how fossils are dated, creating an evolutionary timeline, and explore how DNA mapping has further strengthened the theory of evolution.

Finally, I remind students that many of the most important discoveries and inventions occur through questioning and researching new ideas, rather than merely trusting the old ones.

Do they all become believers? Sometimes not. But before a person accepts or rejects evolution, or any other theory, it is important for them to look at the evidence, as presented from both sides, and reach an informed conclusion.

Seth Robey is a science teacher in Illinois, US

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