Evolution illiteracy at America’s colleges and universities

Evolution illiteracy at America’s colleges and universities

Dr. Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C — © 2014

New England Science Public – An Initiative for the Public Understanding of Science – on Twitter @EvoLiteracy@gpazymino

Belief in supernatural causation disrupts, distorts, delays or stops the acceptance of scientific evidence. These 3Ds + S are upshots of the inner struggles between an individual’s unsubstantiated convictions faith and its collisions with the empirical reality. And there is no better landscape to document the incompatibility between belief and facts than investigating if and how people accept evolution.”

Paz-y-Mino-C_NESP cover Evolution Study 2014     In collaboration with Dr. Avelina Espinosa, a biologist at Roger Williams University, US, we have postulated that the controversy over evolution-and-science versus creationism is inherent to the incompatibility between scientific rationalism/empiricism and the belief in supernatural causation. The ‘incompatibility hypothesis’ (IH) helps us explain the everlasting antagonism in the relationship between science/evolution and religion.

     Our latest study is titled ‘Acceptance of Evolution by America’s Educators of Prospective Teachers,’ to which the New England Science Public Series Evolution –where the work was just published— has added the subheading ‘The Disturbing Reality of Evolution Illiteracy at Colleges and Universities.’ In it, we rely on IH to test the cultural-pollution effects of religiosity on acceptance of evolution by America’s finest education scholars; that is, university professors specialized in training future teachers.

     Previous reports about public acceptance of evolution in the US (around 40%, a rate distant from the top countries’ 80%, like Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, France or Japan) have examined the role of religiosity in the rejection of evolution; but only few studies have characterized the influence of religion on evolution’s endorsement by elite educators. It has been assumed that higher-education faculty remain distant from belief-based explanations of natural phenomena; a supposition that Dr. Espinosa and I suspected to be false.  

     We studied attitudes toward evolution among 495 educators of prospective teachers affiliated with 281 colleges and universities distributed in 4 regions and 50 states in the US. These professionals (87% PhD or doctorate holders) where polled in five areas: (1) their views about evolution, creationism and Intelligent Design, (2) their understanding of how science and the evolutionary process work, (3) their position about the hypothetical ‘harmony or compatibility’ between science/evolution and supernatural causation, (4) their awareness of the age of the Earth, its moon, our solar system and the universe, and the application of the concept of evolution to the cosmos, and (5) their personal convictions concerning the evolution and/or creation of humans in the context of the responders’ religiosity.

     Acceptance of evolution among these educators was influenced by their level of understanding the foundations of science/evolution and their beliefs in supernatural causation. In comparison to two other populations, whose acceptance of evolution had already been documented in our previous research (i.e. New England research faculty, non-educators, and college students), the educators had an intermediate level of understanding science/evolution, low acceptance of evolution, and high religiosity, as follows:

Acceptance Evolution Educators Evolution Literacy

‘Acceptance of evolution openly’ and ‘thinking that evolution is definitely true’ among educators of prospective teachers in the United States (center). For comparison, New England college students (left) and research faculty (right) are depicted; both have the highest national levels of acceptance of evolution among students and university professors, respectively.

• 59% of the educators accepted evolution openly, 51% thought that evolution is definitely true, and 59% admitted to be religious.

• 94% of the New England researchers accepted evolution openly, 82% thought that evolution is definitely true, and 29% admitted to be religious.

• 63% of the New England Students accepted evolution openly, 58% thought that evolution is definitely true, and 37% admitted to be religious (Figure above).

• Educators in each of the four regions of the US (North East, Midwest, South, and West) had science- and evolution-literacy scores below the researchers’ but above the students.’

• The educators’ rejection of evolution increased, conspicuously, with increasing level of religiosity.

Humans are Apes Evolution Literacy

One of the significant results of the study: only 37.3% to 55.2% of educators of prospective teachers knew (or accepted) that humans are apes, relatives of chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans.

     Our research has led us to conclude that harmonious coexistence between science/evolution and religion is illusory. If co-persisting in the future, the relationship between science and religion will fluctuate between moderate and intense antagonism. — © 2014 by Guillermo Paz-y-Miño-C. all rights reserved.

Note: The complete 92-page study is available open access at New England Science Public; it includes 23 figures, statistics, 34 maps, 12 tables, and a companion slide show ‘Image Resources’ for science journalists, researchers and educators.  

NESP Series Evolution Vol. 2 No. 1 was released on September 15, 2014, in celebration of Captain Robert FitzRoy’s arrival in the Galapagos on September 15, 1835; at that time, the young naturalist Charles Darwin was FitzRoy’s distinguished guest on board of the HMS Beagle.

Reference: Paz-y-Miño-C, G. & Espinosa A. 2014. Acceptance of Evolution by America’s Educators of Prospective Teachers. New England Science Public: Series Evolution 2(1): 1-92. [PDF] and supplementary ‘Image Resources’.

 Related Articles and Media Reports:

Richard Dawkins Foundation Newsletter: Evolution Illiteracy among America’s Finest Educators

Why people do not accept evolution?

The Incompatibility Hypothesis (IH): evolution versus supernatural causation

The Boston Globe Metro: Basic knowledge of Darwin’s theory lost in some classes

Boston.com: Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!

South Coast Today: Evolution misunderstood by students, faculty