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View from the Lecturn: Responding to “I don’t believe in evolution.”

This post is our second in a new series, “The View from the Lectern,” written by our regular contributor Professor R. Bruce Hull of Virginia Tech University, who is also an advisory editor for GREENR, Gale’s Environmental and Sustainability Studies web portal.

Most students had finished the midterm and were off to their next classes or already back in bed. I was sitting up front, collecting the exams, putting the finishing touches on the grading key, and answering the occasional question from enterprising students looking for hints.  I’m usually pretty generous with my hints.  I like to encourage asking questions because so many of us seem to have become fatalists, and give up rather than fight for what we think is right.

I was concentrating on two people in the back row, making sure they weren’t sharing answers when I heard a quiet voice from beside me ask: “Excuse me.  What about question 25?”

25) What percentage of DNA do humans share with Chimpanzees?

1) more than 90%, 2) about 80%, 3) about 50%, 4) less than 30%

We covered the topic last week.  Earthworms and humans, it turns out, share more than 70% of the same DNA. Yeast: 47%.  Chimps: more than 95%.

Isn’t that cool?  I use these sorts of trivia to enter into a discussion with students about evolution.  Are humans different or similar from the rest of nature? (Both.) Does evolution lead to perfection?  (No.) Are humans the most perfect species because they sit atop of the evolutionary ladder?  (No again.) Does evolution really mean survival of the fittest and that competition is always good?  (No, evolution is mostly about reproduction—the adaption passing on the most genes wins—and cooperation is another helpful strategy for making that happen!) Does evolution justify restricting immigration into the US, withholding welfare payments, racism, and free market competition?  (No again, and no to all of Social Darwinism.)  You can imagine the range of questions and comments.  It is always a fun lecture.

The purpose of the semester-long class is to empower students to engage in deliberations about sustainability, we tackle topics such as energy transition, animal rights, food production, climate change, and mountaintop removal mining.  The language and logic of evolution play critical roles in these deliberations.  If you listen carefully, evolution is almost as powerful as economics as a way to frame arguments.  Therefore I believe it is CRITICAL that everyone in my class understand the theory and implications of evolution.

I make it clear during my lecture that students don’t have to believe in evolution, but that they do need to understand it, how it is an organizing principle for all of biological knowledge, and how the “is” of evolution is often distorted to justify the “ought” of social policy.  I figure that the students in my class reflect national polls, which show that about 45% of Americans don’t believe in evolution at all, around 35% believe life has evolved over time but that divine intervention guided it, and less than 15% believe in evolution as Darwin explained it.

So what should I do when the student didn’t want even a hint for the correct answer?  “I don’t believe in evolution” was his explanation, implying that he didn’t want to consider anything about DNA because evolution was irrelevant or that answering the question was demeaning or perhaps that answering it would force him to wrestle with facts that threaten his beliefs.

DNA comparisons can be debated, and I often get a good discussion going with science students, but the debate is more about chemistry than evolution—either the nucleotides match up or they don’t.  Unfortunately this student seemed unwilling to engage in analytic thinking.  I at least wanted him to be curious, to be open enough to be able to listen to and engage people with different beliefs.  Constructing sustainability requires that we find common ground to stand on.  What should I say?

Rather than offer a hint or a lecture or cynicism, I paused, then smiled and simply pointed to the answer I wanted. He could tell I was struggling with what I should do and seemed surprised that I was kind to him despite our different beliefs.  He took a few steps back to his seat, paused, turned around, and asked with a sincerity that suggested the beginnings of a real internal struggle: “Do you really believe that evolution is possible?”  I nodded yes, smiling more broadly.  At least he now seemed willing to engage the topic.  That’s a beginning.

R. Bruce Hull, IV, Ph.D. is a professor in the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech practicing social ecology. His work focuses on healing forests fractured by pressures of urbanization and globalization. He is author and editor of over 100 publications, including two books: Infinite Nature (Chicago 2006) and Restoring Nature (Island 2000). He serves on the editorial advisory board for Gale’s GREENR environmental and sustainability studies web portal.

Posted on: November 24, 2010, 11:29 am Category: Sustainability and Education, View from the Lectern Tagged with: , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. Brian Britt said

    I see the poll data on evolution to be a very strong signal that science faces a crisis of legitimacy not so different from the crisis that faced institutional religion in the 17th-20th centuries. I don’t really think the religious opposition to science means that religion is returning to a position of power. I think markets and consumer culture hold most of the power. I see it rather as an expression of frustration, nostalgia, and confusion over a world that makes simple answers hard to defend. But I do think there is a fierce anti-scientific wind blowing in the U.S., and I think science will soon have to defend itself in order to survive.

  2. I’ve been thinking lately that we do our students (kindergarten to postsecondary) a disservice by not teaching evolution, ecology, biodiversity and ecosystem services (or Nature’s gifts for the young ones) continuum as an integrated whole. But perhaps people like your student need to learn the continuum in reverse, so that they can see the miracle of evolution — and its purpose in “Creation.”

    In any case, thanks for sharing your story. That a smile or two worked so well is a lesson for all teachers.

    Julie Johnston
    GreenHeart Education

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