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Defending Evolution in the Classroom
Presented by Brian Alters, McGill University

NABT Convention, Montreal
Evolution Symposium
7 November 2001

Defending Evolution in the Classroom
Presented by Brian Alters, McGill University
at the Evolution Symposium, NABT Convention, Montreal, 7 November 2001

Synopsis: Why students reject evolution: Expect approximately 50% of your students to not accept, or "believe in" evolution. Alters lists many reasons and questions raised from different perspectives, many of them NOT from conservative or fundamentalist religious sources. He maintains that, in order for teachers to be more effective in successfully teaching evolution, they should understand these questions, and their sources. For detailed discussion of those questions, in several categories, see his latest publication, under the same title as for this presentation. ED

Most educators would probably agree that it is important to know why students think something they are teaching is inaccurate. Yet when it comes to their students rejecting their teaching of evolution, many educators just chalk it up to students being creationists and do not explore their reasons any further. However, the label creationist, while often useful for categorizing the wide variety of people who reject evolution, is much too broad to give educators an appropriate understanding of the numerous rationales students have for rejecting the underlying theory of biology.

In Charles Darwin's time, the "creationist" label generally was used to refer to someone who believed that the human soul was not inherited from the parents but was a special creation for each individual. However, the day after the Origin of Species became public, Darwin began writing letters using the term creationist to refer to anti-evolutionists. The term as it is used today has come to mean specific types of evolution rejection, which vary greatly depending on who you read or with whom you talk.
For example, many science instructors believe that anyone who rejects evolution must be a religious literalist fundamentalist and/or someone with a conservative political agenda. However, polls show that about half of Americans choose options other than evolution to explain how humans arose on earth. These figures indicate that more persons than just religious fundamentalists (let alone literalist fundamentalists) or political conservatives choose nonevolutionary options. A Gallup poll reports that about 56% of conservatives, 42% of moderates, and 36% of liberals choose the survey option "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so." Gallup also reports that about half of Republicans and half of Democrats choose this view as well, leading us to believe that the rejection of evolution is bipartisan.

Many students who reject evolution do have rationales for their objections. Some of these rationales are well thought out, while others border on the affective domain -- responses that stem from emotion. The cognitive rationales range from what most people would consider to be purely religious rationales to rationales that may strike many as nonreligious. The vast majority of students, however, hold some combination of religious and nonreligious rationales for their rejections.

Instructors should be aware of students' conceptions in order to help them learn the science of evolution better and to understand why the scientific community agrees that evolution is the only scientific theory to explain the diversity of life. Otherwise, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to productively address students' misconceptions about evolution. Additionally, to better understand why many students (and nonstudents) contend that the evolutionary science we teach is inaccurate, it is illustrative to examine some of the religious and non-religious rationales underpinning their thinking. In this presentation we will look at some of these specific yet greatly varied religious and non-religious rationales that students typically give for their rejection of evolution.

[The above is a slightly modified excerpt from Defending Evolution in the Classroom. Jones & Barlett Publishers, Boston, 2001.]

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