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America’s Real Evolution Problem

A new study shows that Darwin’s big ideas remain hard to come by in college.

Darwin’s ideas are, without question, powerful and have helped advance knowledge in nearly all academic domains. Darwin’s ideas of evolution led to the creation of the field we now call “biology” (see Allmon, 2011) and have led to major insights in such fields as education, health, and politics. The principles of evolution are arguably as important a set of ideas as any when it comes to understanding the world and our place in it.

So you would think that colleges and universities, which specialize in providing bright young minds with a rigorous and useful education, would effectively educate all their students in the principles of evolution. Right? Well, actually, and unfortunately, the answer really is “wrong!”

A few years ago, my colleagues Dan Glass, David Sloan Wilson, and I published the results of a study showing that most scholars who have been highly successful in research on the topic of evolution and human behavior report having learned almost none of their “evolution” from their graduate educations. That is, many of the top scholars in the field of evolution and human behavior indicate that colleges and universities that they have attended or worked at provide nearly no infrastructure for the learning of evolution. I recently posted a blog on this topic titled “It is incredibly difficult to obtain an evolution education.”

This blog, summarizing a brand-new publication in EvoS Journal on this same issue, is something of a follow-up.

In a three-year longitudinal study on evolution knowledge and literacy, April Bleske-Recheck and Bryan Donovan, at the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire, surveyed 200 undergraduate students who represented a broad array of academic majors (including the physical sciences, social sciences, humanities and arts, and pre-professional programs). These researchers gave their participants a battery of measures designed to tap their knowledge of evolutionary principles as well as their overall scientific literacy. They also tapped their attitudes about evolution. These same measures were given to these same individuals three years later - allowing for a clear process to test if the education the students were receiving improved their evolution knowledge and literacy.

The fact that this study was done in a longitudinal manner allowed for many questions to be addressed - including (a) how much change or improvement in evolution knowledge there is as a function of their education and (b) how much their pre-existing knowledge of evolution accounted for their knowledge of evolution at the end of the study period. The majors of the students were also documented, so that the researchers could assess if, for instance, students in the physical sciences advanced more in their evolution knowledge compared with students in the humanities.

Among the questions asked of participants were standard questions of evolutionary literacy (see Hawley et al., 2011) such as:

“Species evolve to be perfectly adapted to their environments.” FALSE, by the way ….


“Evolution is a straight progression from primitive to advanced species.” also FALSE, by the way ...

Another factor that, to my mind, needs to be mentioned pertains to the fact that this study was conducted on students at the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire. This university has a reputation as being of very high quality and is known for having excellent students and faculty. According to the university’s website:

“The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is consistently rated among the top 10 public Midwestern universities and recognized nationally for quality academics and high return on investment. Among our ranks are celebrated scholars and award winners, people who are passionate about their intellectual pursuits, critical thinkers and innovators deeply committed to interacting with and improving the world around us.”

So the fact that this study was conducted at a high-caliber university is an important part of the setup.

The bottom line, brief summary of the results is this: Three years of education had a negligible effect on evolution education. Further, any effects that were obtained (such as a small effect for being in a major dedicated to the physical sciences) disappeared when pre-existing evolution knowledge and/or literacy was taken into account.

Here’s a statement from the Results section of this paper speaking to this point:

“Analyses revealed the same pattern of associations between science coursework exposure and knowledge of evolution. That is, students’ evolution literacy scores at the three-year follow-up were positively related to the number of science courses they had taken, r(191) = .20, p = .004, but students’ incoming evolution literacy was also associated with the number of science courses taken by Time 2, r(191) = .23, p = .001. When we controlled for students’ incoming evolution literacy, students’ science coursework no longer predicted their Time 2 evolution literacy scores, partial r(189) = .13, p = .080.” (Bleske-Recheck & Donovan, 2015, p. 27)

If you’re not too familiar with statistics, this may sound a bit like mumbo jumbo, but it’s actually very well-presented and it bottom-lines to this: The only thing that truly predicted how much the students knew about evolution at the end was their pre-existing knowledge of evolution before the study even started. And this was even true for the students in physical science majors!

America’s Evolution Problem is Worse than We Thought

When Dan Glass, David Sloan Wilson, and I (2012) published our work showing that scholars in the field of evolution and behavior report that it’s nearly impossible to receive an evolution education in our universities, there was cause for concern.

When April Bleske-Recheck and Bryan Donovan report that a full-out undergraduate education at a high-caliber university in the United States leads to nearly no advances in knowledge of evolutionary principles, the cause for concern becomes, to my mind, magnified.

America’s evolution problem is way worse than we thought! And the problem has nothing to do with “religious people not believing in evolution” - which is often cited as “America’s evolution problem.” No - America's real evolution problem is this: Our universities and colleges fail to offer sufficient curricular and training opportunities for students and faculty. And until this issue is fixed in a large-scale manner, we will continue to produce college graduates who are sub-par in their understanding of the world.

Evolutionary Studies Across the Curriculum as a Potential Solution

Along with several of my colleagues at SUNY New Paltz and other institutions (most notably, David Sloan Wilson at Binghamton University), I have been working hard over the past decade to improve evolution education on an international scale. At SUNY New Paltz, we have an entire academic program dedicated to understanding evolution - we call it the Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) program. Modeled after a similar program at Binghamton, this program offers students from any academic major courses that (a) provide the basics of evolution (such as Evolution for Everyone in Biology), (b) courses that apply evolutionary principles across various academic disciplines (such as Human Evolution in Anthropology and Evolutionary Psychology in Psychology), and (c) a capstone course, Evolutionary Studies Seminar, that includes guest speakers from various disciplines who present their work applying evolution in various ways. Based on outcome data from our students, I'm fully convinced that students in this program get an awesome evolution education.

A few years back, along with our partners at Binghamton, we received a large grant from the National Science Foundation titled “Expanding Evolutionary Studies in Higher Education.” The work of this grant was highly successful, leading to the expansion of an academic program in EvoS to several other schools, such as Albright College, the University of Alabama, and the University of Lisbon in Portugal. We also developed the open-access peer-reviewed EvoS Journal, which is, by chance, the venue that published Bleske-Recheck and Donovan’s recent piece.

This all said, on a national scale, I don’t think we have scraped the surface. After reading this new article on the evolution problem, I’m convinced more than ever that the war to provide effective evolution education at our universities is only in its infancy. And as people who care greatly about best educating the next generation - it’s up to us - to you and me - to bring the colleges and universities in the US and elsewhere up to speed when it comes to evolution education. If you know me at all, you know I’m totally serious and that this will not be the last blog that I write on this topic!

References and Other Resources

Allmon, W. D. (2011). Why don’t people think evolution is true? Implications for teaching, in and out of the classroom. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 4, 648-665.

Bleske-Rechek, A., & Donovan, B. A. (2015). Scientifically Adrift: Limited Change in Scientific Literacy and No Change in Knowledge and Acceptance of Evolution, Over Three Years of College. The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 7(1), 21-43.

Glass, D. J., Wilson, D.S., & Geher, G. (2012). Evolutionary training in relation to human affairs is sorely lacking in higher education. EvoS Journal: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 4(2), 16-22.

Hawley, P. H., Short, S. D., McCune, L. A., Osman, M. R., & Little, T. D. (2011). What’s the matter with Kansas? The development and confirmation of the evolutionary attitudes and literacy survey (EALS). Evolution: Education & Outreach, 4, 117-132. doi:10.1007/s12052-010-0294-1

Wilson, D. S., Geher, G., Sokol-Chang, R. I., & Head, H. (in contract). Evolutionary Studies: Darwin’s Roadmap to the Curriculum. New York: Oxford University Press.

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