Article Posting: “Evolution acceptance among pre-service primary teachers”

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(Uploaded on behalf of Dr. Adam M. Goldstein)

Since this is the EE&O blog, it makes sense to look at recent papers appearing in it. We can provide something more than an abstract to give readers a sense of whether the article might be useful for them. Having authors write their own posts would be ideal, because they are in the best position to explain their work, and to highlight its main ideas and importance. Clearly, no one person can blog about every article. It would be a full-time job. Until we are able to recruit authors to write posts about their own articles, I will post occasionally. Here I have selected a paper about the attitudes of teacher trainee toward evolution.

Arthur, Shagufta. Evolution acceptance among pre-service primary teachers. Evolution: Education and Outreach 2013, 6:20. doi:10.1186/1936-6434-6-20. http://www.evolution-outreach.com/content/6/1/20.

As readers of EE&O know, many people do not believe what scientists say about evolution. Putting this into context, the proportion of people who think evolution occurred and is still occurring is troubling relative to say, the theory that germs cause disease, or that there exists a force that causes objects to fall when dropped from a height on Earth and that also causes the planets to stay in their orbits. Why is this so? How can educators address the concerns of those reluctant to accept that there is strong scientific support for many of the central claims of evolutionary biologists? In order to begin answering these questions, researchers explore how many people in different groups accept evolution, and how many do not. Regional differences, in the United States? Religious beliefs? Number of science classes? Economics? Standardized surveys are used to measure acceptance. Results from these surveys are cross-referenced against descriptions of the population surveyed. The aim is to describe the cognitive states individuals might be in regarding evolution, and what influences those individuals to be in a given state.

Identifying the right state-space for describing entities and relationships of objects of study is a fundamental issue for every science. The state-space is made up of the dimensions of the things scientists measure in order to develop and test theories about the things they study. For instance, physicists studying mechanics measure position, velocity, mass, and acceleration to describe the motions of physical objects. Richard Lewontin claims, in The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change, that geneticists and ecologists cannot measure variation among organisms accurately enough to draw useful conclusions. Because the margins of error in the measurements are so great, it is impossible to arrive at statistically significant results. Arthur’s paper is important because it addresses questions about the state-space for describing attitudes about evolution and what influences those attitudes.

Arthur’s view is that tools for assessing acceptance of evolution fail to account for the diversity of opinions: they assess whether someone accepts or doesn’t accept evolution, but cannot capture ambivalence or compromise positions. The dimensionality of the state-space is too small: acceptance and non-acceptance are not the only two belief states that we should be measuring. Describing nuanced states of belief has been the subject of recent research. The most intriguing point concerns the relationship between acceptance of evolution and other beliefs. There is a multi-dimensional system including beliefs about whether evolution occurs in all living beings except humans; about whether evolution is progressive; about theistic and deistic views about the nature of God’s influence; agnosticism, atheism, intelligent design, and others.

Drawing on this range of attitudes, Arthur surveyed 35 teachers in training with backgrounds in biology. Survey respondents were asked essay-like questions aimed at understanding reasons for the diversity of attitudes toward evolution. What Arthur discovered is that survey respondents experience a tension between their understanding of scientific method and of the facts as they are now known, their religious belief systems, and their worries about whether human beings or the universe has a purpose. Arthur organizes the results as follows.

  1. Strong acceptance. Acceptance is based on understanding and acceptance of scientific evidence.
  2. Reserved acceptance. Acceptance is weakened because of doubts about the strength of the evidence, together with religious beliefs and beliefs about the consequences for living a good life if what evolutionists say is accepted. Arthur suggests that these beliefs might change as the teacher-trainees learn more about evolution.
  3. Partial acceptance. There is reluctance to accept what scientists say about evolution primarily because it is thought that some of what they say is in conflict with other beliefs thought to be important for a good life, for instance, that human beings are at the center of the universe, or that life has a purpose. These are seen to be consequences of evolution. Arthur could not draw any clear conclusions about whether the beliefs conflicting with the science about evolution were derived from religious beliefs.