Were You There?

As a creationist kid, I was determined not to learn about evolution.

Temptation of Adam and Eve.
Can students separate religious beliefs from scientific theories?

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez. Images courtesy of Phillip Medhurst/Creative Commons and Thinkstock.

A 10th-grader perches on the edge of her chair as her biology teacher lectures on evolution. She listens intently. The years she’s spent in Sunday school and church services have prepared her for this very moment. Her hand shoots up, and the teacher calls her name. Breathless, she asks a question.

“How do you know evolution really happened? Were you there?”

I was that student, and I remember the knot that formed in my stomach whenever my high school science teacher directed class discussion toward that dreaded E-word. I remember the day I asked him if he was there when an ape evolved into a human. Some of my classmates rolled their eyes. I wasn’t even trying to make a joke about his age. For me it was a serious question, almost sacred.

Terry Wortman was my science teacher from my sophomore through senior years, and he is still teaching in my hometown, at Hayes Center Public High School in Hayes Center, Nebraska. He still occasionally hears the question I asked 16 years ago, and he has a standard response. “I don’t want to interfere with a kid’s belief system,” he says. “But I tell them, ‘I’m going to teach you the science. I’m going to tell you what all respected science says.’ ”

That’s pretty close to what he told me all those years ago. He said that he didn’t need to witness evolution to know it occurred; fossil evidence shows us that humans evolved from a common ancestor with apes. But the evidence he described in class couldn’t get past the religious block in my mind.

Wortman’s approach is a common one, according to recent research on how science teachers deal with questions about evolution. He encourages his students to separate religious beliefs from scientific theories so they can learn the required material. He doesn’t challenge his students to examine whether their religious beliefs are true.

Education researchers have studied how well religious students are able to learn about evolution. Some researchers suggest that creationist beliefs prevent students from understanding evolution, since creationism teaches that a supernatural being created the world and all its life forms. But others claim students can understand evolution even if they don’t accept that it happened. What does this conflict over how students learn about evolution mean for Wortman and science teachers like him? And what does it mean for the students, like that younger, creationist version of me, who sit in biology classrooms? Can they cope with evolution?

One point of consensus exits among science education researchers: Religion affects how people understand evolution. “The role of religion is really robust,” said Josh Rosenau, a programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education. “I have no question that a person’s view of their own religion shapes how that person is prepared to respond to questions about evolution.”

Leslie Rissler is an evolutionary ecologist and biogeographer who taught an upper-level evolution course for biology majors for more than 10 years at the University of Alabama. Some of her students said their high school science teachers—even in public schools—skipped the evolution unit altogether or taught creationism alongside evolution as an alternative scientific theory. A 2007 Penn State study involving 926 science educators found that about 13 percent of biology teachers are openly sympathetic to creationism in their classroom. The comments about those creationist science teachers that Rissler overheard in her class prompted her research addressing evolution education, published online last fall in Evolution: Education and Outreach.

The state where Rissler taught and conducted her study is one of the most hostile toward evolution education. In 2009, the NCSE gave Alabama’s state science standards an F-minus for failing to address human evolution, avoiding the subject of evolution in general, and adding a disclaimer about evolution to its textbooks. Alabama requires schools to affix a warning label to every public high school biology textbook—the only state in the United States to still do so. Louisiana’s state board of education voted to reject a similar label in 2002 (although many of its public school teachers do teach creationism). The Cobb County, Georgia, school board agreed in a 2006 court settlement to remove disclaimer stickers from science textbooks, and a judge ordered the Dover, Pennsylvania school system, in 2005 to remove a requirement that science teachers read a disclaimer to their classes. Alabama voted to reconfirm use of the disclaimer in 2005 in the midst of the Cobb County and Dover court battles. The Alabama label states that evolution is a theory, not a fact, and that the material in the textbook should be “approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”

To understand the effects of these state education policies, Rissler examined data from questionnaires completed by 2,999 students from the University of Alabama. Questions about church attendance helped her determine how religious students were. And Rissler asked the students what their high school science teachers taught about evolution to gauge how much background knowledge they had on the subject. Survey questions also measured how well students understand evolutionary theory (their knowledge) and whether they believe it is true (their acceptance).

Rissler concluded that deeply religious students are less likely to either understand or accept evolution than are their less religious peers. “The more religious are less scientifically literate,” she said. “The data are clear on this. It’s just that people don’t like to hear it.”

Rissler also surmised that educators who teach both creationism and evolution “are doing more harm than teaching the students nothing.” Her data show that students who were never taught evolution—their teachers skipped it—performed better on tests of both knowledge and acceptance than those students who learned about both evolution and creationism in high school.

Dan Kahan, a cultural cognition scientist at Yale, interprets this issue of religion and learning about evolution differently; he claims that people of all ages can understand a concept like evolution, even when they don’t think that it is true. In a 2006 study, for instance, participants who said they endorsed the theory of evolution were no more likely to be able to correctly explain the theory than participants who said they did not. “It is very, very possible for a dedicated science educator to teach [evolution] to a secondary school student who says he or she ‘doesn’t believe’ in evolution,” Kahan wrote in a blog post. In other words, you can keep your creationism but learn your evolution, too.

So can religious students understand evolution even when they think it conflicts with their beliefs? In my own experience, as a case study for a creationist learning about evolution, the answer is no. Rissler has it right.

What I learned at home and church was like a fog that the most basic principles of biology could barely cut through. In science class, details got lost in the mist.

During one of Wortman’s lectures on natural selection—involving different types of bacteria—I was doodling. Normally an attentive student, I deliberately tuned out of the class. The subject made me uncomfortable because the process of new species coming about via natural selection directly contradicted what my church and parents taught me about the origins of life. From one corner of my page of sparse notes, a cartoonish rendering of Wortman peered at me from behind oversized spectacles. Abandoning the portrait, I traced angular shapes that fit together like puzzle pieces and circled them with flowers and vines. Then Wortman caught me.

“What, do you think you know this already?” Wortman asked indignantly, leaning on my student desk where my incriminating notebook lay. “Could you take the test right now?”

I was mortified.

Wortman didn’t make me take the test that day, but if he had, I’m not sure the early testing would have affected my grade. I had already learned everything I was planning to know about evolution at church. And when test day did arrive, if I didn’t want to provide the answer I knew Wortman wanted on one of the test questions, I just changed his test to fit my belief system. For example:

Test question: True or False? Humans evolved from a common ancestor with apes.

I used a little caret to insert my changes: True or False? Some scientists claim humans evolved from a common ancestor with apes.

Then I could unreservedly circle “True.” And Wortman gave me full credit.

What was I learning about evolution, then? The church I attended with my family when I was young had a monthly “Creation Moment” in the service. A respected church board member would give a five-minute presentation on topics such as humans living with dinosaurs or the geologic importance of Noah’s flood. We were encouraged to confront anyone who seemed to assume that evolution is true with a simple question meant to stump them: Were you there? It was the question I eventually asked Wortman. The act of asking that question demonstrates how little I understood evolutionary theory. No one needs to directly observe an aquatic species slowly evolving the ability to crawl onto dry land in order for scientists to surmise that mammals evolved from a fish. As Wortman said, we can observe the evidence in the fossil record and draw reasonable conclusions. But I always stopped thinking critically about the details once I had posed my short question. I wasn’t listening to the answer. I knew I believed what my church had taught me.

For “creation scientists” like the members of my family’s church, Genesis records the history of the universe. Instead of evaluating evidence primarily on its scientific merits, a biblical creationist first filters the information through the Bible. If the Bible—taken as word-for-word truth—contradicts any scientific conclusion, the scientific evidence must be false. Evolution, with its requirement for eons of time, can’t fit into a literal six-day understanding of the Genesis creation story. According to biblical creationists, the Earth is anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 years old, a position known as young-Earth creationism.

A surprising number of Americans identify with this young-Earth creationist position. In a 2014 Gallup poll, 42 percent of Americans, a number that hasn’t changed much in the 30 years Gallup has been conducting that poll, said they believe God created human beings in their present form in the past 10,000 years. That’s pretty recent history compared with the scientific understanding that life evolved on our planet about 3.7 billion years ago, that our genus, Homo, evolved about 2.5 million years ago, and that Homo sapiens emerged about 200,000 years ago.

In hindsight, my family’s church was not the best place to learn sound science. After I left home and was exposed to more ideas outside of my family and church, I gradually accepted that the diversity and complexity of life on Earth evolved over millions of years of natural selection. Still, I have to retrain my mind not to object every time I see a museum label that describes a fossil as millions of years old or watch a science program on television that calls birds descendants of dinosaurs.

I am still learning how to understand the origins of life through the lens of evolutionary theory rather than a six-day creation event. And when I was a creationist student in high school biology, reconciling my belief in divine creation with knowledge about evolution was impossible, as Rissler’s study suggests. I just memorized what I needed to know for the test, found a way to answer the test questions without compromising my beliefs, and then quickly dumped the information from my memory.

Wortman told me he sees some of his religious high school students struggle, like I did, to integrate what their parents or church tell them and what he teaches in his science classes. “It creates a lot of conflict in the students. They think about their beliefs instead of the theory,” Wortman mused. “It does create a block. They already have their mind set, so they just shut you out.”                                

Wortman recalled a lesson he gave in October to his 10th-graders about the age of the Earth. A student approached him after class and explained he doesn’t agree that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old.

“I asked the kid how old he thought the earth was. He said 10,000 years,” Wortman recounted. “I just told him what the science says. Then I told him, ‘Don’t let it conflict with what you’re taught at home.’ ”

Unfortunately, for students being taught a young-Earth creationist view at home or church, that advice is simply impossible. They won’t be able to let go of the contradiction between 10,000 and 4.5 billion years because those two numbers cannot be reconciled. And they’ll keep raising their shaky hands to ask, “Were you there?”