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December 01, 2003

Biology & the students

Below I have cut & pasted (excuse formatting issues) an article that surveys the opinions on evolution from biology & medical students at the University of Glasgow. Here is the abstract:

Over a 12 year period, 4 - 11 per cent of a large first year Scottish university biology class stated that they rejected the occurrence of biological evolution. There was a slight, but statistically significant, decline in evolution-rejection over the 12 years. In the one year surveyed, the figure for medical students was 10 per cent. Most evolution-rejectors accepted the occurrence of within-species evolutionary changes: their objection was to the origin of new species. Acceptance of a literal religious creation account was the principal reason for rejecting evolution, whereas those accepting did so more on grounds of the lack of good alternative explanations, than on the strength of the evidence. Rejection of evolution correlated strongly with religious belief -mainly various sorts of Christianity or Islam. However, over half of those accepting evolution also claimed to have a religious faith. When asked to evaluate the evidence for various scientific propositions, including evolution, evolution-rejectors were generally a little more sceptical than acceptors: the two groups differed most starkly on the evidence for evolution and continental drift. These results are discussed in the context of the very different public attitudes towards the teaching of evolution in the USA and elsewhere, and of strategies in science education that acknowledge the role of values and the nature of scientific evidence

From: Evolution and religion: attitudes of Scottish first year biology and medical students to the teaching of evolutionary biology. By: Downie, J.R.; Barron, N.J.. Journal of Biological Education, Summer2000, Vol. 34 Issue 3, p139, 8p; (AN 3300734)

In the USA, biologists are increasingly worried by the impact of religious fundamentalists on the teaching of evolution. As editor of the American Biology Teacher, Moore (1999,and references therein) has written an eight part series of articles on the battle between creationists and biologists in the USA public school system. The final part of the series, sub-titled 'the lingering threat' was immediately vindicated by the Kansas Board of Education's decision, in the summer of 1999, to discourage the teaching of evolutionary biology in state public schools (Holden, 1999). The distinguished evolutionary biologist, Douglas Futuyma has written a complete book on the conflict, now in its second edition (Futuyma, 1995). Letters and editorials in the American Scientist (Robbins, 1995), Scientific American (Beardsley, 1995), the American Biology Teacher (Moore, 1997), and Trends in Ecology and Evolution (Scott and Padian, 1997) attest to a well-organised and well-financed anti-evolution lobby that has made a considerable impact on the presentation of evolutionary biology in schools, museums, and colleges. In some states, surprisingly high proportions of biology teachers hold creationist views (Aguillard, 1999). Fundamentalists may have lost the battle for 'equal time' teaching of 'creation science', but their persistence, and their 'new' tactic of 'intelligent design' (Behe, 1996) is having a huge effect. In contrast, the scientific community has generally appeared scattered and poorly organised, though Wuethrich (1999) reports signs of a fight back in the state of New Mexico, where scientists have been elected to key school board positions.

Outside the USA, creationism seems much less important. Pigliucci (1997) was astonished at the situation in the USA, after meeting only one creationist in many years working in Italy. Devlin (1999) recounts his experiences with 'extremely well-educated and widely read' anti-evolution students in the USA, and claims that 'nothing you will have experienced in the UK will have prepared you for that'. Jones (1987; 1989) reported that Australia experienced an upsurge of evangelical Protestant teaching in the 1980's. She found, in a sample of 613 first year university students (of biology or education), that 19 per cent took some sort of creationist view of the origin of species, though only 5 per cent adhered to the strict Genesis account.

We have not been able to find any comparable study of student attitudes to evolution and creation from the UK or any other country: educators may have felt it better to let this particular 'sleeping dog' lie. However, we believe it is important to have some idea of the numbers of students who hold anti-evolutionary views, for several reasons:

Effective teaching of the theory of evolution is difficult enough without having to teach it against deep-seated opposition.
There is an ethical problem in teachers, as authority figures, telling students to learn something that the students strongly disbelieve.
Without having an estimate of the numbers of opponents of evolution now, we will have no idea of trends.
The survey results presented here have been collected from University of Glasgow biology students over more than a decade, plus I year's results from medical students: they therefore allow us to look for trends. Our objectives were:

To assess the relative extent of pro- and anti-evolution beliefs in university students of biology and medicine.
To investigate the relationship between religious beliefs, and attitudes to evolution and creation in these students.
To investigate students' reasons for either accepting or rejecting evolution.
To compare the levels of student acceptance of several scientific propositions, including the theory of evolution: our intention here was to assess whether students rejecting evolution had a general scepticism towards science, or whether their rejection was specific towards evolution.
We used the questionnaire in class as part of a teaching strategy aimed at clarifying the nature of scientific ideas and distinguishing them from religious beliefs. As well as discussing the results of our survey, we examine here a number of approaches to the teaching of evolution as a controversial aspect of science, and discuss the distinction between teaching, learning, and indoctrination.

Student population and courses
Our survey has been carried out on the Level I Biology class in the University of Glasgow during the eight sessions, 1987/88 - 1994/95, then again in session 1998/99. A large number of students take this course, rising fairly steadily from around 500 in the late 1980's to around 800 in 1998/99. Most of the students have studied some biology before coming to university, generally the Scottish higher which includes some coverage of the theory of evolution; some have studied more biology (i.e. A-level); a few have studied no biology before. The majority of the class want to proceed to a degree in biological sciences, but others are studying biology for a single year only, with an intention to proceed in chemistry, psychology, geography etc.

During our survey, the coverage of evolution changed somewhat but, essentially, there were a series of 4 - 6 lectures on the origins and evidence for the theory that today's living organisms are the result of a long period of biological evolution. This included some discussion of the mechanisms of gene frequency changes and speciation: the lectures were supported by some practical and tutorial work. Only during the final year covered were the lectures given by one of the authors.

The survey involved an anonymous questionnaire, completed by the students during a practical class or tutorial on evolution that followed the lecture course. After completing and handing in the questionnaire, students were encouraged to discuss it with tutors.

As a comparison, we surveyed our first year medical students at the start of their course in 1999. These students are not taught any evolutionary biology as part of their course, but do have school educational backgrounds very similar to those of biology students. The survey questions for medical students were identical to those for biologists, except that we asked them some questions about the relevance of evolutionary biology to medicine and medical education.

The questionnaire
The questionnaire begins with a preamble pointing out the different status of the theory of evolution among professional biologists (overwhelmingly accepted) and the general public (not so sure). It also reminds the students that the theory has two parts: (a) that evolution has happened; (b) that natural selection is the main mechanism; and that the 'how' of evolution remains an exciting and controversial area for biologists. Finally, the preamble emphasises that the questionnaire is about the occurrence of evolution, not about how it may have happened.

The first question asks students whether they accept that some kind of biological evolution, lasting many millions of years, has occurred on earth. On the basis of their answer, students then proceed to either section A or section B of the questionnaire, each of which contains six or seven questions, three of which are identical in the two sections. A copy of the complete questionnaire is available from the authors on request.

We first separated completed questionnaires into acceptors and rejectors of evolution. All rejectors (the minority) were analysed in detail. For the much larger number of acceptors, we analysed a random sample (approximately one third of the total).

Since effectively all students attending the class completed questionnaires, and handed them in anonymously, there should be little prospect of bias in the sample, or incentive to the students to make false responses.

Acceptors and rejectors
Table 1 shows the proportions of students in each year that claimed to accept, or reject 'biological evolution that has lasted millions of years'.

Since we tend to think of anti-evolutionary thinking as a mainly American trait, it is salutary to find as many as 11 per cent of a UK university class rejecting the occurrence of biological evolution. Significantly, these students have chosen to study biology, and have just been exposed to a course in evolution. The percentage of rejectors does, however, appear to be reducing, with all the highest figures being near the start of our survey and the lowest the most recent. A Spearman correlation showed that there has been a significant decline (r = 0.83; p < 0.005) in the proportion of rejectors over the period of the study.

The proportion of medical student rejectors is over twice as high as for the most comparable biology class (1998/9).

Reasons for rejecting evolution -- and how fixed that rejection is
Students were offered three possible reasons for rejecting evolution, plus 'other reasons -- please state' and asked to indicate all those that applied to them. The percentages of students choosing the different reasons are shown in Table 2.

The acceptance of a literal religious creation account is consistently the most common reason, with conflicts and contradictions in the evidence for evolution generally second. The written-in answers were very varied, with the most frequent ones stating that the theory of evolution seems too improbable.

We asked a further question to test how completely these students were rejecting evolutionary ideas. We pointed out that people could reject the idea that species can change from one kind to another, yet accept that natural selection can operate within a species to adapt it to fine-scale environmental change, and asked the rejectors to indicate whether or not they accepted within-species natural selection. Over the period 1987 - 95, 89 per cent agreed that they did accept 'evolution' at this level. The proportion in 1998/99 was 88 per cent, and for the 1999 medical students 83 per cent. Clearly, most rejectors object mainly to the idea that new species can originate from old ones.

We also wanted to know how fixed these students' rejection was. For example, was their rejection entirely dogmatic, or were they prepared to consider evidence? Our question was 'What evidence would need to be obtained to convince you that evolution has occurred?' Results are shown in Table 3(a).

About half (49-55per cent) of these students wrote in a comment, the rest did not reply or simply stated that no such evidence could be obtained. Of those making a reply, 44 per cent asked for evidence we could class as feasible (e.g. more fossils, missing links, demonstration of the origin of life from simple molecules, disproof of alternatives), 16 per cent wanted impracticable evidence (e.g. time travel), and 15 per cent simply stated that they would need 'lots and lots' of evidence. The remaining 25 per cent made comments related to God and faith, not really 'evidence'.

Reasons for accepting evolution
As above, students were offered three reasons for accepting evolution, plus 'other -- please state'. The percentages choosing the different reasons are shown in Table 4.

The results were remarkably consistent over the years, more consistent than for the rejectors (possibly related to the smaller sample sizes for rejectors). It is interesting that two or three times as many (mean percentage = 77) felt that the principal reason for acceptance is the lack of good alternatives, as felt that the quality of evidence for evolution is high (mean percentage = 35). It is also notable how few (mean percentage = 10.5) were prepared to take the 'teacher knows best' option. A much smaller proportion of acceptors than rejectors took the write-in option. Many of these took the opportunity to note that acceptance of evolution did not conflict with their religious beliefs, claiming that God may have started the process off, or have had some other creative input.

As a comparison with the rejectors, we asked the acceptors whether there was any evidence they would like to see obtained that would make it more certain that evolution has occurred. Results are shown in Table 3 (b).

An obvious contrast with the rejectors is the much smaller proportion that wrote in a reply. In addition, the extra evidence wanted by those writing a comment was generally of a feasible nature, mostly extra fossil evidence, and 'missing links'. Several wrote that sufficient evidence had already been obtained.

Religious beliefs
Both groups were asked to state their religion, if they had one, and to write in 'none' rather than leaving the response blank. The results are shown in Table 5.

The majority of rejectors (mean percentage = 86) were religious. However, the majority of acceptors were also religious, though by a small margin (mean percentage = 57). In the class as a whole, the mean percentage stating that they had a religious belief was 59 per cent. Using a paired t-test, evolution-acceptors were significantly less likely to have a religious belief than the class as a whole (t = 6.9; p < 0.01), though the percentage difference was small; evolution-rejectors were significantly more likely to have a religious belief (t = 9.7; p < 0.001) and with a very large percentage difference.

There is no very obvious trend over the years. As we expected, rejectors overwhelmingly professed to have a religious faith. The acceptors are more representative of the biology class as a whole and, over the 11 years span of the survey, show no very obvious trend of change in religious belief. The medical class is at the high end of the range for religious belief among the biologists, but still within that range.

From 1990/91 onwards, we asked students to define their religion. Table 6 shows the data from all those stating their religion. Two points stand out: first, the relatively high proportion of Muslims amongst the rejectors; second, the proportions of different sorts of Christians. We did not ask students to specify their branch of Christianity, but many did, and it is common usage for those who belong to the evangelical, Protestant churches to label themselves as 'Christian', rather than Protestant; similarly, Catholics tend to state their Catholicism, rather than writing Christian. 'Christians' tended to be a higher proportion of the rejectors compared to acceptors, and Catholics correspondingly lower.

A comparison with other scientific ideas
We wished to discover how well established as a theory the students felt evolution was compared to some other well-known scientific ideas. We started by pointing out that 'few ideas in science are based on certainty. Most major generalisations are theories -- based on well established, but not certain information'. We then asked the students to give a rating on a 5-point scale (1 = very poorly established to 5 = very well established) to five scientific propositions, two of them related to evolution, three on health and environment issues. The responses are shown in Table 7. For ease of comparison, we have combined responses 1 and 2 as 'poorly established'; 3 is given as neutral; 4 and 5 are combined as 'well established'. Also for ease of comparison, we have pooled the data from years 1987/88 to 1994/95 and given the means from these years in comparison with the most recent year 1998/99. Within the year sequence 1987/88 to 1994/95, there were no obvious trends.

The results from this question are particularly fascinating. Our intention was to test whether evolution-rejectors were sceptical of science in general, or only of evolution and its associated evidence. The results suggest that rejectors generally are somewhat more sceptical and uncertain: they show lower 'well established' ratings than acceptors for all propositions; they also show higher N values (i.e uncertain, ignorant?) on all propositions except for evolution. However, it is only on two propositions that their responses are radically different: those on tectonic plates and on evolution. On tectonic plate theory, they show a high degree of uncertainty, but still a majority regard it as well established, despite the fact that this theory has a close relationship with evolution and is related to an extremely old age for the Earth. It is only on evolution that this group lose their uncertainty: they are remarkably sure that the evidence for evolution is poor. The medical students showed a very similar pattern of responses to the biologists.

It is worth emphasising that the students were asked to give their opinions on how well established particular propositions are. It is unlikely that they are, in fact, well informed on the evidence for most of the propositions listed (perhaps more should have answered in the N category). Indeed, the biology students, having just completed a course on evolution, should have been better informed on the evidence for evolution than on any of the other propositions.

The place of evolution in the biology or medical curriculum
Our investigation was not only about attitudes to the theory of evolution, but also about the place of evolution in a university-level general biology or medical course. We asked the students whether they thought that evolution should be a compulsory part of a general biology course. On average, 89 per cent (range 86-92 per cent) of the acceptors thought that it should, with little variation from year to year. Responses from rejectors were more variable, with an average of 44 per cent (range 25-66 per cent) agreeing that evolution should be a compulsory part of a biology course.

To put this response into context, we asked both groups which parts of the biology course should be deleted and why. The majority gave no response. Of those replying, evolution was the commonest response for rejectors: one wrote 'it is hard to learn something you don't believe in and conflicts with your beliefs'. They also listed 'dissection' commonly as 'unnecessary'; plants and genetics were both described as 'boring'. Acceptors had a similar pattern of response, except for evolution --though this was mentioned by a few as 'ambiguous' or 'contentious'.

We asked the medical students to rate the relevance of evolutionary biology to an understanding of medicine. The responses of acceptors and rejectors (Table 8) were near mirror images of each other. We find it interesting that so many medical students, amongst the evolution-acceptors, saw a relevance for evolutionary biology in medicine, despite their course not covering it. When asked whether evolution should be included in the medical course, rejectors mainly (78 per cent) responded 'no', but nearly half (49 per cent) of acceptors responded 'yes'.

The extent and nature of evolution rejection
We found that 4-11 per cent of the first year biology class rejected evolution over the 12 years of our survey. There was a statistically significant decline in evolution-rejection over the period but, given the year-to-year variability, it is hard to be confident that the decline is stable. The trend is not in any obvious way related to any change in the proportion of students stating a religious belief. In the single year surveyed, the figure for medical students rejecting evolution was 10 per cent. We suspect that many UK biologists will be surprised to learn that such a high proportion of students who have chosen to study biology or medicine profess not to accept the occurrence of evolution.

Many of the students in our survey would not be proceeding to courses where evolutionary biology is a major component. At a large Scottish university like Glasgow, the first year biology course acts as an introduction to the biological disciplines -- anatomy, molecular biology, sports science, zoology, etc. -- and is the only biology course taken by students specialising in chemistry, psychology etc. Non-acceptance of evolution may not, therefore, have direct bearing on the later work of most students. However, we should ask what rejection of evolution implies about these young people as potential scientists in any sphere.

Attitudes to evolution may seem even less important for the medical students, given the lack of evolutionary biology in their course. However, there is a growing interest in the relevance of evolutionary thinking to medicine (Nesse and Williams, 1995), so student attitudes now may be important for the future.

Our results are somewhat different from the few similar surveys we have found in the literature. Jones's (1987; 1989) study of first year Australian biology and education students is similar to ours, but she surveyed only one year's intake and her sample was, in religious terms, more homogeneous than ours. Nineteen per cent of her students took a creationist view, but only 5 per cent were 'Genesis fundamentalists'. Short (1994) found 27 per cent of his Australian first year medical class rejected evolution, both before and after his evolution course. Sinclair and Pendarvis (1998) asked their first year Louisiana zoology students a series of questions before and after their course on evolution. Before, 45.6 per cent felt that there was a conflict between evolution and their religious beliefs, reducing to 29.6 per cent afterwards. However, 74.0 per cent felt it possible to accept evolution and believe in God, both before and after the course.

Though there is a general tendency to associate evolution-rejection with a literal interpretation of the Bible by Christians, Short (1994) noted that his staunchest anti-evolutionists were Muslims. Our results also show that a high proportion of Muslim students reject evolution, but by no means all. We are told (Siddiqui, personal communication) that there is no definitive Muslim position on the origin of species in general, but that Muslims reject 'the idea of human evolution from other lesser creations'. Ali (1997) emphasises the Qur'an's active encouragement of scientific enquiry, but he does not mention evolution. In Turkey, an organisation called the Science Research Foundation has promoted a series of popular anti-evolution conferences where the main speakers have been American 'creation scientists' (Yahya, 1999).

Alters (1999) notes that though USA opinion polls generally show about 50 per cent of the public rejecting evolution, this does not mean that these are all religious literalists. They have a diversity of beliefs, including many who simply want God to have some role in evolution, and others whose problem is essentially with the origin of human beings. Further to this point, in a comment on recent 'creationist' developments, Berry (1997) contends that evolutionary biologists who dismiss any role for a god, and who claim that science can answer all questions, are doing evolutionary biology no favours. It is certainly not the case that there is a necessary conflict between science and religion. Larson and Witham (1997) were surprised to find no significant change this century in the proportion of USA scientists professing a religious faith (41.8 per cent in 1916; 39.3 per cent in 1996). Our results consistently show that more than half of our first year biology students profess a religious belief

Beliefs -- and the teaching of science
Short (1994) was 'dismayed' that his teaching on evolution had made no difference to those with anti-evolution beliefs. Cooper (1996) has noted that fundamental beliefs have considerable impact on learning. We are not much used to this in the teaching of pure science, which is often assumed to be a value-free subject where what teachers need to do is fill students with knowledge. However, as Perry and others have shown (see Katung et al., 1999, for discussion) higher education in any subject area moves from a passive accumulation of information to a personal ability to learn and make judgments, a development towards autonomy. Such thinking has considerable implications for teaching and learning in all scientific disciplines, including evolutionary biology.

An aim of science teaching is the development of a new generation of scientists, and a key characteristic of scientists should be an open-mind to new ideas and a willingness to make judgements based on evidence, not on pre-conceptions. Hudson (1967) pointed to the anomaly that much of science teaching involves filling students with facts, rather than encouraging them to think imaginatively and for themselves.

Our data show that evolution-rejectors were a little more sceptical than acceptors on three scientific propositions that are unrelated to evolution (on CFCs, acid rain, and lung cancer), but more sceptical on tectonic plates and massively sceptical about evolution. There is no reason to suppose that the two groups differed significantly in their knowledge of the evidence for any of the propositions. Indeed, since our survey of biology students immediately followed our course on evolution, both groups had access to the same range of evidence on this particular proposition.

What made the difference? The principal reasons selected by the students for rejecting or accepting evolution give an indication. Rejectors overwhelmingly, especially the medical students, cited acceptance of the literal truth of a religious creation account as the principal reason, and many were prepared to say that no evidence could persuade them that evolution has occurred. The acceptors were quite different: they mainly chose the lack of good alternatives as the principal reason for accepting evolution: very few were prepared to state that they mainly followed their teachers' views.

This, to us, is the worrying feature of these results. We would not be concerned if students, having assessed the evidence, were sceptical of aspects of evolution. (Although our survey was not about evolutionary processes, some acceptors expressed doubts about how evolution works, a very reasonable position.) However, most evolution rejectors did so on the basis of religious belief: this is hardly compatible with the open-mindedness expected of a prospective scientist.

This has wider implications than biological evolution. As Scott and Padian (1997) point out, there is a close linkage between our knowledge of physics, biology, and geology concerning the origins of the universe and the historical development of Earth and its life forms. At least some of our evolution-rejectors were aware of this when they assessed continental drift to be as poorly established as evolution. In response to the Kansas decision (1999) against evolution in the school curriculum, the Society for the Study of Evolution stated 'if we abandon the usual procedures of acceptance and rejection of scientific hypotheses in one area of science, then the whole of science is in jeopardy' (Anon, 1999).

Strategies in the teaching of evolution
American biology teachers, confronted by a much starker evolution-rejection problem than elsewhere, have had a considerable debate, much of it in the American Biology Teacher, on how to teach evolution, and whether to include 'creation science' as an alternative. Although the US National Association of Biology Teachers felt that creationist ideas had no place in the science classroom and that 'contrasting science with religion, such as belief in creationism, is not a role of science', Cooper (1996) disagreed, noting that what students brought to the science classroom in terms of belief simply could not be ignored, and that the contrast was valuable in an examination of the nature of science. Esbenshade (1993) noted that a high proportion of his Missouri high school students saw conflicts between science and their religious beliefs: many of these students were very able and keen on a career in science. He pleaded for sensitivity on the part of science educators in dealing with the conflicts such students face.

The theme that the theory of evolution provides an excellent case history of what science is, and how scientists work, is the subject of several valuable articles. Nickels et al. (1996) outline an approach that embeds the teaching of evolution in an exploration of science as an activity 'inescapably rooted in inherent uncertainty and yet capable of producing highly reliable knowledge': their approach emphasises the development of critical thinking. Morishita (1991) describes a project where students prepare cases for and against evolution as in a court of law, and observes that there is more resemblance than generally recognised between legal and science education: in neither science nor law is there usually a single 'right answer'. Jensen and Finley (1997) found that after a 'traditional' evolution course, students had a very 'mixed bag' of notions on species origins. They devised a programme that required students to make explicit, and to work through, Darwinian explanations and to contrast them with pre-Darwinian ideas: teleology, Lamarckism, and natural theology. They found that this approach significantly improved students' understanding of Darwinian explanations. Lawson (1999) similarly outlines a 'learning-cycle' where students go through the same process as early investigators confronting the fossils in successive rock strata, and use the evidence they collect to discriminate between the hypotheses of special creation, spontaneous generation, and evolution. An explicit aim is to improve students' understanding of the nature of science and to develop critical thinking skills. Gauld (1992) also supports a thorough treatment of the historical origins of Darwinism, noting that 19th century religious leaders (as now) were by no means universally opposed to evolution and that arguments against evolution were not at all trivial given the knowledge available at the time. Poole (1995) gives a thorough account of the origin of Darwin and Wallace's theories and of their early reception. It was not the case that all scientists were for, and all churchmen against. Harper (1977; 1979) argues against the teaching of science by 'indoctrination' and suggests a number of alternatives to evolutionary explanations that could be used in discussion of species origins.

Allchin (1989) tackles the key point that for many people, the difficulty is the evolution of humans and the origin of ethics and morality. His evolution course concentrates on the distinctions between humans and other animals in terms of personal behaviour, and helps many students overcome mental barriers.

It is worth pointing out to students that science is an activity practised by people, not by saints. We do the cause of science education no favours by attempting to hide the existence of error and fraud: the history of evolutionary biology has its share in the Piltdown Man story and the recent exposure of Haeckel's too perfectly recapitulationist embryos (Wells, 1999). Anti-evolutionists have seized on such examples to discredit evolution. By drawing them explicitly to students' attention, we can demonstrate that science is a human activity and that it was scientists who exposed these errors, not creationists.

Educational implications
As far as we are aware, the attitudes of UK biology and medical students to evolution have not been assessed before. Our data show that a significant minority (around 10 per cent) do not accept that evolution has occurred. It would be surprising if these results were entirely specific to our students, though there may be regional variations.

As we have discussed, it is an unusual situation in science education for a part of the subject, viewed by professionals in the field as a fundamental cornerstone, to not be accepted as true by a group of students, and for reasons which are not accessible to normal scientific argument.

The educational implications of these findings relate to how we should handle this level of non-acceptance. We reviewed earlier the diversity of approaches devised by US teachers to cope with a much larger problem. In our view, it is good science education practice to show the historical development of a major theory such as evolution and to discuss how science advances by the testing of hypotheses. If this is done, creationist and other alternative views can be covered as part of the theory's development. This is the approach of our first year biology course on evolution: in addition to lectures, we give students the opportunity to debate the relationship between religious and scientific knowledge and to discuss this relationship, particularly in the context of evolution. The questionnaire described here is used as a follow-up to this session.

There remains the problem of examinations. It is perfectly reasonable to ask all students to be able to describe the theory of evolution, and the evidence that led Darwin and Wallace to propose it. Even amongst our evolution-rejectors, about half agreed that evolution should be taught. However, can we ask students, as part of their examinations, and knowing that some of them reject evolution, to evaluate all the evidence for and against the theory? This is tantamount to asking some students to lie, since they will be aware of what the examiners wish to read, but do not themselves believe it.

We would like to thank the thousands of students who completed our questionnaire; Dr Mona Siddiqui for her comments on Muslim attitudes to evolution; Dr Ian Brown for permitting us to survey his first year medical class; Henriikka Clarkeburn, Mike Hansell, and an anonymous reviewer for comments on the manuscript; Graeme Ruxton for assistance with statistics.

Table 1 Proportions of students in each year who rejected the proposition that a long period of biological evolution has occurred.
Legend for Chart:

A - Year
B - Total number sampled
C - Rejectors (%)


1987/88 221 11.3
1988/89 160 7.5
1989/90 230 10.0
1990/91 210 8.1
1991/92 269 5.6
1992/93 312 7.1
1993/94 417 5.3
1994/95 517 6.8
1998/99 518 3.9
Medics 1999 225 10.2

Table 2 Reasons for rejecting evolution: proportions of students in each year who chose particular reasons. Year by year percentages choosing the various reasons (total is in brackets); the 'Biols mean' column shows the mean values for biology students over the 9 years.

Legend for Chart:

A - Reasons for rejecting evolution
B - 87/88 (25)
C - 88/89 (12)
D - 89/90 (23)
E - 90/91 (17)
F - 91/92 (15)
G - 92/93 (22)
H - 93/94 (22)
I - 94/95 (35)
J - 98/99 (20)
K - Biols Mean
L - Medics 99 (23)



The evidence for evolution is full of conflicts and
and contradictions

28 17 43 35 53
18 36 29 35 33 30

I accept the literal truth of a religious creation
account that excludes evolution

84 67 70 71 80
50 68 71 80 71 96

I think that there are good alternatives to evolution
that explain the origin and distribution of species

8 17 17 24 13
32 27 9 25 19 17

Other reasons
12 25 30 18 20
14 9 17 25 19 9

Percentages do not total 100 because students were asked to
tick all the reasons that applied to them.

Table 3 Responses to (a) Rejectors: what evidence would need to be obtained to convince you that evolution has occurred? (b) Acceptors: is there any evidence you would like to see obtained that would make it certain for you that evolution occurs?
(a) Rejectors -- distribution of responses

Legend for Chart:

A - Years
B - Total sample
C - % Giving no response or 'none'
D - % Don't know or no evidence evidence could be obtained
E - % Writing comments


87 - 95 171 30 21 49
98 - 99 20 30 15 55
Medics 99 23 61 17 22

(b) Acceptors -- distribution of responses

Legend for Chart:

A - Years
B - Total sample
C - % giving no response or 'none'
D - % Yes but no comments
E - % Writing comments


87 - 95 931 71 3 26
98 - 99 100 80 7 13
Medics 99 100 90 2 8

Table 4 Reasons for accepting evolution: proportions of students in each year who chose particular reasons. Year by year percentages choosing the various reasons (total is in brackets); the 'Biols mean' column shows the mean values for biology students over the 9 years.

Legend for Chart:

A - Reasons for accepting evolution
B - 87/88 (196)
C - 88/89 (148)
D - 89/90 (104)
E - 90/91 (96)
F - 91/92 (85)
G - 92/93 (94)
H - 93/94 (99)
I - 94/95 (97)
J - 98/99 (100)
K - Bids Mean
L - Medics 99(100)


The evidence for evolution is clear 31 34 23 45
and unambiguous
29 39 41 38
41 36 26

I tend to accept what my teachers 10 6 12 12
say: they know the evidence
much better than I do
9 12 10 13
11 11 10

I do not think there are any good 80 72 80 77
alternatives to evolution that
explain well the origin and
distribution of species
72 82 78 77
81 78 71

Other reasons 7 11 10 11
7 7 6 7
6 8 5

Percentages do not total 100 because students were asked to
tick all the reasons that applied to them.

Table 5 Proportions (%) year by year of the whole class (evolution acceptors and rejectors) stating a religious belief (sample numbers as in Tables 2 and 3). The 'Biols mean' line shows the mean values for biology students over the 9 years.
Legend for Chart:

A - Year
B - Whole Class
C - Acceptors
D - Rejectors


87/88 64 61 84
88/89 64 62 83
89/90 57 56 70
90/91 55 52 88
91/92 59 57 93
92/93 68 67 91
93/94 54 52 86
94/95 55 52 91
98/99 56 55 90
Biols mean 59 57 86
Medics 99 63 60 96

Table 6 Proportions (%) of the different religions, stated by evolution acceptors and rejectors.
Legend for Chart:

A - Religion
B - Acceptors 91 - 95
C - Acceptors 98 - 99
D - Acceptors Medics 99
E - Rejectors 91 - 95
F - Rejectors 98 - 99
G - Rejectors Medics 99


Judaism 0.5 0 0 1 0 0
Islam 3 8 8 18 22 32
All Christianity 94 90 85 80 78 68
'Christian' 35 42 46 49 33 50
'Catholic' 34 16 22 18 22 5
Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu 2.5 0 7 1 0 0

Table 7 Students' ratings on how well a range of scientific theories are established (evolution acceptors and rejectors given separately). Data are shown as % of those giving a ranking on a 5 point scale from 1 = very poorly to 5 = very well established (poor = 1, 2; N = 3; well = 4, 5).

Legend for Chart:

A - Theory
B - Years
C - Acceptors Poor
D - Acceptors N
E - Acceptors Well
F - Rejectors Poor
G - Rejectors N
H - Rejectors Well


Tectonic plates 87-95 9 13.5 77.5
19 30 51

98-99 2 4 94
10 40 50

Medics 99 5 14 80
4 13 87

CFCs 87-95 7 18 75
9 21 70

98-99 0 18 82
10 20 70

Medics 99 5 10 85
0 9 92

Acid rain 87-95 5 13 82
10 17 73

98-99 1 9 90
10 15 75

Medics 99 0 8 92
0 9 92

Cigarettes 87-95 6 13 81
9 15 76

98-99 1 5 94
0 15 85

Medics 99 0 5 94
0 22 78

Evolution 87-95 6 22 72
76 15 9

98-99 1 27 72
60 35 5

Medics 99 5 33 62
82 13 4

The full statement of each theory, as given to the students,

Tectonic plates: the continents are not fixed in position,
but move relative to one another as tectonic plates.

CFCs: chlorofluorocarbon gases (CFCs), mainly from aerosol
sprays, are seriously depleting the earth's atmos pheric
ozone layer.

Acid rain: sulphur dioxide from power stations causes damage
to tree growth and kills fish in lakes by falling as 'acid

Cigarettes: cigarette smoke causes lung cancer.

Evolution: biological evolution, lasting many
millions of years, has occurred on earth.

Table 8 Medical students' ratings of the relevance of evolutionary biology to an understanding of medicine.
Legend for Chart:

A - Relevance
B - Evolution acceptors (n = 98)
C - Evolution rejectors (n = 23)


Low 16 55
Neutral 43 32
High 41 14

Figures are percentage responses to a 5 point scale,
with 1, 2 = low; 3 = neutral; 4, 5 = high.

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