• April 20, 2014

To Teach Evolution, You Have to Understand Creationists

If you follow the news about culture wars, evolution, and creationism, you've probably seen it by now. Earlier this fall, U.S. Rep. Paul C. Broun Jr., Republican of Georgia who ran unopposed for re-election, said in a widely distributed video that evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang theory were "lies straight from the pit of hell."

I don't agree. But the ferocious response to Broun's remarks tells us more about the widespread ignorance among evolution supporters than it does about ignorance among creationists.

Broun, who serves on the House of Representatives' Science, Space, and Technology Committee, has long been one of the most staunchly conservative members of Congress. His comments have earned him widespread condemnation; Bill Nye, television's "The Science Guy," has called Broun "by any measure, unqualified to make decisions about science, space, and technology." In the blogosphere, comment has been even less restrained.

I disagree with Broun's views on evolution—and on a host of other topics, for that matter. But if we hope to understand creationism, we need to abandon the trope that only the ignorant can oppose mainstream evolutionary science. It is a comfortable delusion, a head-in-the-sand approach to improving evolution education in the United States. In the end, it stems from a shocking ignorance among evolutionists about the nature of creationist beliefs.

First of all, Broun is no ignoramus. He holds a bachelor's degree in chemistry and an M.D. He is the most recent in a long line of educated creationists. In the 1920s, William Jennings Bryan similarly defended his role as a man of science. In response to Clarence Darrow's accusation that only "bigots and ignoramuses" opposed evolution education, Bryan listed his many college degrees.

As U.S. secretary of state, Bryan noted, he had met with "kings, emperors, and prominent public men." Throughout his career, Bryan complained he had never been called "an ignoramus ... by anyone except an evolutionist."

Bryan's defense in 1925 could be revived by Broun today: "Christianity has nothing to fear from any truth; no fact disturbs the Christian religion or the Christian. It is the unsupported guess that is substituted for science to which opposition is made." Like Broun, Bryan insisted on his scientific credentials. Until his untimely death, in 1925, Bryan remained a member of the staunchly pro-evolution American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The notion that only the ignorant can oppose evolution does not hold water. As the political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer demonstrate in Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America's Classrooms (Cambridge University Press, 2010), a slim majority of Americans are aware that mainstream scientific opinion supports evolution. Yet even among those 52 percent of Americans who know that scientists support evolution, large majorities still want schools to teach creationism. And, among those teachers who teach young-earth creationism, a majority—like Broun—hold a bachelor's degree or higher in science and almost half have completed 40 or more college credits in biology.

As it stands, scientists' blundering hostility toward creationism actually encourages creationist belief. By offering a stark division between religious faith and scientific belief, evolutionary scientists have pushed creationists away from embracing evolutionary ideas. And, by assuming that only ignorance could explain creationist beliefs, scientists have unwittingly fostered bitter resentment among the creationists, the very people with whom they should be hoping to connect.

Nor can we take solace in the delusion that these teachers are somehow rogue agents of a vast right-wing creationist conspiracy. As Berkman and Plutzer demonstrate, the creationist beliefs of teachers embody the creationist beliefs of Americans in general. The teachers are not ignorant of evolution, yet they choose to reject it.

More-focused studies support those findings. David Long, an anthropologist and science educator now at George Mason University, conducted an in-depth ethnographic study of creationists in college, reported in his Evolution and Religion in American Education (Springer, 2011). Among his batch of creationist biology majors, only one abandoned her creationist beliefs. Most striking, this woman was not convinced by the scientific evidence in her biology classes; rather, her home life in high school, including an out-of-wedlock pregnancy, had turned her away from her conservative Protestant upbringing. Of the biology majors Long studied, none was convinced of the truth of evolutionary science by scientific coursework alone.

This commitment to creationism by those who know the facts of evolutionary science makes no sense to mainstream scientists, many of whom have always been utterly flummoxed by the durability of creationism. And a snarky insistence that Broun does not have the qualifications to serve on the House science committee blunders into an uncomfortable truth: Broun's views may fairly represent those of his constituents. Do we really want to demand that an elected official not fight for the ideas in which his constituents believe?

If we hope to spread the science of evolution, it does not help to charge forward in blissful ignorance about the nature and meanings of creationism. Broun may be wrong about evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang. But his scientific errors do not instantly disqualify him as a representative of the American people. Nor can they be explained away as a product of ignorance.

Rather, those of us who care about promoting evolution education must admit the hard truth. It is not simply that creationists such as Broun have not heard the facts about evolution. Broun—along with other informed, educated creationists—simply rejects those facts. Evolution educators do not simply need to spread the word about evolution. We need to convince and convert Americans who sincerely hold differing understandings about the nature and meaning of science.

Adam Laats is a historian in the Graduate School of Education at Binghamton University and the author of Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era: God, Darwin, and the Roots of America's Culture Wars (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

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