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Engaging prior learning on creationism and evolution may benefit college biology students

Reading books sympathetic to and opposed to evolution supported increased acceptance of rationalist views

American Institute of Biological Sciences

An educational intervention that included reading books sympathetic to and opposed to "intelligent design" (ID) prompted students in a college introductory biology course to report that they had become more accepting of evolution as an explanation for life, according to a study in the November 2005 issue of BioScience. The intervention, which was studied by Steven D. Verhey of Central Washington University, encouraged students to read parts of an ID-friendly, anti-evolution text, as well as an online refutation of the text and parts of a book presenting evidence for evolution.

Students in the study's two intervention streams read from "Icons of Evolution" by Jonathan Wells, which attacks evolutionary theory and is sympathetic to ID, and "The Blind Watchmaker" by Richard Dawkins, which supports the theory of evolution. Students in the intervention streams also read "Icons of Obfuscation" by Nic Tamzek, an online refutation of Wells' book, and discussed current thinking about the nature of science. Students in the two non-intervention streams read from and discussed "The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature" by Matt Ridley, which describes evolutionary explanations for sexuality.

Verhey asked the 103 enrolled students to classify their beliefs about evolution and creationism before and after the course. Most of the 66 students who completed the survey had previously been exposed to both evolutionary and creationist accounts of life. Sixty-one percent of students in the intervention streams reported some change in their beliefs; most of these students were initially sympathetic to creationist explanations and moved toward increased acceptance of evolution. Only 21 percent of students in the non-intervention streams reported change in their beliefs.

Verhey's study was inspired by an influential theory of cognitive development advanced in 1970 by William G. Perry. Perry's theory holds that students pass through distinct modes of thinking. Verhey's intervention was designed to support students as they progressed toward a more sophisticated cognitive mode by engaging them at the level of their initial understanding--including their initial ideas about creationism. Although alternative explanations are possible, Verhey maintains that his results suggest engaging prior learning "was an effective approach to evolution education."

BioScience is the monthly journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS). In an editorial commenting on Verhey's article, prominent evolution educator Craig E. Nelson asks how Verhey's "effective pedagogy" is to be reconciled with the strong stance of AIBS--and Nelson himself--against requiring the teaching of ID or creationism in high-school science classes. A large majority of biologists believe ID, which holds that evolution cannot explain life's complexity, is fundamentally unscientific. Nelson points out that teaching ID or creationism in a science class would be wrong unless these notions were critiqued scientifically and compared to evolutionary explanations. As many high-school teachers are not well prepared to rigorously contrast creationist and evolutionary accounts, Nelson writes that it would be "quite inappropriate to require such comparisons in high school." But encouraging active comparisons by college and university students will, according to Nelson, "help future teachers and other leaders understand why there is no contest scientifically between creationism and evolution."


BioScience publishes commentary and peer-reviewed articles covering a wide range of biological fields. The journal has been published since 1964. AIBS is an umbrella organization for professional scientific societies and organizations that are involved with biology. It represents some 200 member societies and organizations with a combined membership of about 250,000.

The complete list of research articles in the November 2005 issue of BioScience is as follows:

  • The Evolution and Development of Novel Traits, or How Beetles Got Their Horns. Armin P. Moczek

  • Special Roundtable Section "Collectively Seeing Complex Systems."
    • Collectively Seeing Complex Systems: The Nature of the Problem. Richard B. Norgaard and Paul Baer.
    • Collectively Seeing Climate Change: The Limits of Formal Models. Richard B. Norgaard and Paul Baer.
    • Practicing Interdisciplinarity. Sharachchandra Lélé and Richard B. Norgaard.
    • Deliberative Methods for Understanding Environmental Systems. Paul C. Stern.

  • METALAND: Characterizing Spatial Patterns and Statistical Context of Landscape Metrics. Jeffrey Cardille, Monica Turner et al.

  • Policy-driven versus Evidence-based Conservation: A Review of Political Targets and Biological Needs. Leona K. Svancara, Ree Brannon et al.

  • The Effect of Engaging Prior Learning on Student Attitudes toward Creationism and Evolution. Steven D. Verhey.

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