The data presented in this exploratory study provide preliminary evidence describing the influence of creationist views on levels of design teleological reasoning and acceptance and understanding of natural selection in students in an undergraduate course on human evolution. The purpose of this study was to evaluate quantitative data alongside a thematic analysis of student reflective writing on their experiences of religion, increasing awareness of teleological reasoning, and acceptance of evolution by natural selection. Taken together, these data reveal the real and perceived challenges that people with creationist views face when learning evolution.
As hypothesized, students with creationist views entered the human evolution course with significantly higher levels of design teleological reasoning compared with students with naturalist views. Several previous studies have shown that people with religious, especially, fundamentalist Christian, views are more likely to explain the existence of behaviors and origins of entities in the natural world with reference to design that serves a purpose, function, or goal (14). According to this view, Christians believe that God is the sole design agent for things in the natural world. The design-based teleological stance is reinforced by the creationism of fundamental Christianity (15). Numerous reports have described design-based teleological reasoning as an impediment to accurate learning of natural selection (18, 21, 22, 27) and other biological sciences (40). Level of endorsement of teleological reasoning was recently shown to be the strongest predictor of understanding of natural selection prior to a course on evolution (12).
Importantly, and perhaps surprisingly, students with creationist views were highly receptive to instruction on design-based teleology. In fact, the data presented indicate that student endorsement of teleological reasoning declines in magnitude similarly in both CV and NV groups in response to pedagogical activities intended to teach students to regulate their teleological reasoning. By the end of the semester, students with creationist views had lower levels of teleological reasoning than the NV group began the semester with. This finding suggests that religious faith does not restrict students to a design-based stance on nature, but that CV students can learn to regulate their teleological reasoning. Nonetheless, religious faith does appear to represent a sizeable emotional and conceptual obstacle for students with CV when learning about evolution (22). Students with CV have been taught that God has a purposeful plan and being confronted with the reality that evolution is directionless and devoid of a greater meaning can cause these students to feel as though their belief system is incompatible with this new information. As a result, they may face an emotional, cognitive, and/or existential conflict (41, 42). Our data show that having creationist views is indeed a strong predictor of both lower understanding of natural selection at the end of the semester and decreased learning of natural selection over the course of the semester.
While the theory of evolution itself is not controversial, there is political controversy around the teaching of evolution among creationists, which may cause CV students to perceive evolution and religion as antithetical (43). In their reflective writing, some students expressed a clear discordance between their belief in God and full acceptance of evolution or an inability to fully accept evolution as a result of their religious upbringing. However, no student directly attributed their perceived challenges of thinking about evolution non-teleologically to their belief in Christianity. Our data support efforts of science instructors to teach about the disruptive impact of design-based teleological explanations alongside the veridical evolutionary mechanisms. Encouragingly, our data also show that students with creationist views are responsive to these messages. It is possible that this latter finding may be specific to only students with creationist views who chose to take a human evolution course. Perhaps these students are more open to non-teleological thinking and human evolution instruction than people with creationist views in the general public who would be unwilling to take a course on human evolution. Barnes et al suggested that teaching the application of evolution, in this case the application of evolution to understanding human health and disease, may enhance the ease of acceptance, especially acceptance of human evolution (18). Future research should look at the difference between applied and non-applied evolution courses and the level of acceptance in NV and CV students.
While magnitude of teleological reasoning of the CV group declined over the course of the semester to levels similar to the NV group at pre-semester, acceptance and understanding of natural selection did not approach pre-semester NV levels. Both the CV and the NV group demonstrated significant gains in natural selection understanding, but the CV group mean CINS score at post-semester remained below the NV group mean CINS score prior to instruction. In fact, as discussed above, having creationist views was a significant predictor of lower post-semester understanding of natural selection. Therefore, our data indicate that students with creationist views began the course on evolution with a significant knowledge gap on natural selection, despite similar levels of prior education on evolution. If the primary objective of a course on evolution is to improve understanding of natural selection, our data indicate that those with creationist views are capable of achieving learning gains similar to those with naturalist views, but they are not able to catch up with those with naturalist views by the end of the semester. Unfortunately, we were unable to directly associate student course grades with their quantitative data or reflective writing due to anonymous data collection to protect privacy of our sample. However, we suspect that given the significantly lower CINS scores of the CV group at post-semester compared to the NV group, students with creationist views likely ended the semester with lower grades. Future research should investigate whether students with creationist views are at a grade-disadvantage in evolution courses, or science courses more generally, as a result of the presence of creationist views and/or a design-teleology stance.
The CINS does not include questions of understanding of human evolution, which was the focus of this course. Instead, it assesses general knowledge of evolutionary mechanisms using other animals (e.g., guppies, lizards, and finches), requiring a generalized understanding of natural selection. It is possible that students in the NV group were more capable than the CV group of applying the evolutionary concepts presented on humans to other species.
The CV group had lower overall acceptance of evolution than the NV group at both pre- and post-semester. Acceptance of evolution in the CV group did not change over the course of the semester, as it did in the NV group. The I-SEA allows a more granular look at component parts of evolution acceptance, namely macroevolution, microevolution, and human evolution (37). The three sub-disciplines of evolutionary study carry different levels of acceptance for people with creationist views. Macroevolution is the study of speciation and the evolution of new taxonomic groups over long periods of time and is challenging for those who believe that God created immutable organisms (44). As predicted, students in the CV group entered the course with significantly lower acceptance of macroevolution than those with naturalist views and acceptance of macroevolution remained lower over the semester for the CV group. Acceptance of macroevolution did not change in the CV group, but did increase for the NV group.
In contrast, people with creationist views tend to be more accepting of microevolution because it describes small, less conspicuous changes within a species (13). Consistent with this, our data showed no group difference in acceptance of microevolution at the beginning of the semester, but the NV group did make significant gains in microevolution acceptance over the course of the semester which did not occur for the CV group. These data suggest that students in the NV group were more receptive to learning about microevolution than the CV group, which was not predicted. Smith presented evidence that acceptance may lead to belief in evolution over time, even if there was initial resistance (45). Future research could assess the levels of acceptance of evolution in CV students over multiple semesters of exposure to evolution education.
Perhaps most relevant in a course on human evolution is level of student acceptance of human evolution. Students in the NV group had higher acceptance of human evolution compared to the CV group at both pre- and post-semester. This is consistent with the public opinion surveys showing that people with fundamental religious, especially creationist, views believe that God created humans and tend to disagree with human evolution (3, 4). Surprisingly, students in the CV group did demonstrate significant gains in their acceptance of human evolution over the semester, suggesting that students with creationist views are receptive to learning about human evolution. However, the CV group’s human evolution acceptance at post-semester remained lower than the NV group’s human evolution acceptance prior to instruction. Therefore, similar to the CINS scores, acceptance of human evolution in the CV group never caught up with the levels of the NV group. In fact, multiple regression analysis showed that having creationist views, along with incoming understanding of natural selection, were predictors of lower human evolution acceptance at the end of the semester.
The thematic analysis showed that the majority of students who mentioned religion in their reflective writing on acceptance of evolution described a potentially insurmountable conflict between religion and accepting evolution. The majority of students (73.5%) who mentioned religion in their reflective writing, described believing that religion and evolution are discordant. Even several students with naturalist or atheistic views wrote that they believe in evolution because they did not grow up in a religious family, describing a perceived conflict between the two. Consistent with this finding, a Pew Center Research survey found that people who are not affiliated with a religious tradition are more likely to think that science and religion conflict (76%), while about half of surveyed evangelical Protestants and Catholics believe science and religion are mostly compatible (46). Over one-third (39.5%) of students in our study mentioned an interest in or willingness to learn more about evolution alongside their religious views, an openness that is sometimes referred to as theistic evolution (13) or accommodation (47). Below, we discuss ways to support these students’ learning of evolution.
The primary limitation of this study is its small sample size, which compromises generalizability to the wider population. Further affecting generalizability is the fact that students who strictly oppose human evolution are doubtful to elect a class on human evolution, which may cause selection bias and skewed data toward acceptance and decreased teleological thinking compared with a representative sample. The extent to which the wider population of people with creationist views could alter their endorsement of design teleology and acceptance and understanding of evolution is unknown. However, this study does provide evidence to support pedagogies directed at decreasing design teleology.
Another limitation is our use of a single dichotomous question to determine whether students have creationist or naturalist views on life’s origins. This method may not have captured students’ true or nuanced views on the origins of life. For example, two students in our sample selected both options, suggesting that our two options, presented as such, did not match their views (data from these students were discarded). Perhaps a third option that a higher power created life and that evolution had an influence, should have been included as an option (39).
Another limitation is that all data were collected anonymously to protect privacy of students, which prevented the direct linking of quantitative data with qualitative responses or final course grades. Therefore, we were unable to determine if certain themes in student writing were related to the quantitative measures of design teleological reasoning, understanding natural selection, or acceptance of evolution. Another limitation may be the result of students trying to meet their perceived expectations of the professor (41). This could lead to students not sharing their true beliefs about evolution in their open responses or selecting a choice on the survey because they know that is the correct answer in terms of the course but not because they actually think it is correct. However, the anonymity of the responses and surveys hopefully attenuated the extent to which this occurred. A further potential limitation identified by Gouvea and Simon is that the wording of questions in the surveys may cause students to acknowledge a teleological statement as correct because they identify a true relationship between two variables, however the use of a Likert scale in this study sought to address this by not requiring students to fully accept or reject each statement (48). Furthermore, it is possible students may be confused by questions, especially ones that implicitly rather than explicitly present teleology (48).
Implications for Teaching
The data presented adds support to the findings of many others that students with creationist views have higher endorsement of design-teleological reasoning and lower acceptance and understanding of natural selection. This study adds to previous work by also showing that similar levels of improvement on all of these measures were evident in both groups. Taken together, our quantitative and qualitative data support the idea that religion, even creationism, and evolution do not have to be strictly opposed within students’ thinking. Many instructors do not address this perceived conflict, but this study supports the stance of Barnes and Brownell that allowing room for open discussion may help CV students accept evolution to a greater extent than if their views on life’s origins are rejected outright (49). Therefore, evolution instructors should assess student views on the origins of life and their openness to evolution in order to find ways of supporting student learning for students with diverse backgrounds. Our data indicate that students with creationist views who choose to take a course on human evolution are more likely to begin the course with higher levels of teleological endorsement, likely resulting from their greater exposure to design-based theology (14, 15). We agree with Barnes et al (6) that evolution should be taught in agnostic, rather than atheistic, terms in order to facilitate learning in students with creationist views, especially those who are open to learning about evolution. In teaching this course, we utilized advocacy and procedural neutrality, two approaches described by Hermann as being effective in the teaching of evolution (50). Advocacy specifically targets increasing student understanding which can lead to improved acceptance, and neutrality is aimed at promoting acceptance. Both approaches allow opportunities for students to investigate their own views on evolution (50).
Our data also provided further evidence that ingrained teleological reasoning is a mechanism for decreased understanding of evolution. We encourage evolution instructors to discuss the ubiquity, universality, and potential pitfalls of design-based teleological reasoning and the potential reinforcing influence of fundamental religious views, particularly creationism, on teleological reasoning as part of a course on evolution. The purpose of this discussion with students is not to be critical of their creationist views, but to describe the documented challenges in an evolution classroom associated with those views. Awareness of the understanding and acceptance deficits associated with creationist views may motivate some students to think deeper about the evolution evidence and their own beliefs and design-based teleological reasoning. While some authors have suggested that students with creationist views be examined separately in evolution courses from students with naturalist views (6), we believe the instructor should provide support to students with religious views in this important critical thinking process by providing opportunities for students to self-assess and receive feedback on their teleological tendencies. Such support is intended to acknowledge, not ignore, that there can be tension between the concepts of evolution and one’s religious views (43). This approach does not disregard the value of one’s religious beliefs, but emphasizes that science is uniquely able to explain the natural world (43). The evolution teacher will be better positioned to achieve greater learning gains across students with diverse backgrounds when they acknowledge the tension between religious and scientific thinking, the differences between the two ways of understanding life, and the effects of teleology on learning.
Despite being commonly used in scientific explanations, design teleological reasoning is learned behavior and can be modified with additional causal evolution evidence and opportunities for reflection on one’s cognitive biases. A course on human evolution provides opportunities for the instructor to exhibit a strong scientific foundation with appropriate uses of teleological thinking patterns, which has the potential to modify students’ cognitive processes (22, 32, 33). We presented evidence to show that directly addressing the tendency to rely on design teleological reasoning and to challenge this way of thinking supports students’ conceptual change (30). To decrease design teleological reasoning and increase evolution learning, we suggest the pedagogical methods presented here: a series of quizzes which ask the student to identify and then re-write the teleological statement, class discussion on design teleology with numerous examples, and reflective writing on one’s experiences with teleological thinking.