New York Times
July 8, 1998

Evolutionary Biology Begins Tackling Public Doubts


VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- As a major scientific field, evolutionary biology is in an extraordinary position: its basic tenets, surveys show, are rejected as false by one of every two Americans. Further, at a time when an increasing number of school districts are endorsing the teaching of creationism, evolutionary biology can be a particularly incendiary topic in discussions of education.

Amid all the furor, though, one group has kept a surprisingly low profile. Now that is apparently about to change. The oldest and largest professional association of evolutionary biologists, the Society for the Study of Evolution, an international body of some 3,500 scientists, has begun reaching out to a doubting public. The insular society, founded half a century ago, has long focused on research and is hardly practiced at shaping public opinion. It does not have a Web site or even a permanent office or telephone number.

But at its annual meeting here in June, where many presentations drew audiences of 20 or fewer, overflow crowds attended the society's first session ever devoted to educational issues. A room big enough to hold 150 had evolutionary biologists spilling into the hallways, eager to hear a discussion of why their field was so poorly understood and often so poorly taught -- and what they could do about it.

Evolutionary biology is no stranger to hostility, from students inside the classroom or school boards and politicians outside. In recent years, the Tennessee Legislature has considered a measure, ultimately rejected, to let school boards dismiss teachers who present evolution as fact rather than theory; a Georgia district has endorsed the teaching of creationism, which holds that all life forms, including humans, were fully formed by a Creator and did not evolve, and Alabama has approved a disclaimer, to be inserted in biology textbooks, calling evolution only "a controversial theory."

It was against such a backdrop that the evolutionary biologists flocked to the education-issues session here, organized by Dr. Peter Wimberger, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash. "Students don't come in doubting that F = ma," Dr. Wimberger said, referring to the familiar physics equation that force equals mass times acceleration. "But about half come in doubting the fact that evolution occurs."

Noting the potential power of professional societies, Dr. Irene Eckstrand, chairwoman of the society's new education committee, led off the session by proposing some basics like a resource list of evolutionists willing to talk to schoolteachers and a Web site, both of which are being developed. In addition, she announced that the society would have an evolution workshop and booth this November at the annual meeting of the National Association of Biology Teachers, in Reno, where the society will be represented by Dr. Stephen Palumbi of Harvard University and Dr. David Jablonski of the University of Chicago.

Several speakers described model projects in progress, which try to make evolution not only believable but also quite real to students at every level. "The whole creation-evolution issue rears its head every time you teach," said Dr. Wimberger, who described a collaborative project in which Washington State high school students collect data on genetic variation, the basis of evolutionary change, from salmon populations. "To these students, salmon are familiar," Dr. Wimberger said. "They're a cultural icon. They're the focus of conservation issues. This gets the students doing something real."

Dr. Jackie Brown of Grinnell College described experiments for college laboratories, including one in which students go into the field and measure the strength of natural selection on a fly. As maggots, the flies live in plant tissue and produce a ball-like growth around themselves known as a gall. Students discover that the chances of a maggot's being killed by a predator or a parasite -- the strength of natural selection -- are highly dependent on the size of its gall. "It demystifies natural selection," Dr. Brown said of the experiment. It is "not something that just descends from above."

Dr. Brian Alters, a science education specialist at McGill University and Harvard, drew the largest audience of the session with his presentation of findings on why even college students are prone to reject evolution. Religious issues aside, the obstacles are plentiful, said Dr. Alters, who surveyed more than 1,000 students from 10 universities across the United States and found that many of them "always came back to things that most scientists would consider scientific misconceptions."

Students who reject evolution, Dr. Alters determined, are much more likely than those who accept it to subscribe to misconceptions like believing that the methods used to date fossils and other rocks are not accurate, that mutations are never beneficial to animals, that it is statistically impossible for life to arise by chance and that there is scientific evidence that humans were supernaturally created. Dr. Alters reported that even in a survey of science education graduate students -- those who will go on to careers as schoolteachers or as teachers of teachers -- 20 percent said they did not accept evolution (although that 20 percent said they would teach it).

Given findings like those, the evolutionary biologists came away from the conference committed to more outreach and perhaps even politics, from which they have always kept a marked distance. Unlike professional associations with offices in Washington, the society "hasn't been an advocate," said its secretary, Dr. Daphne Fairbairn of Concordia University in Montreal. "It hasn't done lobbying or politics. We may do more of that in the future."

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company