One session of the convocation was devoted specifically to consideration of the intended audiences of evolution education. High school and college students are of course a major audience, but many other audiences were mentioned, from preschool children to legislators. And for all of these audiences, including students, how to deal with opposition to the teaching of evolution is a major consideration.
Richard Potts from the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Origins Program of the National Museum of Natural History reported on an informal survey conducted by a colleague of where ninth grade biology students hear about evolution. Number one was family and friends; number two was church; number three was television; and number four was school and science classes. These results suggest that people develop an understanding, or a lack of understanding, of evolution from many different sources, Potts said. Thus, evolution education needs to articulate with messages and information for many other audiences, from church groups to the broad public.
John Staver from Purdue University said that understanding starts in infancy. From an early age, many young people in the United States absorb negative views about evolution. Turning this situation around requires talking about more than science; it requires talking about religion. “The most important factor in learning anything new is what the
learner already knows. And in many situations, the learner already thinks that she or he knows that evolution is evil and that you’re going to go to hell in a hand basket if you believe in it.”
Debra Felix from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute agreed that “by college, it’s far too late.” Children need to start learning important concepts even before they enter school. “Three- and four-year-olds are extremely curious and extremely capable, and we waste those years by not trying to teach them some of these things.” In part, this means reaching out to parents.
Allen Rodrigo, the director of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent, which is described in Chapter 6), discussed some of the many audiences that NESCent is trying to reach. It has a program in evolutionary medicine, a K-12 outreach initiative for minorities who are underrepresented in science, a Darwin Day program, a road show that goes to rural communities, and an ambassador program that extends overseas. “These are constituencies that we feel are important, but we’ve developed this with an almost intuitive gut instinct that these things are going to be important.” As Ross Nehm’s argued (see Chapter 4), an important question is how to measure the effects of these programs and any trickle-down effects they have on other groups, Rodrigo observed.
Other important target audiences are parent-teacher associations, boards of education, park rangers, and boy and girl scouts troops. Particularly influential groups include advertisers, public relations firms, entertainers, and game designers. For example, the National Academy of Sciences has an office in Los Angeles called the Science and Entertainment Exchange1 that works with entertainment industry professionals in Hollywood to help them better understand science in the context of television shows and movies.
Rodrigo noted that journalists are another important audience. Sessions for editors, producers, and reporters could introduce them to the issues and show them how omnipresent and important evolution is in everyday life. A more diverse audience is the group of people who use social networking. The conversations occurring over these networks could be leveraged to have a broad impact. Blogs, short films on YouTube, science cafes, and other forms of new media, and especially social media could all be used more effectively to convey information about evolution.
An important model for outreach and communication is the work done by Michael Zimmerman, who has been convening the Clergy Letter
Project and promotes Evolution Weekend, which provides an opportunity for congregations to discuss the relation between science and religion on the Sunday in February closest to Darwin’s birthday.2
Many people have been exposed to very negative ideas about evolution, said Nancy Moran, William H. Fleming Professor of Biology at Yale University, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a member of the organizing committee for the convocation. In talking with such people, “the worst thing to do is immediately draw a line in the sand and start talking about evolution versus religion,” said Moran. “Immediately they’ll clam up and feel that somehow they’re doing the wrong thing. Many of them have deep-seated feelings that they’re doing wrong by learning this.”
One productive way to engage in such a conversation is to get people interested in the science—in mutations, alleles, how genetic variants spread in populations, how they contribute to human disease. “You have to go around them rather than confront them directly,” Moran said. She added that it is useful to cover some of the scientific controversies in evolutionary biology where biologists currently disagree. That allows people to see that “it’s not a big conspiracy.… When they see that, they trust the science more.”
In contrast to some of the statements offered by other participants, Connie Bertka, former Director of the Dialogue on Science Ethics and Religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science who now teaches a course at Wesley Theological Seminary on science and religion for students studying to be ministers, observed that people inevitably bring their worldviews to discussions of evolution, but religious worldviews are not necessarily a problem. “There are actually a lot of people in religious communities who are eager to incorporate what science has learned about the world into their theologies. The scientific community ought to be looking at the ways to do everything we can to help … because in the long run the message has to come from within those communities. We can’t come from the outside and tell people how to reconcile what they see as conflicts, but we can support people within those communities who are trying to do that.”
From a Christian perspective, said Bertka, people who grapple with these questions are “doing the same thing that Christians have done throughout time.” Christians continually have had to struggle with the
2 Additional information is available at http://theclergyletterproject.org/rel_evolution_weekend_2012.htm.
tenets of their faith in light of new scientific knowledge and understanding about the natural world. Religious traditions change over time, said Bertka, and science needs to engage with this change. “There’s no magic bullet here.”
Carol Aschenbrener from the Association of American Medical Colleges stated that educators need to help parents see why it is important for their children to understand evolution. “There have to be some concrete and very pragmatic examples of why it’s in their best interest and in their children’s best interest to understand that.” She said that she was the product of a parochial education, yet she studied evolution every single year after the fourth grade. “It was not a contradiction. It was an important part of understanding the complexity of creation.”
As Ida Chow from the Society for Developmental Biology and a member of the organizing committee said, “The majority of the people in the country are reasonable. They just don’t understand. Here is the opportunity for us to talk to them in a non-threatening way and explain what evolution is and make it relevant to their lives.… It is not an easy task, but I think we can all do it if we put our hearts and minds to it.”