Teaching Evolution to a Private Universe

Of the recent data from the National Science Foundation’s Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding published in 2014, perhaps no one poll result garnered more headlines than the question about the Earth’s orbit around the sun. In the United States, approximately 26% of respondents indicated that the Sun orbits around the Earth (74% correctly indicated that Earth orbits the sun). To be fair, fewer Europeans (just 66%) knew the correct answer, and the average correct response from polled data across the globe was just about 74%. On face value, it is difficult to imagine in this day and age how anyone could not be aware that the sun is the center of our solar system, and of course the general discussion in the media predictably turned towards how scientifically ignorant the public was on basic matters of science.

Few of the media stories seemed aware of a now classic 1987 documentary called A Private Universe that showed, among other things, Harvard graduates that could not correctly explain how the seasons happen. Most answered that the seasons change because, as the Earth orbits the sun, it gets closer during summer and farther away in the winter. If you are an educator of any stripe and have not seen this film, it is worth watching and considering. Few would argue that Harvard graduates are particularly unintelligent, ignorant, or have had a second-class education. Yet many of them could not correctly answer a question about basic science that is taught in the US since grade school: seasons occur because of how the Earth tilts on its axis throughout the year.

These polls of scientific literacy, and the stunning Private Universe sequences, speak to something inherent in the way our students and future voters learn: they come into our classrooms, and often leave them, with preconceptions of how things work. In fact, I drew inspiration for this post from Handelsman et al. (2007) and their method of scientific teaching and active learning. What has become clear to me from the work of educators like Handelsman et al. (2007) and an active teaching circle at my univeristy is this: if our students' preconceptions are not brought out and examined critically, it is likely that, despite all the accurate information we impart, those same preconceptions will leave our science classrooms unchanged and unchecked.

Many of us, by the nature of our profession, teach a variety of courses in which the cornerstone and framework with which we make sense of the fossil record requires an understanding of the theory of biological evolution. In my own experience over the past 15 years, I have taught a variety of undergraduate courses in biology and geology, from non-majors courses on dinosaurs and introductory courses in general biology, to upper level courses on vertebrate paleontology and comparative anatomy. What I find over and over again is that, as a professor, I cannot assume to know anything about my students’ level of understanding or preparation in regards to science as a discipline and biological evolution as a theory. That is, until I ask them.

I suspect all of us who teach undergraduate science courses can relate. I think it most critical to bring out preconceptions especially in our upper level courses. There is a natural tendency to assume that our upper level undergraduates come to us with a firm foundation in biology or geology, free of preconceptions and ready to immediately tackle the rigors of a course like vertebrate paleontology or comparative anatomy. We are excited about a topic like vertebrate paleontology, and the tendency is to quickly delve into the subject matter, only later being stunned that many of our students can’t explain the evolutionary scenarios we have covered in detail.

However, what I have consistently found is that many of our junior and senior undergraduates still have lingering incorrect preconceptions about evolution or natural selection or geologic time or any number of foundational aspects of our science that can and will hamper their ability to grapple with material in the course. And I know from my personal experience that it’s not as though these students always come to us from courses poorly taught. Many of us have had the experience of having students tell us they cannot recall or can’t adequately explain pertinent material from a colleague’s course, when we know with certainty that that material was covered and addressed in glorious detail.

The explanatory concept of biological evolution, descent with modification from a single, common ancestor, is central to vertebrate paleontology and yet one of the theories our students often come to us with preconceptions about. Even if our students accept the science behind biological evolution, their preconceptions about the theory, if not addressed, will travel with them to yet another class, to research, and beyond. No amount of examples and data are going to change preconceptions that we are unaware of and cannot therefore have critical discussion about in order to correct.

With so much access to technology and instant “information,” combined with social media, it easy for us to become mired in our own private universe, unaware of how our preconceptions and predilections shape our understanding of the world. Teaching students and the public to critically examine their preconceptions about our discipline and science generally also serves as a powerful example of what we all struggle with as scientists. One of the skills you learn as a scientist is to critically examine your own preconceptions about how the world works, and to be mindful of them as you collect and interpret your data. Our recognition as a discipline that we need outside peer-review to help us buffer against our preconceptions and biases is certainly a doorway into larger conversations about how science works. It is not shameful to have preconceptions but it is our responsibility to confront and examine them.

Certainly, other factors, including cultural influences such as religious upbringing, also contribute to misunderstandings and preconceptions about science, including biological evolution. But, as one of my aunts is fond of saying, no one has a glass head: we cannot read each other’s minds. Instead, I think we as paleontologists best serve our science, our students, and ultimately public understanding if we are conscientious of drawing out and examining our students’ or the public’s preconceptions. The future of support for vertebrate paleontology and basic science in general may well depend on it.

Posted by Matthew F. Bonnan, Associate Professor of Biology, Stockton University


Handelsman, J., S. Miller, and C. Pfund. 2007. Scientific Teaching. W.H. Freeman and Company. 184 pp.

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