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Table 2 Summary of studies showing the high degree of misunderstanding of natural selection and adaptation among various groups of subjects

From: Understanding Natural Selection: Essential Concepts and Common Misconceptions

Reference Method and subjects Accurate understanding of basic conceptsa Common alternative concepts and misconceptions
Jungwirth (1975a) Tests (involving choice of pre-written descriptions of adaptation) of 10 Grade 9 classes, 10 Grade 11 classes, and a sample 3rd year university agricultural science majors in Israel Chose only nonanthropomorphic description: Grade 9, 9–12%; Grade 11, 12–25%; undergraduate, 33–49% Most commonly chose anthropomorphic descriptions (usually less obvious ones). Most students who chose a non-anthropomorphic description also chose an anthropomorphic one. Further testing showed that most students take anthropomorphic descriptions literally and not metaphorically
Jungwirth (1977) Study A: Test of 20 science education specialists, 25 scientists, 33 practicing teachers, and 41 prospective teachers in Israel N/A (tested opposition to anthropomorphic and teleological descriptions of biological phenomena intended for use in teaching high school students) Prospective teachers showed almost no objection to anthropomorphic (A) and teleological (T) descriptions. Education specialists were the most likely to reject A or T descriptions, followed by scientists from Australia, then teachers from both countries. Scientists from Israel were relatively prone to approving A or T descriptions. Anthropomorphic descriptions were more likely to be rejected than teleological descriptions
Study B: Test of 18 science education specialists, 25 scientists, 24 practicing teachers, and 33 prospective teachers in Australia
Deadman and Kelly (1978) Interviews of 52 high school students (all male) in the UK Qualitative results only. No student exhibited a full concept of selection. Minimal appreciation for variation. Differential survival was generally invoked only in terms of species extinction Change due to need, tendency toward improvement, use, and disuse, inheritance of acquired characteristics
Brumby (1979) Test of 65 1st year undergraduate science students in the UK Natural selection, 18% No concept of variation, mutations caused by environmental changes, adaptation as positive change rather than selection against maladaptive traits, individual organisms change, inheritance of acquired characteristics
Brumby (1984) Test of 150 1st year medical school students in Australiab, interviews of 32 students Natural selection, 10% sound understanding (41% at least partial understanding) Adaptive change of individual organisms
Clough and Wood-Robinson (1985) Interviews of 84 students aged 12–16 in the northern USA Natural selection, 10% Conscious effort by non-human animals, change in response to need
Jiménez-Aleixandre et al. (1987) Test of 157 2nd year university students (biology majors) in Spain Natural selection, 31–59% Directed mutations, inheritance of acquired characteristics, anthropomorphism, individual organisms changing, change in response to need
Halldén (1988) Essays by 23 Grade 11 students from Sweden 5/23 gave explanation involving variation within species Most students considered elimination of whole species, some change by individual organisms
Bishop and Anderson (1990) Test of 110 university undergraduates (non-biology majors) in Michigan Origin and survival of new traits, 0–5%; role of variation, 16–31%; change of proportion within population, 0–17% Primarily change in response to need, use and disuse, and individual organisms adapting
Greene (1990) Test of 322 university students (education majors) in North Carolina Natural selection, 3% “true” understanding (43% “functional” understanding) Change in response to need, inheritance of acquired characteristics, typological thinking
Tamir and Zohar (1991) Interviews of 12 Grade 10 students and 16 Grade 12 students in Israel Natural selection: Grade 10, 7%; Grade 12, 33% Grade 10, 88% accept teleological formulationsc; 81% believe non-human animals wish, try, strive; 25% believe plants wish, try, strive; 38% teleological, 56% partly teleological. Grade 12, 75% accept teleological formulations; 42% believe non-human animals wish, try, strive; 33% believe plants wish, try, strive; 16% teleological, 67% partly teleological
Jiménez-Aleixandre (1992) Test of 69 high school students in Spain Natural selection, 3% (before course) Change in response to need, inheritance of acquired characters, change of entire population rather than proportions within population
Creedy (1993) Test of 20 high school students Natural selection: none with a complete understanding Not specified
Sundberg and Dini (1993) Test of 1,200 1st year university students (both biology majors and non-biology majors) in Louisiana “Ecology and evolutionary biology,” 34–40% (before course) Not specified
Bizzo (1994) Test of 192 high school students in Brazil. Interviews of 11 students Responses involving natural selection: 7–28% depending on question ~50% use and disuse
Pedersen and Halldén (1992) Essays by 16 students at age 13 (Grade 7) and again at age 16 (Grade 9) in Sweden Darwinian explanations—1/16 at age 13, 2/16 at age 16 Teleological explanations—13/16 at age 13 (2/16 with no idea), 14/16 at age 16
Settlage (1994) Test of >200 high school students from five states in the USA Variation, 10%; mutation, <10% (before course) More than half involving change in response to need and/or use and disuse
Demastes et al. (1995) Study A: Test of 192 university students (non-biology majors) from Louisiana. Study A: Origin of variation, 4%; role of variation, 11–17%; change in proportion in population, 6–7% (before course) Change in response to internal desire, use and disuse, change in traits themselves rather than proportion of traits
Study B: Test of 180 high school students from Colorado, Tennessee, and Wisconsin Study B: Origin of variation—0% good, 5–9% fair; role of variation—0% good, 2–6% fair; change in proportion in population—0% good, 3–4% fair (before course)
Jensen and Finley (1995) Test of 42 1st year university students (non-biology majors) in Minnesota Natural selection, 23% (before course) Organisms changing in response to need or in an attempt to adapt, “fitness” relating to physical condition, minimal variation within populations
Jensen and Finley (1996) Test of 155 university undergraduates (non-biology majors) in Minnesota Natural selection, 37–55% (mostly “survival of the fittest”) Inheritance of acquired characteristics, teleology
Vlaardingerbroek and Roederer (1997) Test of 102 prospective science teachers in Papua New Guinea “Generally poor understanding of evolutionary concepts” (not only natural selection), even after 5 semesters of biology training Not specified
Ferrari and Chi (1998) Test of 40 university students (non-biology majors) in the USA At least some Darwinian components, 37% of answers (but overall understanding poor) Sudden change by major mutation, inheritance of acquired characteristics, use and disuse
Moore et al. (2002) Test of 126 1st year university students in South Africa “Scientific” explanation, 6–41% depending on question “Agency” (intentionality), 19–31%; “non-scientific”, 30–45%
Brem et al. (2003) Test of 135 university students (various majors) from western USA Mean knowledge scores: 3 out of a possible 5 Not specified
Beardsley (2004) Test of 86 Grade 8 students from Washington Origin of new traits—0% good, 28% fair; role of variation—0% good, 21% fair; natural selection—0% good, 15% fair (before course) Not specified in detail, but included inheritance of acquired characteristics and change in response to need
Tidon and Lewontin (2004) Survey of 71 high school teachers in Brazil. N/A 41% suggest that individual organisms evolve
Evans et al. (2006)/Spiegel et al. (2006) Interviews of 32 museum visitors from three museums in midwestern USA Natural selection, 34% “informed naturalistic reasoning” 54% “novice naturalistic reasoning,” including change in organisms in response to need
Geraedts and Boersma (2006) Test of 109 Grade 10 students in The Netherlands; interviews of 13 students Mutation and natural selection, 59% (after teaching unit; pre-instruction not reported) Organisms change, inheritance of acquired characteristics
Shtulman (2006) Test of 29 high school students and 13 university undergraduates in Massachusetts Variation, 22%; inheritance, 42%; adaptation, 49% Variation, 47% transformationist; 31% ambiguous. Inheritance, 36% directed mutations; 22% ambiguous. Adaptation, 22% analogous to “growth”; 16% analogous to “force”; 13% analogous to “intention”
Asghar et al. (2007) Test of 138 and interviews of 8 pre-service elementary teachers in Quebec Most “lack an understanding of the most basic concepts in the science of evolution” Not specified (analysis related primarily to level of acceptance of evolution in general)
Kampourakis and Zogza (2008) Test and interviews of 100 high school students (14–15 years old) in Greece Explanation of adaptation based on natural selection, 2% 53% need via purposeful change, 16% use and disuse
MacFadden et al. (2007) Interviews of 380 museum visitors at 6 museums in the USA Natural selection, 30% Change in response to need, organisms changing by experience and learning
Nehm and Reilly (2007) Survey of 182 university students (1st year biology majors) from northeastern USA Natural selection, 3% “adequate” understanding involving multiple component concepts (before course) Goal-directedness, use and disuse, individual organisms changing
Nehm and Schonfeld (2007) Test of 44 precertification science teachers in New York Natural selection, <50% Change in response to need, use and disuse, inheritance of acquired characteristics
Robbins and Roy (2007) Test of 141 university undergraduates (non-biology majors) in Ohio Nature of evolutionary theory, 6% (before teaching unit) Change of individual organisms, “fitness” related to physical condition rather than reproduction
Chinsamy and Plaganyi (2007) Test of 94 university students in South Africa “Very little understanding of evolutionary concepts” Not specified
Deniz et al. (2008) Test of 132 pre-service science teachers in Turkey “Understanding of evolution” (several topics, including natural selection): mean score of 9.29 (range 4–17) out of possible 21 Not specified
Prinou et al. (2008) Test of 411 Grade 10 students in Greece Natural selection, <10% High percentage of change in response to need, smaller percentage use and disuse
Kampourakis and Zogza (2008, 2009) Test and interviews of 98 Grade 9 students in Greece Natural selection, 2–40% (depending on amount of information provided in question) Change in response to need, use and disuse
Nehm et al. (2009) Test of 167 pre-service teachers (biology and non-biology) in New York Origin of variation: 25%; survival and reproduction: 40%; other aspects, <20% 25% change in response to need. 20% use and disuse. Similar misconceptions in both biology and non-biology teachers
Spindler and Doherty (2009) Test of 90 Grade 10 students in Pennsylvania Natural selection: average score of 16% on test No mention of difference in reproductive success, no mutation, inheritance of traits by entire population
D. Graf (unpublished), cited in Curry (2009) Test of 1,228 prospective teachers in Germany Fitness, <33% 20% inheritance of acquired characteristics
  1. aThese concepts relate primarily to natural selection; see Banet and Ayuso (2003) for a summary of studies dealing with additional biological concepts
  2. bThese students entered medical school after high school but had to meet rigorous entry requirements in their science courses
  3. c“Formulations” refers simply to descriptions of natural phenomena, which is distinct from “explanations” for those phenomena (Tamir and Zohar 1991)