Below, we round up the values when discussing them in the context of generalizations and remarking on the most relevant patterns:
Views About Evolution, Creationism, and ID
The New England faculty versus students views about evolution, creationism and ID differed distinctly: 96% of the faculty versus 72% of the students supported the exclusive teaching of evolution in science classes, and only 4% of the faculty versus 28% of the students favored equal time to evolution, creationism and intelligent design (Fig. 1); 92% of the faculty versus 52% of the students perceived ID as either not scientific and proposed to counter evolution based on false claims or as religious doctrine consistent with creationism (combined values choices A + B, Fig. 2). Only 8% of the faculty versus 48% of the students had either no opinion about ID, considered it a scientific alternative to evolution and of equal scientific validity among scientists, or thought of ID as a scientific theory about the origin of life on Earth (combined values choices C + D + E; Fig. 2). Although the faculty had clear understanding of ID, the students varied widely in their level of knowledge of ID; only the students from the public institution seemed to be more aware of the nature of ID than their counterparts at the private and religious institutions. We suspect that the particularly strong teaching program in biology and evolution at the public institution (UMassD) might account for this pattern.
Most faculty (97%) and students from the public (87%) and private (82%) institutions preferred factual explanations about the origin of life on Earth and its place in the universe (choice A, Fig. 3), but students from the religious institution were less supportive of this view (68%). Note that students from the public, private and religious institutions were about four, six, and ten times more likely than the faculty (only 3%) to think that evolution and creationism are in harmony, respectively (choice B, Fig. 3). Interestingly, 96% of faculty and students preferred science courses where evolution is discussed comprehensively and humans are part of it (mean combined values choice A, Fig. 4), and 78% of all responders had no problem with either instructors including questions concerning evolution in exams or answering questions concerning evolution (mean combined values choice A, Fig. 5); in fact, one in every five responders considered that science exams should always include some questions concerning evolution (choice B, Fig. 5).
Most faculty (94%) indicated they accept evolution and express it openly regardless of others’ opinions and only 3% admitted to accepting it privately (choices A and C, Fig. 6); in contrast, 64% of the students accepted evolution openly, 22% preferred not to comment on this issue, and 14% admitted to accepting evolution only privately to avoid conflicts with friends and family (mean combined values choices A–C, Fig. 6). Note that 82% of the faculty and 58% of the students thought that evolution is definitely true (mean combined values choice A, Fig. 7).
Although in Questions 1, choice A; 2, choices A + B; 3, choice A; 6, choice A; and 7, choice A (above), the faculty versus student highest rate of responses differed by about 30% (mean of summation highest scores faculty versus students, Figs. 1, 2, 3, 6, and 7), the student responses from the public institution were statistically similar to the faculty in all of these choices (only choice B in Question 2), suggesting more proximity between the views of these two groups than between the faculty and the students from the private and religious institutions. Again, the strong teaching program in biology and evolution at the public institution might account for this pattern (above).
Views About the Evolutionary Process
As we expected, New England faculty showed a better understanding of the evolutionary process than the students; however, both coincided and differed from each other in important ways. For example, 82% (mean value) of faculty and students agreed with a comprehensive definition of evolution as a gradual process by which the universe changes, [which] includes the origin of life, its diversification and the synergistic phenomena resulting from the interaction between life and the environment, and 70% (mean value) correctly rejected the definition that evolution is a random process by which life originates, changes, and ends accidentally in complex organisms such as humans (choices A and D, Fig. 8). Faculty correctly rejected (89%) the notion of “purpose” and “goal toward humanity” in evolution (choice B, Fig. 8), and also the misconception that humans have evolved from chimpanzees (rejection 94%, choice C, Fig. 8) or the possibility of Lamarckian inheritance of acquired traits (rejection only 69%, choice E, Fig. 8). In contrast, the students were not sure if evolution has a purpose or goal, 26% believed that humans come from “monkeys such as chimpanzees,” and 72% were Lamarckian (choices B, C, and E, respectively, Fig. 8). Surprisingly, 30% of the faculty were Lamarckian themselves (choice E, Fig. 8).
The level of understanding of how evolution works varied clearly between faculty and students. Both agreed that evolution relies on common ancestry (92%, mean choice A, Fig. 9) and that humans are apes (72%, mean choice B, Fig. 9); however, one in every four faculty and one in every three students did not know, or accept, that humans are close relatives to chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans (choice B, Fig. 9). Most faculty (96%) but only 80% of the students knew that the hominid fossil record is rich enough for scientists to conclude that humans have evolved from ancestral forms, and 15% of the faculty versus 34% of the students (mean) still believed, incorrectly, that the origin of the human mind cannot be explained by evolution (choices C and D, Fig. 9); indeed, one in every five faculty and almost half of the students (mean) thought, erroneously, that the universe, our solar system and planet Earth are finely tuned to embrace human life (choice E, Fig. 9). The latter is a powerful illusion because the diversity of successful adaptations in nature may give the impression that the environment perfectly matches them; in reality, it is life that “matches” the always changing environments.
Views About Evolution and/or Creation of Humans, and Responders’ Religiosity
Two out of three students from the secular institutions (mean) thought that humans have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years without God’s intervention, but almost three out of four students from the religious institution believed that God guided this process (choices A and B, Fig. 10). We did not assess this topic among the faculty (above) but suspect that professors might show response rates comparable to or even higher than the students from the secular institutions. We base this speculation on the fact that faculty response rate to questions about both acceptance of evolution (Questions 1–7 above) and understanding of the evolutionary process (Questions 8–9 above) were consistently more robust than the students’; moreover, polls report that 87% of members (n = 2,533) of the American Association for the Advancement of Science think that humans have evolved without God’s intervention (The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press 2009).
Surprisingly, the rate of agreement with the idea that humans have evolved without God’s intervention was 50% higher among the students from the public and private institutions (mean 65%, choice A, Fig. 10) than among the U.S. high school biology teachers (28%, Berkman et al. 2008), whose views coincide with those of our sample of students from the religious institution (29%). Note that 32/36% of the U.S. general public (n = 2,001/1,484; Miller et al. 2006; The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press 2009), 47% of the U.S. high school biology teachers (Berkman et al. 2008), and 72% of our sample of students from the religious institution (choice B, Fig. 10) believe that God guided the process of human evolution.
Interestingly, faculty and students showed a comparable level of religiosity for two of the three questions we asked (choices B, C, Question 11); about 30% considered religion to be very important in their lives and around 20% admitted to praying daily (mean combined values choices B, C, Fig. 11). In contrast, only 5% of the faculty versus 24% of the students believed that faith in God is necessary for morality (choice A, Fig. 11). Note that we did not assess Question 11 among the students from the religious institution, but suspect that their rate of agreement with the choices of this question could have been higher than the faculty’s and the students’ from the secular institutions. We base this speculation on responses to Questions 3 (evolution and creationism are in harmony, choice B, Fig. 3) and 10 (humans have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years but God guided this process, choice B, Fig. 10) where students from the religious institution showed higher response rates than the other groups.
The 30% of New England faculty and students who thought that religion is important in their lives (above) might be comparable to the 33% of American scientists (n = 2,533) who admit to believe in God (The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press 2009), but differs from the 12% of “professional evolutionary scientists” (n = 149 members of North American, European, UK, and other countries’ National Academies of Sciences; Graffin and Provine 2007) and 7% of members of the U.S. National Academy of Science (n = 260) who believe in a personal God (Larson and Witham 1998). Two recent studies (n = 1,646 Ecklund and Scheitle 2007; n = 1,417 Gross and Simmons 2009) have also documented that ≈30% of the American professoriat (about 630,000 faculty teaching full-time at colleges and universities) is religious across institutions and fields, highlighting that researchers in the natural sciences (physics, biology) are less religious than their social sciences counterparts (sociology, economics, history, but except psychology).
Religiosity, Understanding-of-Science and Evolution Indexes
Three factors seem to determine an individual’s acceptance of evolution (Bishop and Anderson 1990; Downie and Barron 2000; Trani 2004; Paz-y-Miño C. and Espinosa 2009a, b, but see Miller et al. 2006; Nadelson and Sinatra 2009): personal religious convictions, understanding the essence of science (method to explore reality) and familiarity with the processes and forces of change in organisms (evolution). Our samples of New England faculty versus students differed clearly in their RI (Fac = 0.50, Pub = 0.74, Priv = 0.76), SI (Fac = 2.27, Pub = 1.62, Priv = 1.58), and EI (Fac = 2.48, Pub = 1.77, Priv = 1.54). In essence, faculty were less religious and more knowledgeable about science and evolution than the students, which might be associated with the higher acceptance of evolution by faculty than by the students (97% versus 78% mean summation choices A and C, Fig. 6, respectively). Numerous studies have found religiosity and belief to be inversely correlated with acceptance of evolution (Miller et al. 2006; The Gallup Poll 2008, 2009; Nadelson and Sinatra 2009) and positively correlated with scientific literacy, particularly genetics (Miller et al. 2006); however, there is discrepancy about the association between general educational attainment and attitudes toward evolution (Miller et al. 2006; Pigliucci 2007; Nehm and Schonfeld 2007). It is important to emphasize that the religiosity indexes of our samples of faculty and students were three and two times below the U.S. national score RI = 1.40, n = 2,026 (The Pew Global Attitudes Project 2007), respectively, and that the highly educated New England professors had a level of religiosity comparable to that of the general public in Western Europe, the lowest worldwide (The Pew Global Attitudes Project 2007).
Variables Positively and Negatively Associated with Acceptance of Evolution in the U.S.
The correlation between education level and attitudes toward evolution has been documented in significant studies: public acceptance of evolution in the U.S. increases from the high school (20/21%), some college (32/41%), college graduate (52/53%) to the post-graduate (65/74%) levels (n = NA/1,018; Brumfiel 2005; The Gallup Poll 2009), reaching the highest score among university professors (97%, this study; choices A + C, Fig. 6). The average acceptance of evolution by the U.S. general public is 35–40% (Brumfiel 2005; Miller et al. 2006), which coincides with the population attaining only some college education (above). Note that only the post-graduate public and highly educated professors of the U.S. have levels of acceptance of evolution comparable to or higher than the general public in other highly industrialized and prosperous nations like Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, France, Japan, and the UK (≈75–85%; Miller et al. 2006).
Negative attitudes toward evolution in the U.S. reside in specific variables: religious beliefs, pro-life beliefs and political ideology account for most of the variance against evolutionary views (total: nine independent variables), which differ distinctly between the U.S. (R2 = 0.46 total effects) and Europe (R2 = 0.18 total effects)(Miller et al. 2006; see The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life 2008 for detailed statistics on the relationship between religious affiliations and pro-life beliefs, political ideology and evolution); among U.S. educational professionals, decrease in both evolution acceptance and knowledge correlates with increase in religious commitment (n = 337; Nadelson and Sinatra 2009); conservative Republicans in the U.S. accept evolution less than progressive liberals and independents (30% versus 60%, respectively, n = 1,007; The Gallup Poll 2007); and frequency of religious practices correlates negatively with acceptance of evolution: 24% among weekly churchgoers versus 71% for seldom or never (n = 1,007; The Gallup Poll 2007).
If attitudes toward evolution by both the general public and highly educated professors correlate, ultimately, with understanding of science/evolution and religiosity/political ideology (positive and negative association of variables, respectively; data above), it follows that robust science education combined with vigorous public debate—where scientific knowledge versus popular belief are constantly discussed—shall increase acceptance of naturalistic rationalism and decrease the negative impact of creationism and ID on “society’s evolution literacy.” But societal interactions between science and ideology are complex, multifactorial, variable in a spatio-temporal context, and subject to public policy, law, and socio-economic change (Lerner 2000; Moore 2002, 2004; Gross et al. 2005; Apple 2008; Berkman and Plutzer 2009; Padian and Matzke 2009; Matzke 2010; Wexler 2010).
How can the highly educated professors contribute to strengthen evolution literacy? (1) By being proactive rather than reactive in confronting the “anti-evolution wars” (Ruse 2001; Pigliucci 2007; Berkman and Plutzer 2009). If in Northeastern U.S. acceptance of evolution is only 59%, the highest nationwide (The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press 2005), and if 91% of the New England faculty are either very concerned (64%) or somehow concerned (27%) about the controversy of evolution versus creationism versus ID and its implications for science education (data this study), it is imperative that the university professors reach out to the public and lead the debate over science education and evolution literacy. (2) By persuading the education departments at their institutions to fortify science training of future educators: higher-education and outreach programs in science, particularly biology, for school teachers are fundamental to integrate evolution into our society’s culture (Paz-y-Miño C. and Espinosa 2009a, b). Biology school teachers in the U.S. rely on poor-to-excellent evolution state education standards that guide their teaching practices (Mead and Mates 2009; for a historical account of these types of assessments, see Moore 2002; Lerner 2000, 2006). Instructors’ personal views of evolution however seem to influence the quality of schooling more than states’ guidelines: 14–69% of school teachers (n = 15 states in the U.S.) question or reject evolution, and even teach supernatural causation in science classes (Moore 2002; additional statistics above); 43% of high school teachers are willing to dedicate “equal time” to science and ID (National Science Foundation 2006), and 30% admit to having omitted evolution from their lessons or including nonscientific substitutes to evolution in their classes due to pressure (U.S. National Science Teachers Association 2005). Notably, high school biology teachers’ acceptance of evolution also increases with conceptual understanding of evolutionary theory attained during their own college or graduate school training (concept-map studies, Rutledge and Mitchell 2002; but see Nehm and Schonfeld 2007). (3) By changing the emphasis with which college science is taught and improving the science curriculum: it is easier and faster to change the perspectives with which a course is taught than to modify the university/college curriculum; however, both might be indispensable to improving positive attitudes toward science and evolution. We have documented that acceptance of evolution at representative New England colleges is higher among biology majors (66%, n = 449) than nonmajors (46%, n = 382) and that it increases gradually among biology majors from the freshman (58%, n = 163) to the senior (80%, n = 95) year, due to exposure to upper-division courses with evolutionary content (Paz-y-Miño C. and Espinosa 2009a, b); however, graduating nonmajors only reach a level of acceptance of evolution below that of the recently arrived-to-college freshman biology majors (54%, n = 680; Paz-y-Miño C. and Espinosa, unpublished data). Note that after changing the emphasis with which the introductory biology courses were taught at one of our sample institutions (UMassD) via a comprehensive evolutionary approach in both lectures and laboratories, students increased their acceptance of evolution from 61% (mean value, n = 214, September 2008/2009) to 84% (mean value, n = 174, April 2009/May 2010) during the freshman year alone (Paz-y-Miño C. and Espinosa, unpublished data). Due to the disparity in acceptance of evolution between biology majors and nonmajors, and the level of knowledge about evolution with which each group graduates from college, we have recommended that evolutionary theory should be offered widely and taught without distinction between biology majors and nonmajors as part of their science literacy (Paz-y-Miño C. and Espinosa 2009a, b). (4) By creating a new type of professorship position: “professor for the public understanding of science,” whose exclusive role shall be to explain to the public the significance of the research conducted by each discipline (see Pigliucci 2007), and also by assigning the most reputable professors and best communicators of science to the large-lecture courses, usually attended by nonscience majors. The latter is successfully practiced at several of the elite U.S. universities and colleges. (5) By constantly surveying variations in attitudes toward science and evolution among faculty, students and staff, and coordinating immediate responses to emerging antievolutionism: contrary to the assumption that skepticism toward creationist views predominates in academia, recent studies (Ecklund and Scheitle 2007; Gross and Simmons 2009) demonstrate that U.S. university professors, even at prestigious research institutions, increasingly embrace religiosity, a factor negatively correlated with acceptance of evolution (Miller et al. 2006; The Gallup Poll 2007, 2008, 2009; Nadelson and Sinatra 2009; this study); it is, therefore, conceivable to forecast a probable decline in acceptance of evolution by university professors, but this prediction needs to be verified longitudinally. (6) By sponsoring in- and off-campus lecture series, workshops and debates, open to the local high school teachers and the public, where university professors of all disciplines examine the anti-evolution phenomena, learn about the limitations established by schools boards on the science school curriculum and orient the audience on how to communicate modern science to all (Paz-y-Miño C. and Espinosa 2009b). Workshop-discussion modules on “why evolution matters” can be particularly effective when organized for school board members, school district administrators, science teachers and university professors (for exemplar case see Johnson et al. 2009). (7) By actively pursuing participation in “town halls for scientists and public” to discuss issues related to scientific research and the controversy of evolution versus creationism versus ID. Surprisingly, only 24% of U.S. scientists are aware of these meetings, which are often organized around the nation; the detachment of scientists from the public is concerning: 48% admit to talk with nonscientists occasionally (The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press 2009). (8) By organizing multidisciplinary teams of professors (anthropology, biology, education, ethics, history, law, philosophy, political science, social psychology, and religious studies) committed to advice community groups on theoretical and practical aspects of civil action to counter anti-evolution campaigns, anti-intellectualism tendencies, and pro creationism and ID agendas (Young and Edis 2004; Petto and Godfrey 2007; Coalition of Scientific Societies 2008; Williams 2009). (9) By never underestimating the influence of the anti-evolution movements that grow strong among misinformed citizens, vary in impact geographically, and benefit from the frequent disconnect between scientists and society. Indeed, the regional differential acceptance of evolution in the U.S. (i.e., Northeast 59%, Northwest 57%, Midwest 45%, South 38%; The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press 2005) suggests that pro-evolution campaigns shall require strategies compatible with local idiosyncrasies. (10) By including in the “broad impact” section of research grant applications specific multidisciplinary outreach modules to educate the public in the areas of scientific literacy, “on-the-job-training” workshops for local/regional high school teachers, online-mini courses, online assessment of local/regional attitudes toward science/evolution, laboratory internships and field work. The National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Education, and private donors encourage and even require grant applicants to reach out to the public in meaningful areas of current interest and societal debate.
Relevance of This Study
This is the first comprehensive study to summarize the views of 244 highly educated faculty (90% Ph.D. holders in 40 disciplines), affiliated with 35 academic institutions (public, private, and religious), widely distributed geographically in New England (states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont), who were polled in three areas: (1) their perspectives about the controversy of evolution versus creationism versus ID, (2) their understanding of how the evolutionary process works, and (3) their personal convictions concerning the evolution and/or creation of humans in the context of the faculty’s own religiosity. Our survey was conducted in one of the most progressive and intellectual regions in the U.S., where public acceptance of evolution is the highest nationwide (59%). Although we found high levels of acceptance of evolution among the New England professors, plus good conceptual understanding of the evolutionary process (with the exception that 30% had a Lamarckian view of evolution) and the controversy between scientific knowledge and popular belief, we detected surprisingly high religiosity (30%). After comparing and contrasting our data with significant national and international statistics, we conclude that attitudes toward evolution might correlate, ultimately, with understanding of science/evolution (positive association of variables) and religiosity/political ideology (negative association of variables), and that science education combined with vigorous public debate shall increase acceptance of naturalistic rationalism and decrease the negative impact of creationism and ID on “society’s evolution literacy.” We identified specific areas of action where university professors’ contribution to the pro-evolution movement is indispensable.