Briefing from the Evolution Mission Field


There is apparently more going on at the University of Kentucky than basketball.* Professor James J. Krupa has offered a description of his trials and travails as he tries to cram evolution down the throats of creationist students on that historic culture-war battlefield.

Teaching or preaching evolution?

Teaching or preaching evolution?

I’m all for evolution education. But Professor Krupa’s missive shows some of the dangers of an old-school attitude among some mainstream scientists, what I’ve called the “missionary supposition.”

First, though, let me acknowledge that I don’t have any street cred when it comes to science education. I’m a mild-mannered historian. My only experience teaching science came during one short year in which I taught middle-school science, along with reading, history, math, swimming, and camping. So when I critique Prof. Krupa’s approach, I have to do it with the full knowledge that I don’t really know what I’m talking about.

Professor Krupa shares what he calls his “relentless efforts” to teach introductory biology classes to non-majors at the University of Kentucky. As he notes, the university has had a long history as a front-line institution in the fight over evolution education. Back in the 1920s, Kentucky’s state legislature barely defeated an anti-evolution law. Prof. Krupa explains that the leaders of his school led the fight for evolution. He doesn’t seem aware of how much they gave away in that fight. The only reason Kentucky’s anti-evolution lawmakers agreed to let their bill die, as I related in my 1920s book, was because they received a solemn promise that evolution would not be taught in the state’s schools, even without the anti-evolution law.

That tradition lingers in Kentucky’s K-12 schools. Professor Krupa is quite right in his assertion that few of his students these days have had much evolution education. He shares his experiences with hostile students. Across the course of a semester, the door of his lecture hall often bangs shut as protesting students storm out.

Though I imagine he’d deny it, Krupa seems to derive some satisfaction from these creationist protests. He writes off the large section of his students whose

minds are already sealed shut to the possibility that evolution exists, but need to take my class to fulfill a college requirement.

More interesting to Krupa are students on the fence, students who are “open-minded” about evolution. If he can just explain evolution in all its power and beauty, Krupa implies, he can win those students for real science.

Krupa carefully avoids describing his mission as one to get students to “believe” evolution. Among many scientists, such language is frowned upon. After all, we don’t try to get people to “believe” in gravity or germs. Rather, since these things are inarguably true, the attitude goes, we only want students to “accept” and “understand” them.

This is just as it should be, sort of. As philosopher Harvey Siegel and I argue in our upcoming book, teachers too often seek to change students’ beliefs about life and divinity. It seems to make sense, at first, that if students understand evolution, they will come to believe that it is the best way to understand the origins of diverse species. But students’ beliefs should be beyond the purview of science teachers. The goal for evolution education should be for students to know and understand evolution. What they believe about it is their own business.

Professor Krupa nods to this distinction. At the end of his semester, he writes, he discusses the notion that evolution need not conflict with religious belief. Many Christians accept evolution. There is no need to assume that evolution somehow implies atheism, or leads to atheism.

So far, so good. But Prof. Krupa suffers in two ways from the missionary supposition among mainstream scientists. First, he takes it as his mission to preach the truths of evolution. As he puts it,

I’m occasionally told my life would be easier if I backed off from my relentless efforts to advance evolution education. Maybe so. But to shy away from emphasizing evolutionary biology is to fail as a biology teacher. I continue to teach biology as I do, because biology makes sense only in the light of evolution.

Krupa took the job, he explains, inspired by the mission laid out by biologist EO Wilson. These introductory classes, Krupa believes, might be “the last chance to convey to [students] an appreciation for biology and science.” And in spite of setbacks, Krupa maintains the clear-eyed self-assurance of every missionary. As have all sorts of missionaries, Krupa assumes that the truth of his message is so powerful that simply hearing it will blast away all resistance, at least among the “open-minded.” As he explains,

After a semester filled with evidence of evolution, one might expect that every last student would understand it and accept it as fact. Sadly, this is not the case.

Such a result should not be surprising to anyone who knows the history of missionary work. Too often, old-school Bible-toting missionaries plopped down among local populations and set to work enlightening them. The truth of the Bible, many felt, was so compelling that non-Christians only needed to have it explained clearly in order to convert.

Like these old-school missionaries, Prof. Krupa is well-intentioned but surprisingly naïve. He repeatedly notes his hostility toward creationism, yet he complains that creationist students and community members seem hostile back. He describes creationists as having their “minds sealed shut.” He notes that they “take offense very easily.” The explanations creationist students offer are mind-blowingly ignorant and laughably simplistic.

What does Professor Krupa want? In spite of his careful insistence that he is not trying to change students’ beliefs, he clearly hopes to do more than simply help students to know and understand what evolutionary theory says. He wants his students to get “an appreciation” for evolution, not just an understanding.  In some cases, he relates, his evolutionary lectures are “a message that . . . gets through.” One evangelical student came back to visit after taking Krupa’s class. Though this Christian student had resisted, he eventually thanked Krupa for “turning his world upside down.”

To Krupa, such moments savored of sweet success. Missionaries, after all, have the ambitious goal of changing worlds, of “opening . . . eyes,” and of blowing minds.

With those goals, it is no wonder that Professor Krupa has had a difficult time of it. He has suffered from more than just inadequate K-12 teaching. He has suffered, it seems, from his own missionary supposition.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach evolution to creationists. We should. But it does not help if we assume that creationists are idiots. Instead, we should endeavor to learn all we can about the creationists in our classes. As with all students, we should treat them respectfully and even lovingly.

Many of the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) have real experience teaching science at the college level. Am I off base here? To get students to understand science and evolution, do teachers need to share Krupa’s missionary supposition?


*For you nerdwads out there, that is a humorous reference to a popular sporting event going on right now, the NCAA men’s basketball championship. Kentucky has a historic winning streak going on.