Teaching human evolution at the University of Kentucky: There are some students I’ll never reach.

Teaching Evolution to Students Who Tell Me They’ll Pray for My Soul

Teaching Evolution to Students Who Tell Me They’ll Pray for My Soul

The state of the universe.
March 26 2015 3:45 AM

Defending Darwin

I teach human evolution at the University of Kentucky. There are some students I’ll never reach.


Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.


Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

This essay is adapted from a piece originally printed in the March/April 2015 issue of Orion. Request a free trial issue of Orion here.

To teach evolution at the University of Kentucky is to teach at an institution steeped in the history of defending evolution education. The first effort to pass an anti-evolution law (led by William Jennings Bryan) happened in Kentucky in 1921. It proposed making the teaching of evolution illegal. The university’s president at that time, Frank McVey, saw this bill as a threat to academic freedom. Three faculty members—William Funkhouser, a zoologist; Arthur Miller, a geologist who taught evolution; and Glanville Terrell, a philosopher—joined McVey in the battle to prevent the bill from becoming law. They put their jobs on the line. Through their efforts, the anti-evolution bill was defeated by a 42­–41 vote in the state legislature. Consequently, the movement turned its attention toward Tennessee.

John Thomas Scopes was a student at the University of Kentucky then and watched the efforts of his three favorite teachers and McVey. The reason the “Scopes Monkey Trial” occurred several years later in Dayton, Tennessee—where Scopes was a substitute teacher and volunteered to be prosecuted—was in good part due to the influence of his mentors, particularly Funkhouser. As Scopes writes in his memoir, Center of the Storm: “Teachers rather than subject matter rekindled my interest in science. Dr. Funkhouser ... was a man without airs [who] taught zoology so flawlessly that there was no need to cram for the final examination; at the end of the term there was a thorough, fundamental grasp of the subject in bold relief in the student’s mind, where Funkhouser had left it.”


I was originally reluctant to take my job at the university when offered it 20 years ago. It required teaching three sections of nonmajors biology classes, with 300 students per section, and as many as 1,800 students each year. I wasn’t particularly keen on lecturing to an auditorium of students whose interest in biology was questionable given that the class was a freshman requirement.

Then I heard an interview with the renowned evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson in which he addressed why, as a senior professor—and one of the most famous biologists in the world—he continued to teach nonmajors biology at Harvard. Wilson explained that nonmajors biology is the most important science class that one could teach. He felt many of the future leaders of this nation would take the class and that this was the last chance to convey to them an appreciation for biology and science. Moved by Wilson’s words, and with the knowledge that Funkhouser once held the job I was now contemplating, I accepted the position. The need to do well was unnerving, however, considering that if I failed as a teacher, a future Scopes might leave my class uninspired.

I realized early on that many instructors teach introductory biology classes incorrectly. Too often evolution is the last section to be taught, an autonomous unit at the end of the semester. I quickly came to the conclusion that, since evolution is the foundation upon which all biology rests, it should be taught at the beginning of a course, and as a recurring theme throughout the semester. My basic biology for nonmajors became evolution for nonmajors. It didn’t take long before I started to hear from a vocal minority of students who strongly objected: “I am very offended by your lectures on evolution! Those who believe in creation are not ignorant of science! You had no right to try and force evolution on us. Your job was to teach it as a theory and not as a fact that all smart people believe in!!” And: “Evolution is not a proven fact. It should not be taught as if it is. It cannot be observed in any quantitative form and, therefore, isn’t really science.”

We live in a nation where public acceptance of evolution is the second lowest of 34 developed countries, just ahead of Turkey. Roughly half of Americans reject some aspect of evolution, believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, and that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. Where I live, many believe evolution to be synonymous with atheism, and there are those who strongly feel I am teaching heresy to thousands of students. A local pastor, whom I’ve never met, wrote an article in the University Christian complaining that, not only was I teaching evolution and ignoring creationism, I was teaching it as a non-Christian, alternative religion.


There are students who enroll in my courses and already accept evolution. Although not yet particularly knowledgeable on the subject, they are eager to learn more. Then there are the students whose minds are already sealed shut to the possibility that evolution exists, but need to take my class to fulfill a college requirement. And then there are the students who have no opinion one way or the other but are open-minded. These are the students I most hope to reach by presenting them with convincing and overwhelming evidence without offending or alienating them.

Some students take offense very easily. During one lecture, a student asked a question I’ve heard many times: “If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” My response was and is always the same: We didn’t evolve from monkeys. Humans and monkeys evolved from a common ancestor. One ancestral population evolved in one direction toward modern-day monkeys, while another evolved toward humans. The explanation clicked for most students, but not all, so I tried another. I asked the students to consider this: Catholics are the oldest Christian denomination, so if Protestants evolved from Catholics, why are there still Catholics? Some students laughed, some found it a clarifying example, and others were clearly offended. Two days later, a student walked down to the lectern after class and informed me that I was wrong about Catholics. He said Baptists were the first Christians and that this is clearly explained in the Bible. His mother told him so. I asked where this was explained in the Bible. He glared at me and said, “John the Baptist, duh!” and then walked away.

To truly understand evolution, you must first understand science. Unfortunately, one of the most misused words today is also one of the most important to science: theory. Many incorrectly see theory as the opposite of fact. The National Academy of Sciences provides concise definitions of these critical words: A fact is a scientific explanation that has been tested and confirmed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing it; a theory is a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence generating testable and falsifiable predictions.

In science, something can be both theory and fact. We know the existence of pathogens is a fact; germ theory provides testable explanations concerning the nature of disease. We know the existence of cells is a fact and that cell theory provides testable explanations of how cells function. Similarly, we know evolution is a fact and that evolutionary theories explain biological patterns and mechanisms. The late Stephen Jay Gould said it best: “Evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts.”


Theory is the most powerful and important tool science has, but nonscientists have perverted and diluted the word to mean a hunch, notion, or idea. Thus, all too many people interpret the phrase evolutionary theory to mean evolutionary hunch. Not surprisingly, I spend the first week of class differentiating theory from fact, as well as defining other critical terms.

Some colleagues ask why I bother, as if I’m the one who’s the provocateur. I remind them that evolution is the foundation of our science, and we simply can’t shy away from explaining it. We don’t avoid using the “g-word” when talking about gravitational theory, nor do we avoid the “c-word” when talking about cell theory. So why avoid talking about evolution, let alone defending it? After all, as a biologist, the mission of advancing evolution education is the most important aspect of my job.

Rarely do I have a Kentucky student who learned about human evolution in high school biology. Those who did usually attended high schools in large urban centers like Louisville or Lexington. Given how easily it can provoke parents, the teaching of human evolution is a rarity in high school, so much so in Kentucky that it startled me when I first arrived.


The story of our evolutionary history captivates many of my students, while infuriating some. During one lecture, a student stood up in the back row and shouted the length of the auditorium that Darwin denounced evolution on his deathbed—a myth intentionally spread by creationists. The student then made it known that everything I was teaching was a lie and stomped out of the auditorium, slamming the door behind him. A few years later during the same lecture, another student also shouted out from the back row that I was lying. She said that no transitional fossil forms had ever been found—despite my having shared images of many transitional forms during the semester. Many of her fellow students were shocked by her combativeness, particularly when she stormed out, also slamming the door behind her. Most semesters, a significant number of students abruptly leave as soon as they realize the topic is human evolution.


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. There are those who remain convinced that evolution is a threat to their religious beliefs. Knowing this, I feel an obligation to give my “social resistance to evolution” lecture as the final topic.

This lecture lays down the history of the anti-science and anti-evolution movements, the arguments made by those opposing evolution, and why these arguments are wrong. I make it clear that one can accept evolution and maintain his or her religious beliefs. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, 77 percent of all American Christians belong to denominations that support the teaching of evolution, and several high-profile evangelical Christians are ardent defenders of it, including former President Jimmy Carter and Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. Even Pope John Paul II acknowledged the existence of evolution in an article he published in the Quarterly Review of Biology, in which he argued that the body evolved, but the soul was created. Pope Francis has made it clear that he accepts evolution as well.

This lecture should put students at ease knowing that religion and science need not be at odds. Of all the lectures I give, this one provokes the most discussion after class. Yet it often results in students expressing concern that I might not be saved. I never say anything about my personal religious beliefs, yet it is assumed I am an atheist. One student told me she hoped I could find God soon. Several simply let me know they will be praying for me and praying hard. One student explained that as a devout Catholic he had no choice but to reject evolution. He accused me of fabricating the pope’s statements. When I explained that he could go to the Vatican website for verification or call the Vatican to talk to a scientist, he insisted that there was no such information available from the Vatican. He then pointed his finger at me and said the only way he would believe me is if then–Pope John Paul II came to my class to confirm these quotes face-to-face. The student then stomped out, again slamming the auditorium door behind him.

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.

And it’s a message that sometimes gets through. There’s one student I can remember in particular who took my freshman seminar on evolutionary medicine. He was an ardent evangelical Christian who believed in the literal truth of biblical creation. The seminar was very hard on him, and he struggled with the information, questioning and doubting everything we read. Several years later, our paths crossed, and we stopped for what turned out to be a long, easy chat. Now a doctor, he explained to me that, at the time, he was so upset with my seminar that he attended a number of creationists’ public lectures for evidence I was wrong. He said he found himself embarrassed by how badly these individuals perverted Christian teachings, as well as known facts, to make their argument. He wanted me to know that he came to understand he could be a Christian and accept evolution. Then he did something that resonates with any teacher: He thanked me for opening his eyes, turning his world upside down, and blurring the line between black and white.

This essay is adapted from a piece originally printed in the March/April 2015 issue of Orion. Request a free trial issue of Orion here.