Lack of autonomous thinking hinders students' understanding of evolution

Published online 29 March 2011

Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla

Saouma BouJaoude
Saouma BouJaoude

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution remains a contentious subject, albeit not scientifically, more than 150 years after it was first postulated. To determine autonomous thinking ability amongst students, researchers at the American University in Beirut (AUB) related the ability to think independently to belief in evolution.

"We chose evolution because it is a controversial issue and that's how you really find out if people are thinking for themselves," says Saouma BouJaoude, head of the Science and Math Education Center at AUB.

Rejection of evolution is related to students' religious affiliations, as evidenced by a study in Lebanon which revealed that 82% of Christian university students accepted evolution, while only 35% of Muslim students did so. Another study of 865 Lebanese students and 194 Egyptian students aged 16-17 found that religious practice influenced the level of belief in evolution. A third of the students believed evolution should be taught through religious education, while 48% indicated religiosity influences their thoughts on evolution.

BouJaoude explains that the results show it does not matter what religion one believes, but how religious they are: "you could be either Muslim or Christian and not be religious and it would be the same result."

There were significant differences between religious Christian and Muslim students in Lebanon in their perceptions of the relationship between science and religion. Muslims are more influenced by their religious beliefs than Christians. Also, whereas more Muslim than Christian Lebanese students rejected evolutionary science, these differences were not as pronounced in Egypt.

Scientific thinking

Salman Hameed, an astronomer at Hampshire College in Massachusetts in the United States, says the link between religiosity and evolution is tenuous. "I think we need more studies before we can claim that there is a causal connection between religiosity and [understanding the theory of] evolution in Muslim countries." He contends other factors play a role. "The relation between evolution acceptance and religiosity varies from country to country, and is shaped by the combination of local cultural, political, and religious factors."

Researchers at AUB are now undertaking a project with international partners to devise science education methods to engender autonomous thinking while preserving cultural and gender equality. "This includes developing instructional material to support inquiry teaching and learning [and] emphasising the relationships between science, technology, society and the environment," explains BouJaoude.

The project is one year into its three year duration. The team is analyzing science education policies at pre-college levels to determine targets of instructional material. They will then access the performance of students who used this material and compare them to students who did not.

BouJaoude says the effectiveness of the study will be determined by what proportion of students develops scientific thinking. The aim is not to promote belief in evolution, but to allow students to "[base] scientific decisions on scientific evidence rather than deciding on issues based on opinions of others," he asserts.

Students are likely to be influenced by their teachers' opinions of evolution. A Lebanese study that surveyed 20 secondary school biology teachers (14 Muslim) and 7 university professors of biology (4 Muslim) found that over a third of those rejected or reinterpreted evolution, and felt it shouldn't be taught. Only 9 teachers accepted evolution. They were either Christian or Druze. One Muslim professor said she stressed "the role of God in creation during instruction on evolution."

Hameed believes religion should not be mixed with science, but religious misconceptions must be addressed. "It is important to communicate that an acceptance of evolution does not lead to atheism and that there are many Muslims who do not find a conflict between Islam and the acceptance of biological evolution."