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Abstract

Evolutionary science has consequences for individuals and society, ranging from the way we interpret human behavior to our notions of spirituality and the purpose of our existence. Popular portrayals of evolution depict a paradoxical theory, a source of knowledge and human connections, but also a threat to our humanity and freedom. Using quantitative and qualitative methodology, we examined how college-educated adults (n = 135) from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds perceive the impact of evolutionary theory on individuals and society. We identified a continuum of perspectives, ranging from strong creationist to strong evolutionist. Using the model of “knowledge as an ecology” (Demastes, Good, & Peebles, Science Education, 79, 637–666, 1995; Nardi & O'Day, Information ecologies: Using technology with heart, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1999), we examined the relationships among participants' beliefs, their perceptions regarding the social and personal impact of evolutionary theory, their prior exposure to and knowledge of evolutionary theory, and their opinions regarding the teaching of evolution. Evolutionists and creationists differed in their prior exposure to evolutionary theory, and their opinions about some aspects of teaching, but showed striking similarities regarding perceived impact. All groups viewed the consequences of accepting evolutionary principles in a way that might be considered undesirable: increased selfishness and racism, decreased spirituality, and a decreased sense of purpose and self-determination. From a science education perspective, this one-sided interpretation is troublesome because it runs counter to the available evidence and theories in evolutionary science, and we consider ways of fostering more balanced presentation and appraisal of evolutionary theory. © 2003 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Sci Ed87:181–206, 2003; Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI 10.1002/sce.10045