Poor public perceptions and understanding of evolution are not unique to the developed and more industrialized nations of the world. International resistance to the science of evolutionary biology appears to be driven by both proponents of intelligent design and perceived incompatibilities between evolution and a diversity of religious faiths. We assessed the success of a first-year evolution course at the University of Cape Town and discovered no statistically significant change in the views of students before the evolution course and thereafter, for questions that challenged religious ideologies about creation, biodiversity, and intelligent design. Given that students only appreciably changed their views when presented with “facts,” we suggest that teaching approaches that focus on providing examples of experimental evolutionary studies, and a strong emphasis on the scientific method of inquiry, are likely to achieve greater success. This study also reiterates the importance of engaging with students' prior conceptions, and makes suggestions for improving an understanding and appreciation of evolutionary biology in countries such as South Africa with an inadequate secondary science education system, and a dire lack of public engagement with issues in science.

It is well recognized by scientists that evolution is the unifying theme that underlies the biological sciences (Kennedy 2005). Based on the considerable leaps in our understanding of how evolution works, from both experimental and theoretical work, Kennedy (2005) proposed “Evolution in Action” as the major scientific breakthrough of the year 2005. But despite scientific advances in evolutionary biology, evolution is often seen as contentious and “troubling” (e.g., Dagher and Boujaoude 1997; Sinclair and Pendarvis 1998). This is because evolutionary biology intersects and often challenges religious beliefs and values, which lead to an intellectual and spiritual dilemma. Thus, diplomacy and discussion become key in smoothing the interface between science and society (Leshner 2005).

The scientific community was recently aghast at the proposal that schools in the United States be allowed to teach “intelligent design theory” (ID) alongside the scientific theory of evolution (Antolin and Herbers 2001; Leshner 2005; Fjerdingstad 2005; Bhattarcharjee 2006; Sissenwine 2007). However, in a historic case, and a major setback for proponents of ID, Judge John Jones III referred to ID as “nothing less than the progeny of creationism” and “an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion,” and ruled that it “is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school classroom” (Jones 2005; Mervis 2006).

Many of us in the developing world find ourselves grappling with poor public perceptions of science and are often astounded to find that even in the more industrialized nations, public perceptions of science are quite dismal, and an understanding of evolution is often lacking (Lord and Marino 1993; Rutledge and Warden 2000; Miller et al. 2006). In a recent survey of the general public acceptance of evolution, Miller et al. (2006) demonstrated that significantly more American adults rejected evolution than adults in Japan and 32 European countries. They ascribe this partly to the different historical structure and beliefs of American fundamentalism that sees Genesis as the uncontestable account of the creation of life. Additional factors include the greater politicization of evolution in the US than elsewhere in the world as well as a positive correlation between genetic literacy and acceptance of evolution. Antolin and Herbers (2001) also acknowledge that these are factors in the ongoing evolution–creationism controversy. Curiously, misconceptions of evolution are not restricted only to the public at large, but appear to be present even among a large proportion of college graduates (Lord and Marino 1993; Alters and Nelson 2002), and perhaps even more distressingly school teachers themselves are inept at teaching evolution (Rutledge and Warden 2000). Sundberg and Dini (1993) found that even though all major and nonmajor biology students at Louisiana State University were required to have done biology at school, their analysis was startling in that the majority of the 1200 freshman had a very poor understanding of ecology and evolutionary biology. Sinclair et al. (1997) suggest that college students are underprepared for tertiary study of evolutionary biology, often because of the lack of effective teaching in secondary schools, and more specifically because of the superficial treatment of evolution at school.

In the current study we were interested in comparing the level of acceptance of evolution in a developing country such as South Africa, which is also one of the most diverse in terms of representation of different races and religions. Because of the legacy of apartheid, the majority of the adult population in South Africa has not had access to science education, and as a result there is a woeful lack of understanding of science among the general public (Chinsamy-Turan, 2006), and evolution is often viewed with trepidation. Compounding this problem is the fact that, evolution will not be taught in high schools in South Africa until 2008, and as a result many of our students come to university with skewed and often serious misconceptions of what evolution is about. Even now that evolution is to be taught in the senior phase of high school, many teachers themselves are ill equipped to teach the subject, and most learners will still have minimal understanding of basic concepts of evolutionary biology. Complicating matters further, the international drive by antievolution organizations to undermine evolution appears to be garnering a foothold in South Africa.

We decided to undertake a study to gauge the attitudes of the first-year students to learning about evolution, and to assess their background knowledge on the subject. We conducted a “before/after” survey of students in our Faculty of Science, who were enrolled in the first-year biodiversity course that encompassed 16 lectures on evolution. The student body was fairly diverse, with a good representation of racial diversity, and although the majority of the students were Christian, several other faiths were represented, for example, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism. Being freshmen at the university, the average age of the students was about 18 years. Furthermore, given that the Science Faculty at UCT has high entrance requirements it can be assumed that we are dealing with high achieving young adults.

A similar study that assessed students' learning of evolution at UCT was by Anderson (1994). However, the current research differs from Anderson's in its approach, in the actual questions posed, and because since democracy in 1994 in South Africa, the student profile at the University has changed substantially—today we have a much more diverse student body (both in terms of race and religion) than in the 1980s.


At the start of the first of 16 lectures on evolution, we distributed a questionnaire among the students (online Supplementary Appendix S1). The students were assured that there was no “right” or “wrong” answers, and we informed them that we merely wanted to test their knowledge and opinions of what they thought about evolution. We also explained that although the survey was anonymous, we intended to do a follow-up survey, and asked that they use a “code-name” so that we could match the “before” and “after” questionnaires.

After 16 lectures that covered the concept of evolution, the mechanisms of evolution, and dealt with hypotheses to test whether evolution occurred, students were reissued with the original questionnaire, and we specified that they utilize the original “code-name” used.

After some filtering, we reduced our sample size to 94 “before” and “after” questionnaires that could be matched according to the “code-names” used. We are confident that this represents a good sample and an apt reflection of the overall student body.


A total of 17 questions were asked (online Supplementary Appendix S1), and these were ranked in five categories: Strongly agree; Agree; Don't know/neutral; Disagree; Strongly disagree. Students were asked to simply tick the appropriate box that best reflected their opinion. We also invited students to express a view on how they felt about the upcoming lectures on evolution, and once the course was completed, in the “after” survey, we asked how they felt now that they had completed the course.

Results and Discussion

We grouped questions into four categories: (1) religious-based questions concerning evolution; (2) questions probing fundamental understanding of evolution concepts; (3) scientific facts regarding evolution; and (4) fallacious questions to test the quality of responses. In the analysis we changed one question from being factually incorrect to its converse correct version so that in all cases an indication of “agreement” by a student meant that they correctly agreed with a scientific fact or concept, or in the case of the first category, agreed with a creationism or ID explanation for the creation of life. The good correspondence between the Before/After responses to the fallacious questions, with most students answering “Don't know” (Fig. 1), suggested students were not biased in their responses, and makes us confident of the robustness of this assessment. Except for the Anderson (1981) study, mentioned above, no other published study of South African students perceptions to learning evolution is available.

Figure 1.

Before/After comparisons of the distribution of student answers (n= 94) to questions grouped into the categories: (A) religious-based questions concerning evolution; (B) questions probing fundamental understanding of evolution concepts; (C) scientific facts regarding evolution, and (D) fallacious questions to test the quality of responses. Agreement meant agreeing with correct scientific statements or agreeing with creationism and/or ID arguments.

If the evolution course was effective, we expected an increase in the numbers agreeing with the various questions and hence we used a Wilcoxon paired-sample test (Zar 1996) to test the null hypothesis that the numbers of students that correctly agreed in the “Before” category were less than or equal to the numbers in the “After” category. Whereas a significant increase from “Before” to “After” was evident in the numbers that correctly agreed with scientific facts (T_= 44 > T0.05(1),10) and evolution concepts (T_= 45 > T0.05(1),12), there were no significant differences in student responses to questions in the Religious-based category (T_= 3 < T0.05(1),8).

Encouragingly, students readily absorbed some basic facts of evolution during the course such that 18% changed from not knowing if a fact was true or not to strongly agreeing with the facts. At the other extreme, when considering the data grouped into the religious-based category, visual inspection of the distribution of student answers reveals almost no change (Fig. 1). This suggests, for example, that students can seemingly simultaneously accept religious-based statements such as that evolution is the creator's method of creation and scientific statements such as that the earliest life on earth dates to 3.7 million years. Notwithstanding that facts are easier to absorb than complicated concepts, the course was much less successful in teaching fundamental evolution concepts (Fig. 1) such as that all life on earth evolved through a process of evolution and natural selection is the mechanism that drives evolution. The numbers of students that disagreed with statements of this sort was almost identical in the “Before/After” pairs, suggesting that the course had negligible effect on shifting the views of those students exhibiting strong initial resistance to these concepts. On the other hand, there was about a 13% improvement in students shifting from the “don't know” response to agreeing with evolutionary concepts.

These patterns are particularly evident when analysing the percentage change in “Before/After” responses to three key questions. There was only a small decrease in the percentage of students agreeing with the notion that evolution is the creator's method of creation, whereas substantially more (15% more “After/Before”) students accepted the idea that evolution is a scientific idea that explains the biodiversity of life on earth (Fig. 2). Once again a huge shift in responses was only evident when considering the change in those agreeing with scientific facts such as the age of the earth (Fig. 2). Interestingly, the smallest change in Before/After responses to any question was the response to an ID argument, namely that “Organisms are incredibly well designed. This is proof that they must have been created by God.” An impasse on this point mirrors the findings of others around the world.

Figure 2.

Summary of the change in the percentage of students agreeing with key questions at the end of the course relative to the start of the course. Changes are computed as (%After-%Before/%Before).

A similar study had been conducted by Short (1994) to examine the knowledge and views of first-year medical students at Monash University in Australia. To his dismay, he found that the students did not significantly change their views and attitudes, concluding that this may be due to these questions pertaining to “big issues” such as life and death and students respond emotionally rather than rationally. Sinclair et al. (1997) were also “disheartened” to find that after their focused study of evolution, Southeastern Louisiana University students had not grasped the basic concepts of evolutionary biology. Lawson and Weser (1990) researched 954 introductory nonmajors biology course students at Arizona State University and found that a third of the students that initially expressed belief in “special creation” did not significantly alter their views at the end of the semester long biology course. Lawson and Weser (1990) suggested that the strong emotional commitments to religion ran deep, and their analysis further suggested that movement away from nonscientific misconceptions were facilitated by skills in scientific reasoning.

Our analysis of first-year biology students concurred with the findings of Lawson and Weser (1990), Short (1994) and Sinclair et al. (1997), in that we found no statistically significant change in the views of students before the evolution course and thereafter. This was particularly true for questions that challenged religious ideologies about creation, biodiversity, and ID (Fig. 1). Our data suggest that students more readily accept factual information such as that related to the age of the earth, but remained firm on religious-based concepts such as that “Evolution is the creator's method of creation” (Fig. 2). Although our student body is much more diverse today than that which Anderson (1981) had assessed more than 20 years ago, we found that many of our students held deeply religious views, and that as Anderson (1981) had found, even though they were keenly aware that six-day creationism is incompatible with evolutionary theory, this did not alter their belief in God or in “creation.”

In the written comments that students made it was clear that many of the students expressed interest and curiosity in engaging in the evolution course (Table 1). However, many of them were concerned about how it would challenge their religious views (example students 8 and 10 in Table 1). It is worth noting that our student body likely has more diverse religious backgrounds than American or European adults. The “after” survey clearly showed that some students were more ‘accepting’ of concepts in evolutionary biology (e.g., students 1 to 4 in Table 1), whereas students that held strong religious views were less likely to have changed their views with regard to evolution (e.g., student 6 in Table 1). Interestingly these findings agree with that of Miller et al. (2006) who found that US adults who prayed regularly and believed in a personal God, were more likely to reject evolution. In their analysis of zoology students at Southeastern Louisiana University, Sinclair et al. (1997) found that religious beliefs interfered with students' ability to be objective regarding scientific evidence. They also found that deeply religious students rejected evolution, and clearly felt that there was a dichotomy between religion and acceptance of evolution. Like Alters and Nelson (2002) had cautioned, we found that there were some students that held strong antagonistic views to the teaching of evolution.

Table 1.  Selected illustrative responses of students to the question “How do you feel about being taught evolution?” with “Before and After” responses matched for individual students.
 1“It is very necessary and I appreciate it.”“It was a great experience. It is a privilege to learn and understand a scientific explanation for the origin of biodiversity and a much more believable explanation than any religious propositions.”
 2“ It's a good thing because it may help understand why some things are a certain way; and so we come up with our own conclusions on life not to be biased or based on what we are told.”“It certainly has cleared some issues like why organisms are similar and behave in a certain way which my religion doesn't explain since its main emphasis is on uniqueness of all but in some cases some organisms share certain characteristics.”
 3“I'm interested to hear – and am open for a different opinion/perspective. But I need good arguments, and proof before I will be convinced.”“I think it makes more sense now, and pieces fit together better, but I think there is still a lot we don't know.”
 4“I am looking forward to it.”“I found it interesting. One of those things I heard people talk about but never really took seriously. Now I found all the evidence towards it fascinating and convincing.”
 5“I feel good because it will help me understand it much better.”“I don't like it because it contradicts the bible and now we don't know who to believe.”
 6“Neutral. I strongly believe Jehova is the Creator but don't mind hearing other people's views.”“It has made me see that it only from the bible where we can find what is true and reliable- so in a sense it made me see that there is just no other explanation- Jehova is the creator.”
 7“I have an interest in learning about it but I do not believe in it!”“I enjoyed it thoroughly, it was an eye-opener! It explains a lot. I understand it better and it's very fascinating.”
 8“Interested but it won't change my belief that the world was created to look like evolution took place and with the fossils in it.”“Not convinced. Interesting.”
 9“Way to understand it as it can be very controversial”Has been interesting. Shows how amazing and important genetics is. Very interested in the natural selection/descent with modification theory (its brilliant).
10“I feel that my personal beliefs and strong faith will contradict what I am taught, but I am willing to be open-minded.”“Its been quite interesting getting different people's views on things. My opinion of evolution changed (but I still don't agree with).”


Our survey has verified the general observation that first-year students have little knowledge about evolution, and that even though our students have diverse religious backgrounds, many of them are more accepting of factual information than of evolutionary concepts (Figs. 1, 2; Table 1). These findings agree with Short's (1994) analysis of medical students at Monash University. Lawson and Weser (1990) also found that although some misconceptions, such as creationism were not easily altered, they propose that instruction that focuses on improving reasoning skills can have a positive influence to facilitate changes in nonscientific beliefs.

We believe that in South Africa the problem is twofold: first, evolution will not feature in the school curriculum until 2008, and second, teachers themselves do not understand the concepts well enough to teach it. Thus, besides just University students lacking a good foundation in evolutionary biology, the general public see evolution as unfathomable, and there is an overall lack of understanding of science and how science impacts on our lives.

Rutledge and Warden's (2000) study of Indiana public high school biology teachers starkly showed that the low level of teachers' understanding and acceptance of evolution directly impacts on how they teach the subject to learners. Such a study has not been conducted in South Africa, but we think that this would be as valid here in South Africa, as it is in Indiana. We concur with previous suggestions that improvements will result if, inter alia, science teachers focus on covering less but more in-depth material and work to destroy the false evolution–religion dichotomy and life-science textbooks are underpinned with clear science and evolution principles (Firenze and O' Brien 2005; Hillis 2007).

Our survey agrees with Lord and Marino's (1993) findings that entry level students have very little understanding of evolutionary concepts. We also found that the majority of these students held deeply religious views that make acceptance of evolutionary concepts difficult (Sinclair et al. 1997; Miller et al. 2006). Alters and Nelson (2002) found that prior conceptions, particularly religious beliefs often lead to misunderstanding of evolutionary concepts. Our study confirms the results of previous studies that adults' views on evolution are remarkably impervious to instruction (Short 1994, Sinclair et al. 1997; Alters and Nelson 2002, Lombrozo et al. 2006). Clearly then innovative thinking and planning, broader than just teaching evolution, are required, and the question is what can evolutionary biologists do about this?

One of the biggest challenges evolutionary biology faces is that evolution is often equated with atheism (Antolin and Herbers 2001), and students often feel that they need to choose between religious convictions and the credibility of evolution (Sinclair et al. 1997; Sinclair and Pendarvis 1998)—for example, student 5 in Table 1. It is therefore important that students recognize that science and faith have separate domains, and that there are many scientists who are theists, and accept evolutionary theory as an explanation of the natural world (Brickhouse et al. 2000; Antolin and Herbers 2001).

Educators teaching evolution need to be aware of the challenges facing the understanding of evolutionary biology. Demastes et al. (1995) found that a learner's conceptual framework for learning about evolution includes prior conceptions related to evolution, scientific, and religious orientations, view of the biological world, and acceptance of evolutionary theory. Thus, for the successful teaching of evolution, it is essential to actively engage with students preconceptions (Demastes et al. 1995; Sinclair et al. 1997; Sinclair and Pendarvis 1998; Alters and Nelson 2002). Lecturers need to provide opportunity to discuss and interrogate these prior conceptions. Given the large class sizes, this is often a problem. However, Alters and Nelson (2002) suggest that some student–student interaction can be creatively incorporated into a 50-min lecture. They propose that discussion about a graph or table or reading of a piece of literature can facilitate interaction in a lecture. Multiple choice questions have also been found to be effective in stimulating student interaction. It is important that educators heed Hillis' (2007) view that the teaching of evolutionary biology must be made relevant and exciting. Our knowledge of evolution is constantly evolving and it is important that educators inject their instructions with a discussion of exciting modern applications of evolutionary research ranging from biotechnology, bioremediation and environmental clean-up, to the emergence of novel diseases (Antolin and Herbers 2001; Meagher 2007; Hillis 2007).

We further suggest that because students seem amenable to changing their views when presented with “facts” (Fig. 2), lecturers should ensure that they give examples of experimental evolutionary studies, and there should be strong emphasis on the scientific method of inquiry. Dagher and Boujauode (1997) also found similar results in their assessment of Lebanese students' acceptance of evolution in the light of their religious beliefs. It may be equally important to simultaneously focus discussion on what constitutes a scientific theory and an empirical test (Dagher and Boujauode 1997; Sinclair et al. 1997Brickhouse et al. 2000), thereby equipping learners with the necessary tools and understanding to appreciate where ID fails and evolutionary theory holds from a scientific standpoint (Wise 2005; Lombrozo et al. 2006; Sissenwine 2007).

We also propose that evolutionary biologists make a concerted effort to ensure that teachers themselves are better informed about evolution. This can be done, by, for example, developing workshops for in-service teachers so that they are better enabled to teach evolution. For example, Antolin and Herbers (2001) describe 2-day workshops run by the Center for Life Sciences at the Colorado State University that engages teachers in scientific methods employed by evolutionary biologists, and among other things, enables teachers to deal with the challenges of anti-evolution propaganda in their classrooms. At our university we are in the process of developing “evolution” workshops for in-service teachers with staff of our university's Center for Higher Education. By having better trained teachers, we would have better prepared students entering university, and even if many of the learners do not end up at university, the overall general public perceptions of evolution will be changed. We concur with Demastes et al. (1995) that because evolution often challenges preexisting conceptual ideas, a supportive classroom atmosphere is essential to ensure an understanding of evolution, even if this conflicts with cultural belief systems.

The current analysis adds South African young adults to the previous populations surveyed and concludes that the problems faced in educating about evolution are not unique to the developed world. The challenge for evolutionary biologists and other scientists is to engage in constructive discussions to clarify perceived threats of evolution to personal faith and morality, and to publicize the scientific validity of evolutionary theory.

Associate Editor: T. Meagher


Our questionnaire is a modified version of one that G. Branch used previously within the same Department (unpublished). P. Lloyd and an anonymous reviewer provided insightful comments that have improved the manuscript. Financial support from the National Research Foundation, South Africa, is gratefully acknowledged.