<link rel="stylesheet" id="wp-block-library-css" href="https://c0.wp.com/c/5.8.2/wp-includes/css/dist/block-library/style.min.css" type="text/css" media="all">
loader image

A famous scientific saying is that “nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution“. Well, now it’s not just a saying. A recent study has confirmed that you really need evolution to understand biology.

Researchers examined how undergraduate students dealt with biological “dilemmas.” Like whether or not infertile people should be able to clone themselves. The students’ answers almost always involved some biology. Like pointing out that one partners’ genes wouldn’t be present in the clone.

However, students who didn’t fully support and/or understand evolution tended to invoke fewer biological concepts. They also demonstrated a shallower understanding of the science involved.

A biology test about ethics

The researchers set out to examine how evolution impacted peoples’ ability to understand biology and apply that understanding to real world scenarios. This would help show whether evolution was key in developing a scientifically literate population. Something we really need.

So they asked them some questions that would require them to apply biology to real world scenarios. These so-called “socio-scientific issues” (SSI) explored where reality, science, and ethics cross paths. Three of them (along with a brief introduction to the topics) were given to undergraduates at an American university:

  1. Should individuals who want to carry and have their own children be able to choose cloning as a reproductive option?
  2. If science were able to isolate a gene that significantly contributed to a person’s intelligence, should that gene be used for gene therapy to increase the intelligence of potential offspring?
  3. Should antibiotics continue to be used as a preventative measure?

There answers were documented. Additionally, several follow-up questions were asked to get them to elaborate on their position. These were fairly basic prompts like “why might people object to your position”.

The number of scientific concepts referenced in these answers, along with their accuracy and depth of understanding, were then compared to the students’ acceptance of evolution (their understanding and acceptance of the theory had been studied in a previous questionnaire).

You need to accept evolution

As you might expect, there was a strong correlation between how well someone understood and accepted evolution and the skill with which they used science to deal with these SSIs.

Generally speaking, those who better understood evolution invoked more scientific concepts and explored them in greater depth. Unsurprisingly, they were also much more likely to bring up concepts critically linked to evolution (like mutation) and understood them better. All in all, the students who understood and accepted evolution the best did 45% better than those who had the worst understanding.

Crucially, they had to understand and accept evolution. If there were two students who understood evolution to the same extent, the one who accepted it more would score higher on this test. The difference caused by acceptance was most pronounced when understanding of evolution was high. If two undergrads got top score on the evolution test then the one who accepted it more would tend to do much better in dealing with the SSIs.

Notably, nobody surveyed really rejected evolution fully. Most of the participants were towards the end of of a biology-related degree; so everyone had some level of acceptance and understanding. It’s simply that those who understood the theory better seemed to do better in when dealing with these other areas of biology.

How much someone used biology when answering the SSIs, compared to their understanding and acceptance of evolution. Note how the most biology is used by those with the highest understanding and acceptance.

How much someone used biology when answering the SSIs, compared to their understanding and acceptance of evolution. Note how the most biology is used by those with the highest understanding and acceptance.


Now, the results of this study might seem like a no-brainer (although it’s always good to have scientific backup for no-brainers). A relationship anyone (with an understanding of evolution) could have guessed.

But I still think these results are very important.

For some, that might be because it’s another point against creationists. They repeatedly harp on about how you don’t need evolution to understand biology. This paper (combined with a basic understanding of science) shows just how wrong they really are. And really reinforces why creationism is a problem that needs to be dealt with. It should be a priority for science communicators because it’s actively making pupils worse at science.

However, I think it highlights a more important issue. It really hammers home how evolution is the foundation on which biology is built. Yet in many textbooks, school courses, and museums it’s treated like just another component of biology. When I was at secondary school I spent more time learning about plants than Australopithecus.

Clearly the way biology is taught/presented/displayed needs to be reworked. It needs to revolve around the theory of evolution as that’s what ties it all together. This research into SSIs closes with what I think is a rather apt quote:

‘it is impossible to have a scientifically literate public without a widespread understanding of evolutionary principles that allow us to make sense of all facets of the natural world’


Accepting and understanding evolution made undergraduate students better at understanding and applying biology to the real world.


Fowler, S.R. and Zeidler, D.L., 2016. Lack of Evolution Acceptance Inhibits Students’ Negotiation of Biology-based Socioscientific Issues. Journal of Biological Education, pp.1-18.

Related posts

Categories: Creationism


Paul Braterman · 4th April 2016 at 6:17 pm

I find this completely unconvincing. Students who reject evolution will do so because they value the worldview, which will imply a moral outlook, more highly than scientific evidence, and when faced with questions of the kind shown I would expect them to be, for that reason, more inclined to discuss emotional or ethical principles (“should we play God?”) than technical aspects, however well they may understand these. And indeed, for the questions shown, it makes perfect sense to regard them as exercises in moral philosophy, with science relegated to the background.

But as for the thesis being tested, it is almost like asking whether students will perform less in chemistry if they reject the existence of atoms

    Adam Benton · 4th April 2016 at 6:37 pm

    As I mentioned, the questions were preceded by a brief summary of some of the science involved. This, combined with the follow-up questions asked, helped direct the conversation towards in a more scientific direction (although there were still reports of more “moralistic” judgements).

    The ultimate conclusion does seem fairly obvious, but that doesn’t mean having evidence of it isn’t important. It’s concrete data that can be used to highlight why – for example – creationist intrusions in school are problematic.

    I also found the sort of “dose-response” curve interesting as well. These were all people who mostly accepted evolution; but the variation within that still produced some significant differences.

      Paul Braterman · 4th April 2016 at 11:04 pm

      “The ultimate conclusion does seem fairly obvious, but that doesn’t mean having evidence of it isn’t important. It’s concrete data that can be used to highlight why – for example – creationist intrusions in school are problematic.”

      Quite so. That’s also why the evidence needs to have merit

Adrian Graham · 4th April 2016 at 9:29 pm

Not an unexpected result although I presume, given that the population tested appears to have been highly WEIRD, worthy of further investigation.

    Adam Benton · 5th April 2016 at 12:46 pm

    That’s a good point; but I think it’s worth noting that in this case we’re interested in a highly WEIRD population: students and their understanding of biology. So it’s not as huge a problem as in studies with a broader scope.

Wyrd Smythe · 5th April 2016 at 6:11 pm

I’m really surprised… Wait… no, I mean the opposite of that.

Mike · 6th April 2016 at 12:06 am

“When I was at secondary school I spent more time learning about plants than Australopithecus.”

I would certainly hope so. I would hope that plants would get a few weeks from a high school biology course. I’m all for vastly increasing the time dedicated to evolution in biology courses, but I really don’t think Australopiths need weeks of class time in intro biology. Evolutionary biology is a vastly larger topic than the hominin fossil record.

    Adam Benton · 7th April 2016 at 12:00 pm

    However, numerous studies have shown that putting things in the context of “humans” makes biology easier to understand. Combine that with the fact that evolution is such a key part of biology and I think human evolution would provide an excellent framework for teaching biology.

    Not to say that it should only focus on human evolution. You could still teach all the stuff about plants we do now. But perhaps place it in the context of Homo erectus migrating around the world for the first time and encountering those plants.

    Of course, I’m no educator so I could be barking up the wrong tree entirely.

Tim · 7th April 2016 at 3:37 pm

I asked Dr. Jay Wile about this study. He has many times reported on studies contradicting this one. He had this to say:

“I haven’t read the study, Tim, but it seems to me that it would be hard to judge a person’s understanding of biology based on the three questions that were asked. The study definitely goes against the results of this study (http://scholar.google.com/scholar_url?url=http://www.academia.edu/download/30348903/Sinatra_et_al_JRST.pdf&hl=en&sa=X&scisig=AAGBfm1ilVMgalptwdfoRUuB-u9xyES9ZQ&nossl=1&oi=scholarr), which found that a student’s belief in evolution was not correlated with his or her understanding of it.

In addition, this blog post (https://iloveyoubutyouregoingtohell.org/2014/05/02/bill-nye-creationism-as-illiteracy/) from an evolution supporter discusses a book that gathers several statistics which show belief in evolution is not correlated with knowledge of biology.

Finally, I would point out the case of Patrick Henry College, whose students are mostly young-earth creationists but score very high on the ETS natural sciences test, which is heavily focused on biology (http://blog.drwile.com/?p=5323).”

Three separate sources, that confirm the opposite of this study. Thoughts?

    Adam Benton · 11th April 2016 at 3:08 pm

    I think the disconnect stems from the fact that these studies are testing slightly different things. The ones you quote are focused around basic biological comprehension, i.e. being able to answer a test well. The study I referenced was discussing the ability to apply those basic biological ideas to real world problems. Accepting evolution might be what helps someone apply this knowledge, hence the difference between these results.

    For an analogy, it might be like a doctor whose memorised medical textbooks but is just bad at spotting symptoms in people. So whilst he might score well on the tests, his application of medicine isn’t going to be that good.

    Of course, my attempt to reconcile these datapoints is hypothetical at the moment. However, this study is part of a larger one. Perhaps another paper they release from this data will shed light on this matter, one way or the other. For example, it might be interesting to see if there is a correlation between the number of biological concepts invoked in these discussions and the students grades’.

Don Nosworthy · 11th April 2016 at 4:44 am

As a result of evolutionary thought regarding vestigal organs the appendix, tonsils etc. were cut from our bodies at the drop of a hat and still are by some.They were useless organs supposedly because they were throw backs from our past. Hardly think this is progress – actually further study of these organs are needed to help us better retain them so they can perform as they should.

    Adam Benton · 11th April 2016 at 7:36 am

    Both tonsillectomies and appendectomies predate the theory of evolution. The former by thousands of years. So I don’t think you’ve got the cause and effect relationship quite right.

      Don Nosworthy · 13th April 2016 at 5:02 am

      Thanks for the reply. Darwin called vestigial organs “rudimentary,atrophied and aborted organs”. It was one of the main arguments in the Scopes trial used to support evolution and has been used extensively by evolutionists causing a huge increase in the removal of them by Doctors. Because they were considered to have no function Doctors often removed vestigial organs when doing other operations and I suspect still do. It’s time evolutionists fessed up.

        Adam Benton · 14th April 2016 at 6:08 pm

        So evolution didn’t ‘invent’ these surgeries; just increase their prevalence. Except that correlation doesn’t really exist either. Key moments in the history of these practices are linked with improvements in surgical practice; not evolution. Things like anaesthesia and better equipment; some of which also predate evolutionary thought.

        But whilst the causal link between the two might not be particularly strong; there’s still a relationship there. As your quote indicates. The significance of this being what, exactly?

        Don Nosworthy · 16th April 2016 at 1:20 am

        One is not debating when operations started or the methods used but the reasons for them. Obviously some are needed. If one believes that a body part is a vestigial structure the excisee may well think a favour is being done to excise it. At one stage evolutionists believed that over 150 structures were vestigial in the human body. They have now reduced this to a few and one can’t be sure that even these are vestigial. When exciseing a good structure one can hardly say “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”.

        Adam Benton · 16th April 2016 at 8:29 am

        If issues like this are enough to invalidate the relationship between biology and evolution; why pick something that – by your own admission – still may have some counter-examples?

        Alternatively, Darwin thought that when individuals mated their traits were mushed together; with the offspring having an “average” of those traits. That’s definitely wrong. Why not cite that instead?

Don Nosworthy · 16th April 2016 at 9:51 am

Adam you say that nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of evolution. What I am saying is that these types of statements are patently untrue and not very helpful in meaningful discussions. Stereotyping people would exclude Newton, Kepler and a host of other heroes of science if they were alive today. Let the experiments speak for themselves.

    Adam Benton · 16th April 2016 at 12:50 pm

    Ah yes Newton; who thought a stone could prevent death. Clearly an expert in biology.

    You seem to be missing what the phrase means. It’s not claiming that we cannot know anything about biology without evolution; but that evolution is necessary to put biological facts in the wider context. To link a series of seemingly disparate ideas into a whole that “makes sense.”

    As the essay from which that quote comes from notes (in a far more well written way than I could say it):

    “Seen in the light of evolution, biology is, perhaps, intellectually the most satisfying and inspiring science. Without that light it becomes a pile of sundry facts some of them interesting or curious but making no meaningful picture as a whole”

Don Nosworthy. · 21st April 2016 at 4:34 am

As I look through your site I am having trouble finding testable and repeatable experiments you relate to in seeking to prove particle to people evo. Can you name a couple of experiments where the genome is increased. These would be biological facts which would be considered by most people to be necessary to prove your overall assumption.

Leave your filthy monkey comments here.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.