Does Reading "Inherit the Wind" Really Help Students Learn about Evolution (Part 2)

The Ascent of Man with a Religious TwistNote: This is second part of a two-part series. The first part ended by asking: “just what is the ‘intended effect’ of Inherit the Wind?

The play, as the one professor suggested, is trying to get people to think. It specifically wants them to think about and consider the possibilities of evolution and creationism, even if they are inclined to believe in one more than the other. Personally, I think that this is a great goal. I think that toleration, and perhaps even acceptance of both views is necessary for achieving positive progress in the world and in the sciences. Thus, as this website is named Planetsave, I think it’s necessary that people be able to appreciate both perspectives if we are in fact to save the planet.

An understanding of biology and its essential driver, evolution, is probably a necessary precursor for truly beginning to understand that species and resources are not renewable. The discovery of evolution makes me believe that we can to some extent understand how the world works through science. On the other hand, for me personally, it is utterly arrogant to outrightly deny the possibility of there being a god or some other kind of higher power.

Atheism, the denial of there being a god, is an extreme perspective that I’m finding harder to appreciate. Agnosticism, the uncertainty of whether or not there is a god, I find to be the healthier perspective. I don’t have any proof that there is a god (and neither does anyone else despite what they might say), but at the same time, the complex and detailed relationships between plants and animals make me think that how they were created is too amazing to have simply arisen from a random series of events. This perspective demands me to believe that science cannot solve all of the world’s problems, and that we won’t find the answers to all of our questions about life, so instead we have to sometimes rely upon our faith in our fellow people and the idea that there is a higher power at work.

Of course, my personal views are just that: personal. But I think that the dilemma I have in reconciling science and religion is what Inherit the Wind is striving for: tolerance of other peoples’ views. The study I previously mentioned gives me reason to believe that, unfortunately, the play does not achieve its goal. Once again to provide a gentle reminder, that goal would be to have students who are more religious and believe in creationism to perhaps consider evolution a little more closely, and for those students who are less religious to consider the ideas of creationism with an open mind.

The study I’ve been mentioning was published in 2006 and attempted to understand how easy it would be to communicate credible information about a topic, and change someone’s pre-existing beliefs. Published in the journal of Society and Natural Resources, the article was called “Evidence of biased processing of natural resource-related information: A study of attitudes toward drilling for oil in the arctic national wildlife refuge” (subscription required). The researchers discovered that it wasn’t easy to change college students pre-existing perspectives about drilling for oil in the refuge, even after the students read well-articulated, balanced opposing arguments about the issue. The pre-existing attitudes research participants had before being exposed to the treatment in this experiment were similar at post-test, if not even strengthened with the information that was provided in the study. In other words, those people who were respectively for and against drilling for oil believed that their opinions were bolstered by the two sets of opposing arguments presented in the questionnaires they completed.

The study suggests to me that the controversial issues debated in Inherit the Wind probably aren’t making some students ponder new perspectives. In fact, students may be more inclined to belief more strongly in what they originally thought! Of course, we won’t really know the answer until a conservation social scientist or some or type of researcher comes along and completes a study more directly related to the play. She or he would do it by administering a questionnaire to students. It would measure their attitudes about evolution and creationism prior to reading Inherit the Wind. Then perhaps 5 months later the researcher would distribute the same questionnaire again to the same students, to examine how their attitudes had changed. If someone conducted this kind of study, then we’d really be able to debate Inherit the Wind as a teaching tool, rather than leaving it to anecdotal evidence and speculation. We would know if the play’s message resonates, and if it really does contribute to a more tolerant and educated America.

Click here to read Part 1 of “Does Reading Inherit the Wind Really Help Students Learn about Evolution?”

Image Credit: latvian at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

1 thought on “Does Reading "Inherit the Wind" Really Help Students Learn about Evolution (Part 2)”

  1. Levi, I don’t know whether you will see comments from this “relatively old” post, but I just want to say that I thought it was really well done and I just used it as a link to one of my posts. I wish more people talked about the issue as calmly and logically as you did.

    Steve Savage

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