Biology and Misconceptions:
Assessing Student Attitudes and Beliefs
Regarding Evolution and Creationism

Eric Brahinsky
University of Texas at San Antonio
IDS 3003: Science and Humanity
April 1997

Biology and Misconceptions:
Assessing Student Attitudes and Beliefs
Regarding Evolution and Creationism

Thomas Lord and Suzanna Marino present in their 1993 article “How University Students View the Theory of Evolution” the results of a survey they administered on the topic. Lord and Marino provide copious commentary regarding the questionnaire and the implications of its results to biology education.

The questionnaire (Lord & Marino, 1993) was originally published by Bergman in 1979 under the title “Survey: The Attitude of University Students Toward the Teaching of Creationism and Evolution in Schools.” The survey contained ten questions, of which five called for a yes-or-no answer and the remaining five called for a choice from among multiple responses.

Lord and Marino (1993), an associate professor and a research assistant, respectively, at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, administered the survey to 392 university students in western Pennsylvania. They report that the respondents were fairly evenly divided by gender and among the four undergraduate classifications; all had been taught the theory of evolution in high school and had discussed it in college. Most (over 85%) had attended public schools prior to college.

The authors (Lord & Marino, 1993) conclude that misconceptions about evolution exist in a number of aspects and on several levels. Many students (28.0%) indicated by their responses to one question that they simply did not believe in the modern theory of evolution. Overall, 99.7% professed a belief either for or against the theory; yet when presented with a question allowing them to choose from among five proposed one-sentence summaries of the theory, an extremely low percentage, 7.1%, chose the proper response: “Evolution occurred because different individuals better fitted for the environment left larger numbers of offspring” (Bergman survey [as cited in Lord & Marino]; Lord & Marino, 1993, Table 1, p. 354). Disturbingly, the most frequently chosen response (42.4%) to the question asserted that “evolution involved a purposeful striving toward higher forms (that is steady progress from microbes to man).”

Several questions addressed the subject of creationism (Lord & Marino, 1993). Over 37% of respondents believed it had “a valid scientific foundation” (Bergman survey [as cited in Lord & Marino]; Lord & Marino, 1993, Table 1, p. 354), though only about 11% insisted its predictions are testable. Almost 67% of respondents felt there was a place for creationism in public schools, although only about 31% said its place was in a biology class.

The authors (Lord & Marino, 1993) did note a positive trend: There was a notably greater proportion of desired responses among juniors and seniors as compared to freshmen and sophomores. Their only mention of gender is a brief remark that differences in responses by gender were “not statistically significant” (p. 355).

Lord and Marino (1993) do report at some length on an earlier study, carried out by Zimmerman in 1987, which presented a similar questionnaire to high school biology teachers in Ohio. Lord and Marino seemed more deeply troubled by the results of the teacher survey than by their own survey of students. “About 90 percent of the biology courses taught by the teachers,” they report (p. 354), “included a substantial evolutionary component.” Yet, “almost 25 percent of the biology instructors thought that evolution involved the purposeful striving of an organism toward a higher, more complex form of life,” and “17 percent . . . felt that creationism was built on a strong scientific foundation and included ‘creation science’ as part of their evolution unit.”

I gravitated without hesitation to this article when it appeared on the ERIC search: Misconceptions concerning evolution are a pet peeve of mine. I found the quality of the survey very good; that of Lord and Marino’s article presenting it to be fairly good; but neither to be exceptional. One objection to the survey was the way the arguably pivotal question of the ten--the one asking for the respondent’s “impression of the modern theory of evolution” (Bergman survey [as cited in Lord & Marino]; Lord & Marino, 1993, Table 1, p. 354)--was presented. Five choices are offered--but not “none of the above.” It is true that the question begins with “Which of the following best agrees with your impression” [italics added], but what if a respondent had an idea radically different from any of the choices? Including “None of the above” or “Other” would have addressed such a possibility. (Also, obviously, the student had the alternative of not responding to the question.) I am also slightly troubled by the considering of “Survival of the fittest” (p. 354) as a “wrong” response. Granted, it is imperfect, an oversimplification, but it is a good catch phrase, more likely to be remembered by students than the more precise (but remarkably similar) “Individuals better fitted for the environment left larger numbers of offspring” (p. 354).

As for the article (Lord & Marino, 1993) itself, I have a number of objections to an otherwise important and well-intentioned work. To begin with, the published article has surprisingly many typographical errors: misspellings; missing or misused punctuation; at least two examples of missing words or phrases. Surely, the editors of the journal are more to blame for this than the authors, but it is distracting nonetheless. I question as well the very title of the article: “How University Students View the Theory of Evolution.” There is a reason Bergman, the creator of the survey, called it “The Attitude of University Students Toward the Teaching of Creationism and Evolution in Schools” [italics added] (Bergman survey [as cited in Lord & Marino]; Lord & Marino, 1993, p. 357), and why creationism is mentioned first: of the ten questions, six deal with creationism, religion, or morality. I suggest that Lord and Marino should have mentioned creationism in their title not merely out of respect for or homage to Bergman, but as acknowledgement that it was what the survey they administered was largely about.

Just who authored the article, anyway? The byline (Lord & Marino, 1993, p. 353) reads “Thomas Lord and Suzanna Marino,” yet the only two photos (pp. 353, 356) accompanying the article show a male and identify him as “the author”--not “one of the authors” or “co-author Professor Thomas Lord.” If Marino merely assisted, perhaps the byline should have read “Thomas Lord, with Suzanna Marino.”

The authors (Lord & Marino, 1993) never mention when their survey was taken. Presumably it was not long before the article’s publication, but it wouldn’t have hurt to have included such a fundamental point of information.

One bit of statistical data struck me as particularly odd and perhaps should have earned a “raised-eyebrow” mention by the authors: 68.5% of respondents said they “think the modern theory of evolution has a valid scientific foundation,” while 37.2% “think that creationism has a valid scientific foundation” (Bergman survey [as cited in Lord & Marino, 1993]; Lord & Marino, 1993, Table 1, p. 354). (These responses come from two different questions.) Thus at least 5.7% believe both have valid scientific foundations. This is puzzling, as they are essentially contradictory. (Shades of 1984?)

I reserve for last my greatest criticism of the authors (Lord & Marino, 1993). They relate (p. 353) the tale of a recent U.S. Supreme Court case originating in Louisiana wherein the family of a schoolboy challenged a science teacher who had “ridiculed [the boy] in front of the class for saying that he didn’t believe humans had come from monkeys.” Predictably, and appropriately, the authors chastise both sides: the boy (and his family, church, and community, who had rallied around him) for his belief in creationism, and also the teacher, for saying humans evolved from monkeys. But there’s more to it. Two sentences after the one about how humans had allegedly come from monkeys, Lord and Marino tell the reader that “the parent’s [sic] position was that humans . . . had never evolved from apes as the teacher had taught.” Apes? Maybe the boy had said “monkeys,” but the teacher had actually said “apes.” But three sentences later, Lord and Marino state, “The more surprising issue . . . is the position taken by the science teacher; [sic] that human beings evolved directly from monkeys [italics added]. The case sadly illustrates that misconceptions about evolution sometimes reside in those who are teaching about it.” How true! Perhaps this would include a biology professor writing an article about evolution and misconceptions in a scholarly journal, who uses monkeys and apes interchangeably??

The article is important and reveals disturbing trends. The research was mostly good, but it deserved a somewhat better journalistic presentation.


Lord, T., & Marino, S. (1993). How university students view the theory of evolution. Journal of College Science Teaching, 22, 353-357.