by Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 304pp. Hardback. $85.00/£50.00. ISBN: 9780521190466. Paperback. $27.99/£17.99. ISBN: 9780521148863. Adobe eBook. $22.00. ISBN: 9780511922251.

Reviewed by Michal Paris, Political Science, The College of Staten Island (CUNY). Email: Michael.Paris [at] csi.cuny.edu.

pp. 584-590

“No scientific generalization is more strongly supported by thoroughly tested [evidence] than is that of organic evolution.” So said a resolution of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the year 1922. Yet, as is well known, shortly thereafter, in 1925, there followed the Scopes Monkey Trial. For decades after that, communities across America banished evolution from high school biology classrooms. Susan Epperson’s successful establishment clause challenge to an Arkansas law that made it unlawful to teach Darwinian evolution did not end the controversy in 1968. Nor did Don Aguillard’s successful attack on a Louisiana law that required “balanced treatment” for “creation science” and “evolution” end it in 1987. Still, in the 1990’s, the national guardians of modern science in public education – for example, the National Academy of Science’s National Research Council – might have reasonably thought that they were pounding nails in the coffin when they pointedly argued that the scientific case for evolution had grown stronger by the decade, and that evolution was scientific fact, pure and simple, and not merely a hunch, an idea, or even “a theory” (Berkman and Plutzer, pp.14-15; 99-101; 145). But anti-evolutionism in America is like the wounded soldier who suffers defeat only to return to the fight with enhanced ardor (p.98, internal citation omitted). And so “scientific creationism” soon morphed into “intelligent design,” and controversies over evolution and state education standards erupted again, most notably in Kansas and Florida. In Dover, Pennsylvania in 2004, there were echoes the Scopes Monkey Trial when the competing sides faced off in federal court in the Kitzmiller case. A conservative judge nominated by George W. Bush dealt the anti-evolutionists yet another stinging legal defeat.

Why is there an ongoing political controversy when, according to an overwhelming scientific consensus based on overwhelming empirical evidence, there should be no controversy? What explains “the amazing durability of this conflict on the American scene” (p.3)? In this book, Berkman and Plutzer set out to unpack this puzzle and illuminate its multiple strands. They succeed. This is a very fine and nicely crafted book. It will be impossible here to do justice to the authors’ social scientific creativity and nuanced argument.

Most readers will approach the creationism/evolution controversy with the sense that this is one instance of what [*585] Laurence Tribe once said about the abortion issue: What we have here is a “clash of absolutes” that is in large measure impervious to reason and evidence. The secular and scientific consensus on evolution threatens the deeply held religious values of large numbers of people. After that, there really isn’t all that much to say.

Although there is some truth to this common wisdom, Berkman and Plutzer show, the story of evolutionary biology in the classroom is far more complicated and interesting. The authors’ contribution begins, as does much good social science, with some simple, important, and neglected questions: Who should decide what children learn in public schools? Who decides now? How are policies on teaching evolution made in the fifty states? How are they actually implemented (made?) at the point of contact in the classroom? Why do teaching practices take the shape and form that they do? To address these questions, the authors take us on a journey through America’s honeycombed system of educational politics and policymaking. We encounter some surprising facts, which in turn call for explanation, which in turn give rise to new questions, which in turn give rise to the need to dig out more facts. The heart of this book consists of results from a nationwide, six-page survey of 926 high school biology teachers conducted in 2007.

Berkman and Plutzer focus on first response to the question “who should decide?” The democratic answer is that the people should govern. Faith in democracy finds institutional reflection in traditions of federalism and local control in education. In a constitutional democracy, however, the people often don’t rule unproblematically, or without limit. When it comes to teaching evolution, democracy competes with roughly three other important sources of authority: (1) law and courts, (2) science and the views of policy experts, and (3) ideas about the professionalism and autonomy of teachers.

Chapter 1 offers a brief legal and policy history of the evolution conflict, taking us from Scopes to Kitzmiller. Law and courts scholars have often remarked that the implementation of judicial decisions is generally easier when a court says “stop doing x,” as opposed to “do x.” The creationism decisions bear this out. There is a constitutional boundary here. States cannot ban evolution or allow “creation science” or “intelligent design” (ID) to be taught. Lawmakers in state capitals respect this boundary, give or take a few momentary lapses, as do teachers in the nation’s classrooms, give or take a few outliers. At the same time, the authors remind us, the boundary has another, “permissive” side. The space narrowed by the law “still provides significant room” for a wide range of policies and practices (p.25). Do the people govern within this permissive zone?

In Chapter 2, Berkman and Plutzer turn to public opinion on teaching creationism and evolution. Some might find these facts surprising, or even jarring. After canvassing (and in some cases reanalyzing) all relevant polls and surveys over the past three decades, the authors conclude that a substantial majority of Americans endorse teaching both creationism and evolution. Indeed, five administrations of one survey since 1999 reveal that 38% of Americans say [*586] they would like “to replace scientific discussions of human origins with biblically inspired alternatives” (p. 36). Poll results consistently show that teaching evolution only (which is, after all, the official policy in all fifty states) comes in a distant third place to teaching both evolution and creationism or teaching creationism only. Teaching evolution only received as low as 12% support, and never came in at higher than 35% (pp.36-39). These opinions, the authors argue, have little to do with “irrationality” or “ignorance.” Support for creationism is rational in the minimal sense that it flows readily and coherently from broader belief systems. Even among the “scientifically literate,” public opinion still overwhelming favors teaching both (pp.49; 75-79). After this national overview, one might think that when it comes to teaching evolution there is a very large gap between public opinion (the democratic will, if one likes) and public policy. But that view would be radically incomplete, if not mistaken.

Berkman and Plutzer turn in Chapter 3 to explaining this observed pattern of public opinion. They describe “a nation divided by religion, education and place.” Support for creationism is the product of a century-old split between mainline Protestant denominations and doctrinally conservative ones. The split within Protestantism reflects profound differences in attitudes toward modernity, how to interpret the Bible, ideas about progress, and eschatoloty (premillennial vs. postmillennial). The authors draw on existing taxonomies of denominations and two surveys matching these denominations with opinions about evolution to uncover a pattern with significant implications for political mobilization. Only among Jews and people with “no religious affiliation” do we find firm opposition to creationism. Opinion within mainline Protestant and Catholic denominations is rather diverse, and often evenly split. Leaders of such religious formations will likely avoid the topic. Only within traditional Protestant churches is support for creationism nearly uniform and deeply felt – perfect conditions for political mobilization, notwithstanding repeated legal defeats (p.72). Levels of education do not have a strong impact on opinion, except for the fact that those with postgraduate degrees tend to strongly favor evolution. As for geography, the authors point out that anti-evolutionism is a national movement, although, as expected, it is strongest in South and the Midwest, where traditional Protestantism is most prevalent.

Chapter 3 also goes on to map public opinion in each of the fifty states. Here, the authors draw on nine studies with 9,533 respondents. Again, we find surprisingly limited support for teaching evolution only. Even in Massachusetts, the state most favorably disposed to evolution, and even taking the evidence in the light most favorable to support for evolution, no more than 47% support the consensus view among professional scientists (p.85). Support for teaching evolution only falls below 30% in about half the states. In each state, the authors conclude, public opinion on teaching evolution is strongly associated with (1) the percentage of the population holding masters or doctoral degrees, and (2) the percentage of the population affiliated with doctrinally conservative churches (p.87). [*587]

Having established what public opinion is, nationally and state-by-state, and discussing why it is what it is, Berkman and Plutzer move on to a stepwise examination of whether it matters, and if so, how? In Chapter 4, they draw on a thorough review of the quality of each state’s science standards as of 2000. They find a considerable range of different formal standards on the permissive side of the constitutional boundary. At one end of the spectrum, we have Kansas’s myopic denial of evolution (since reformed) or Iowa’s vague and meaningless verbiage (“students can understand relationships and concepts in biological science”). At the other end, we have states that fully embrace the rigor and elaboration of the scientific consensus. The best single source for this scientific consensus, a gold standard for science standards, the authors note, is the National Research Council’s “National Science Education Standards” (NSES) (1996) (p.100). What explains this wide variation in quality? Berkman and Plutzer compare the explanatory power of two models, a “technical” one in which science and bureaucratic autonomy determine policy, and a “responsive” one in which public opinion does. Interestingly, they find that the technical model explains variation for subjects in science other than evolution, but the responsive model holds for evolution (p.110). “In states where a majority of the public are hostile toward evolution,” the authors write, “the standards tend to be cursory and vague…” (p.113). So public opinion is related to state standards. But do the state standards determine what happens in the classroom? To answer that question Berkman and Plutzer needed to know what happens in the classroom, and what might explain variation in what happens in the classroom.

In Chapter 5, the authors describe their national survey of biology teachers (with 926 respondents) and report both quantitative and qualitative data from it. They asked teachers to state how much time they spent each year covering “evolutionary processes,” “human evolution,” and “creationism or intelligent design.” They also asked several questions designed to probe how close teachers’ beliefs and practices were to the scientific consensus’s gold standard, as defined by the National Research Council’s NSES document – questions about whether teachers believed that evolution has the status of scientific fact, believed that one cannot understand biology and several related fields without understanding evolution, and believed that evolution is properly regarded as a unifying theme in science. They found significant variation in time spent on evolution and in teaching content and methods, especially when it comes to “human evolution.” Seventeen percent of their respondents did not cover human evolution at all, while another 35% spent only 1-2 hours on it (p.123). When they combined “evolutionary processes” with “human evolution,” Berkman and Plutzer found that the average teacher spent a total of 14 hours on it, and only 1% of the respondents excluded it entirely. When it comes to how close the content of teaching evolution comes to the scientific consensus, Berkman and Plutzer report that teachers are “divided roughly 50-50 between those who embrace the national organization’s recommended pedagogical approach and those who do not.” However, only 12% “are teaching evolution in a manner [*588] totally consistent with the recommendations of the most prominent national scientific organizations” (p.127).

Many teachers sought to undermine evolution, or to avoid controversy, by confining instruction to “microevolution” (within species changes), by leaving evolution to the end of the course so as to give it short shrift, or by explicitly stating that students need not believe in evolution in order to learn about it as a theory (the authors wonder what would happen if a science teacher told students that he or she did not care whether students actually believed that light simultaneously has the properties of waves and discrete particles) (p.133). Seventy-five percent of the respondents reported spending no time at all on creationism or ID, but 22% reported spending at least some time on them. Berkman and Plutzer estimate that between 14-21% of all teachers are endorsing creationism or ID in some fashion, mainly by presenting it along with evolution as if the two views were akin to competing ideas or theories. Either both are “scientific models,” or both are “religion,” but either way evolution is undermined.

Why is it that some teachers spend over 20 hours on evolution and adhere to the scientific consensus on how to teach it, while others barely mention it? How much of the variation might be explained by different state standards and accountability mechanisms? How much by teachers’ educational backgrounds, training, and professional identities? How much by their personal beliefs? What is the role of local community opinion, or pressure?

Berkman and Plutzer place their discussion of teachers’ beliefs and practices in the broader context of work on street-level bureaucracy (Lipsky, 1980). In Chapter 6, they ask whether differences in state standards (viewed now in 2007 based on their own analysis) explain differences in teaching practices. They find that, for the most part, they do not (p.174). By contrast, teachers’ self-rated expertise correlates well with time spent on evolution and the rigor of instruction (p.171). In Chapter 7, the authors turn to how “the personal becomes pedagogical.” They test various models designed to explore the role of two central personal characteristics: educational background and personal beliefs. They find that the educational backgrounds of high school biology teachers varies a lot – only 51% have earned a bachelor’s degree in science – and it seems to explain a lot of the variance. One interesting finding is that a teacher’s having taken a full college course in evolutionary biology appears to have the largest impact, compared to other measures of educational background and training. This finding and others in this chapter direct our attention to teacher training and certification (p.182). It is possible that changes in training and certification could improve instruction (my thought was that stronger requirements couldn’t hurt), but it is also possible that core religious beliefs and self-selection come before and trump formal training. Another regression model shows that “not only do personal beliefs influence instruction, they also have a stronger impact than any other factor [the authors] have examined. At the end of the day, beliefs are the most powerful predictor for teachers on both sides of the divide (pp.186, 189). [*589]

Does that mean that teachers are simply and only free agents? Not exactly. In Chapter 8, Berkman and Plutzer conclude their empirical inquiry with a look at the relationship between teachers and their local communities. Using denominational membership data and data on the percentage of the local population holding advanced degrees, they construct a scale of local culture ranging from “traditionalism” to “cosmopolitanism.” They show that teachers’ personal beliefs about evolution are strongly related to school district characteristics. What is at work here is a process akin to “assortive mating” in decisions about whom to marry. Here, what is going on is “assortive hiring and retention.” Teachers tend to look for work within fifteen miles of where they grew up, and districts tend to hire teachers who will “harmonize and fit in with the prevailing local culture” (pp.199-200). Teachers, districts, and local residents share values. Overt community pressure is very rare, because often there is no home/school conflict (pp.202-207). Moreover, even when community opinion is diverse, teachers develop ways of avoiding conflict. For example, they might never say the word “evolution,” preferring instead to say “change over time.”

Berkman and Plutzer began with the question “who decides?” An exhaustive review of public opinion on teaching evolution seemed to reveal that official policy was wildly out of line with public opinion. Law and science seemed to have won the day. However, closer inspection state-by-state opinion, state policies, and classroom practices revealed a fair amount of “bottom-up, democratic control,” produced through “multiple mechanisms” (p.213). Teachers’ views reflect the culture of the communities they serve, and those communities are increasingly divided by religion and education. About 20% of all teachers embrace the scientific consensus and another 20% or so consistently seek to undermine it. That leaves an ambivalent 60% in the middle, groping their way cautiously through the minefield. This controversy, with its “thousands of potential arenas of conflict,” is “distinctly American.” The nature and role of religion and political decentralization in education ensure that the conflict will continue.

One neglected theme in this work is the possible role of race and its relationship to religion and politics (cf: Wadsworth, 2008). The authors note that traditional Protestant black churches are every bit as supportive of creationism as their white counterparts (pp.71-72), but, interestingly, they are not politically mobilized on the evolution issue. The authors surmise that evolution would not be a high priority for traditional black churches, but they leave it at that. They also note that their national sample underrepresents teachers teaching in schools with substantial minority student populations (pp.118-19). Race was not included as a variable in the many regression analyses in this book (or maybe it was but didn’t yield any interesting result, so the results were not reported). In any event, more sustained attention to race might have filled out the picture. To be provocative about this point, I’m wondering whether the strongest proponents of creationism are not also those most ardently devoted to the survival of white supremacy. If so, would that matter? Are evolution and a [*590] sense of white racial victimization part of the same larger complex of underlying beliefs?

This minor quibble aside, this book has many great virtues. Berkman and Plutzer strike exactly the right balance between, on the one hand, revealing their thought processes, describing the operationalization of their variable, explaining their regression models, and the like, and, on the other hand, sustaining a lively, engaging narrative discussion that keeps the reader engaged and thinking and learning along with them. I would think that anyone teaching a methods course, whether at the undergraduate or graduate level, would want to take a close look at this book to consider it for course adoptions. Scholars of law and courts will like this book as a model of how legal decisions can be placed in broader public opinion and policy environments through careful quantitative analyses. Berkman and Plutzer’s argument shows how legal ideas and rules can do real boundary work, and can reframe the terms of conflicts, without tightly determining policies and outcomes. If we read only the law, we won’t begin to understand what is really going on. Finally, many people who study education will want to read this book. The authors are constantly framing their analyses in broader bodies of research on what teacher do and why, and, beyond that, research on street-level bureaucracy. Anyone concerned about state education standards, curriculum, and teaching practices is likely to find a plethora of substantive and methodological ideas and insights here.

Lipsky, Michael. 1980. Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Service. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Wadsworth, Nancy D. 2008. “Reconciling Fractures: The Intersection of Race and Religion in United States Political Development,” in Joseph Lowndes, Julie Novkov, and Dorian T. Warren, eds., Race and American Political Development. New York: Routledge.

Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987).
Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968).
Kitzmiller v. Dover School District, 400 F. Supp.2d 707 (M.D. Pa 2005).

© Copyright 2011 by the author, Michal Paris.