Krista is a high school senior who lives in a Southern U.S. state. As one might guess, the vast majority of her classmates identify themselves as religious and regularly attend church.
She excels in the study of science. She is one of a handful of students in her school who is enrolled in an Advanced Placement biology course. She also volunteers as a “peer tutor” for students in a basic science course that covers the origin of the universe and the natural history of living organisms on earth.
Her goal is to become a veterinarian.
But she “rejects” evolution as contrary to her faith: God made “man” in “his own image”; to believe “that apes and humans have a common ancestor,” she states, “would be wrong.”
Krista was one of the subjects interviewed in the qualitative component of a study conducted by Ronald Hermann (2012), a researcher interested in the attitudes of students who learn evolutionary science but don’t “believe in” or “accept it.”
Hermann selected Krista for the interview, in fact, because she obtained a near-perfect score on an evolutionary-science test.
The test was the principal element of the quantitative component of Hermann’s study. His results in this respect corroborated what numerous previous studies have established: that there is no correlation between students’ “beliefs” about evolution and their comprehension of concepts such as natural selection, random mutation, and genetic variance.
Hermann’s motivating hypothesis was that students in Krista’s situation would display a form of intellectual resistance dubbed “cognitive apartheid” (Cobern 1996).
The “cognitive apartheid” thesis is an alternative to another position—“cognitive assimilation” let’s call it—that imagines that teaching non-believing students evolutionary science will “change their minds” about the role of divine agency in the creation of our species.
According to the “cognitive apartheid” view, religious students consciously and effortfully segregate evolutionary-science insights. They reliably summon them from some walled off mental “compartment” to pass their examinations but otherwise block integration of them into their mental lives and ultimately expel them altogether upon completion of their educations (Cobern 1996).
This account arguably fit the perspective of one of the students featured in the qualitative component of Hermann’s study.
“The science stuff we learn about evolution and stuff like that all the time,” explained Aidan, a star athlete with a 4.0 grade point average, “I understand it, but I definitely don’t believe in it.” “I just block it out and do it because, I mean, otherwise I fail or something like that, and I’m not going to sacrifice that.”
But “cognitive apartheid” clearly didn’t capture the complexity of Krista’s thinking
To be sure, she had elected, very self-consciously, to persist in her state of “disbelief” as a matter of religious conviction.
She recounted, for example, her abortive attempt to reconcile evolutionary science with her faith by positing the applicability of evolution to animals but not human beings. On reflection, she concluded that approach just “doesn’t work”—either for making sense of evolution or for preserving her “relationship with God” (“or whatever,” she adds; she is an honest-to-god teenager).
But at the same time, it was clear there was nothing about Krista’s adoption of this stance that entailed quarantining evolutionary science in some “exam use only” mental chamber or barring integration of it into her life goals generally.
Her willingness to tutor less advanced students, for example, hardly evinced the begrudging, “under protest” mindset that the “cognitive apartheid” model envisions.
Like Aidan, Krista did explain—in terms that showed she regarded the point as stunningly obvious—that she saw learning evolutionary science as essential to academic success: “For the AP bio test . . . you can’t write on there, God created humans and all the things cause they’ll just be, like, zero [score].”
But asked whether she therefore planned to put evolutionary science out of her mind once she had finished the course, her reply revealed that she viewed the answer to that question to be stunningly obvious, too: No, of course not, “cause I like animals” too much to “forget” evolution, and besides “I like learning about that stuff anyway.”
Both the “cognitive assimilation” and “cognitive apartheid” accounts envision “beliefs” as stand-alone mental objects that reflect simple “on/off,” “accept/reject” states in relation to states of affairs.
This picture makes little sense, though, as a psychological matter.
People’s minds are not proposition registries.
Rather they comprise multi-faceted ensembles of mental states—desires, emotions, moral appraisals, and the like—distinctly suited for enabling people to do things. When embedded in such complexes, beliefs cannot be identified with reference solely to their objects; they can be individuated only in relation to the actions they enable (cf. Hetherington 2011).
Krista’s life plan involves two goals: to be a person who has a particular religious identity; and to be a certain type of science-trained professional—a veterinarian.
A state of “disbelief in” evolution will be integral to the mental routines that enable her to achieve the former end: treating it as “wrong” to view apes and humans as having descended from a common ancestor will help her to maintain her “relationship with God” and, no doubt, a larger community of people who share a sense of the best way to live.
At the same time, a “belief” that animals evolved—that it “makes sense” to view “cats and dogs” as having “share[d] a common ancestor at some point,” and that it “doesn’t work” to think of human beings as being uniquely exempted from the same dynamics of speciation—will reside in the cluster of intentional states that enable her to be a science-trained professional.
In other words, like Everhart & Hameed’s Pakistani Dr (2013), she will, disbelieve evolution “at home,” and believe it “at work.” But she will experience these states as “entirely different things” because they cannot in fact be individuated independently of the action-enabling aggregations of mental states in which they are embedded.
The “cognitive apartheid” framework misleadingly suggests that the “knowledge” of evolution that a “nonbelieving” student like Krista acquires reflects a less genuine and lasting engagement than does the form of “belief” to which the “cognitive assimilation” view aspires.
The truth is that most of Krista’s classmates who profess “belief” in evolution will indeed quickly forget what they learned about the modern synthesis in high school–assuming they learned anything to begin with. Nor will they ever use that “belief” to do anything meaningful in their lives.
Krista, in contrast, will reliably use her retained comprehension of evolutionary science as necessary to be a good veterinarian.
Just as important, her genuine comprehension of the theory of evolution will inform her understanding of herself as a member of a profession whose expertise originates in the distinctive, scientific way of knowing that generated that theory, including its account of the natural history of human beings.
She’ll carry on a conversation in the morning with the scholarly researcher about her disbelief in evolution while making use of evolutionary insights to determine whether to tolerate or suppress the fever of the researcher’s ailing dog (LeGrand & Brown 2002).
Later in the day, she’ll nod agreeably as Kentucky Farmer explains why there’s no evidence for climate change as she treats his climate-change resilient genetically engineered chickens.
And because she really does love animals and “like[s] learning about that stuff anyway,” she’ll prop herself up comfortably in her study to read Bolhuis & Girladeau’s The Behavior of Animals: Mechanisms, Function and Evolution after returning home from church on Sunday.
This cognitive dualist stance toward evolution will not involve any contradiction in Krista’s “beliefs” so long as the practical ends enabled by the mental routines in which those beliefs reside do not themselves interfere with one another.
They obviously don’t have to. But they might.
To her immense disappointment, Krista might discover that she can’t both enjoy a religious identity in which denying evolution expresses her “relationship with God or whatever” and a professional one in which affirmation of evolution expresses her “love of animals” and her pleasure in “learning about stuff like” the “big bang” and natural selection.
If so, she tells the interviewer, she’ll “be upset.”
The source of this upsetting incompatibility, however, will not be any sort of logical or psychological contradiction.
Rather it will be an imperfection in the constitution of an aspiring Liberal Republic of Science that hasn’t yet acquired the knowledge, created the institutions, and cultivated the public mores necessary to quiet the forms of cultural status competition that force diverse citizens to choose between using their reason to know what is known by science and using it to express their defining moral commitments (Elsdon-Baker 2015; Hameed 2015; Kahan 2015; Long 2011; Kahan in press).
Bolhuis, J.J. & Giraldeau, L.-A. The behavior of animals: mechanisms, function, and evolution (Blackwell Malden MA, 2005).
Cobern, W.W. Worldview theory and conceptual change in science education. Science Education 80, 579-610 (1996).
Elsdon-Baker, F. Creating creationists: The influence of ‘issues framing’ on our understanding of public perceptions of clash narratives between evolutionary science and belief. Public Understanding of Science (2015).
Everhart, D. & Hameed, S. Muslims and evolution: a study of Pakistani physicians in the United States. Evo Education Outreach 6, 1-8 (2013).
Hermann, R.S. Cognitive apartheid: On the manner in which high school students understand evolution without Believing in evolution. Evo Edu Outreach 5, 619-628 (2012).
Hetherington, S.C. How to know : a practicalist conception of knowledge (J. Wiley, Chichester, West Sussex, U.K. ; Malden, MA, 2011).
Kahan, D.M. Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem. Advances in Political Psychology 36, 1-43 (2015).
Kahan, D.M. What is the “science of science communication?” J. Sci. Comm (in press).
LeGrand, E.K. & Brown, C.C. Darwinian medicine: applications of evolutionary biology for veterinarians. The Canadian Veterinary Journal 43, 556-559 (2002).
Long, D.E. Evolution and religion in American eduation : an ethnography (Springer, Dordrecht, 2011).