Following in Darwin’s Footsteps to Teach the Public about Evolution

On the isles of the Galapagos, giant tortoises munch on cactus pads and native fruit, then spend hours resting. Thirty-pound iguanas—some a pale bubblegum pink, others splotchy yellow and black—bask in the sun. Blue-footed boobies preen their feathers and show off in a special mating dance surrounded by some of the 13 sparrow-sized finch species there.

These are the creatures Charles Darwin made famous. Many of them live only on these islands, a place today considered one of the world’s key diversity hotspots. With this as their backdrop, Penn researchers Michael Weisberg, professor and chair of the Philosophy department, and Deena Weisberg, a senior fellow in the Psychology department, delved into a new and unique project.

As scientists who study how people learn, they’re creating a documentary series about evolution, the aim of which is to grasp how much people really know about this subject and the best way to teach it. They traveled to the islands in December to shoot, then spent the next several months splicing together footage into short films about adaptation, variation, and natural selection using three different approaches: traditional documentary, cinema vérité, and a making-of style.

We really hope that projects like this help us understand where the public is, what blocks their ability to accept scientific knowledge, and how we can intervene in useful ways.

Michael Weisberg, professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy

Next, they plan to test the success of each and eventually crown a winner.

“Most science documentaries, if not all science documentaries, are extremely traditional,” M. Weisberg says. “One thing we’re curious about is if you make the science documentary look a little more cinematic, if you bring the audience into the scene somehow, could you actually teach science more effectively?”

The project began long before the pair landed on the island chain off Ecuador, with a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

A 2014 Gallup poll revealed that more than 40 percent of Americans believe in creationism, the idea that 10,000 years ago, God created humans in the form they exist today. Though the number of people who take the opposite view—that humans evolved, and with no help from a higher power—has doubled since 1999, the scientists still didn’t believe the veracity of such a high creationist percentage.

  Michael Weisberg, professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy

Michael Weisberg, professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy

Using the NSF grant, they partnered with Penn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center (where both Weisbergs are also affiliated) to build a survey with more pointed questions, including two ways of accepting evolution with an important role for God. The new questionnaire, posed to a nationally representative sample, yielded only 25 percent creationists.

Simultaneously, the team started contemplating how evolution reaches a broad public and garnered funding from Penn’s Online Learning Initiative. “The idea was, let’s isolate a couple of core evolutionary concepts and experiment with ways of presenting the material,” says M. Weisberg. Documentary filmmaking became their chosen method, and the Galapagos, their living laboratory.

“Being a set of islands, they’re a really good place for observing creatures that you wouldn’t see anywhere else and to see the ways that the environment can impact how a species changes over time,” D. Weisberg says. “We went there to try to follow in Charles Darwin’s footsteps.” But before they boarded a plane, they needed to understand what they were after.

 Following in Darwin’s Footsteps to Teach the Public about Evolution

Enter Sabrina Elkassas, Kelly Kennedy, and Emlen Metz.

Penn undergraduates Elkassas and Kennedy spent the spring 2015 semester conducting interviews about evolution, overseen by Metz, a fifth-year Psychology graduate student. They talked with Catholic priests and nuns, Muslim community members, and folks in retirement homes—anyone willing to broach the controversial subject.

“It was supposed to be the generalized American public, interviews of a randomized sample,” says Kennedy, a rising senior majoring in Psychology with a minor in Philosophy. “I was interviewing friends, family members. We were asking specifically about what thoughts the person had on the origins of life, what their beliefs were religiously.”

The research team came away with a broad range of specific answers but one overarching conclusion: “A lot of people have no idea what evolution is,” Metz says.

  The team films a scene in the Galapagos with Ernesto, their guide and on-camera talent.

The team films a scene in the Galapagos with Ernesto, their guide and on-camera talent.

From there, the two undergraduates spent the summer watching dozens of nature documentaries—any the professors could dig up from the past 30 years—pinpointing the most enlightening parts, noting different themes, clipping scenes to create a database from which to work. They also attempted treatments for each of the documentary styles, plus one for a control film about geological formation of the Galapagos.

M. Weisberg and D. Weisberg explain what distinguishes each approach.

“The traditional documentary style has voiceover narration, it has music, it’s paced rather slowly, it has wide shots,” he says. “The audience is told exactly what it should be seeing and thinking.”

Vérité filmmaking, developed in 1960s France, inspired the second style, D. Weisberg adds. “We’re going to make the viewer feel like he or she is actually there in the Galapagos,” she says. “Our guide will be talking directly to the camera as if talking to somebody there having a conversation with him.”

When they discuss the third, the behind-the-scenes style, both researchers get visibly excited. It was prompted, they say, by the popularity of reality television and the after-credits clips in nature docs revealing how filmmakers captured a scene.

“We’re going to use the discussions producers are having with the camera operator and the naturalist guide to actually narrate our film,” M. Weisberg says. “If we want people to notice the small differences among organisms, we’re not going to use narration, and we’re not even going have the guide [say it].”

“We actually think that might one of the most effective ways to convey this material,” he adds.

Soon they’ll know for sure; following completion of all documentaries, the team will assess the success of each using tests developed by Metz and D. Weisberg given to viewers before and after screening. They plan to start local, showing the trio of shorts to participants on Penn’s campus. Whenever possible, they’d like to conduct in-person interview tests; while more involved, these discussions tend to paint a deeper picture of people’s understanding. Eventually, they’ll release the set online.

Deena Weisberg, senior fellow in the Psychology department

Deena Weisberg, senior fellow in the Psychology department

The project is somewhere near its midpoint now, driven forward by the excitement of the scientists behind it, the multi-disciplinary approach afforded by Penn, and the prospect of making a true difference in the public’s scientific education.

“This is one of the first occasions that I know of where psychology is being used to iteratively test how good a program is at teaching the content it’s trying to convey,” D. Weisberg says. “The psychology [will] not only tell us whether people like it, but also whether they’re learning what they’re supposed to learn.”

And if they’re not, the Galapagos team can modify the films, M. Weisberg says.

“In this country science and scientists have very high prestige, but a couple of topics— evolution, climate change, the use of vaccines—continue to be controversial in the public while there is no controversy in the scientific community,” he says. “We really hope that projects like this help us understand where the public is, what blocks their ability to accept scientific knowledge, and how we can intervene in useful ways.”

  • Text by Michele Berger
  • Video by Rebecca Elias Abboud