Teaching evolution in Kentucky, 2: The Case of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

The thing about teaching is we are never sure we are making a difference.

Jim Krupa takes evolution as his central theme when he teaches biology to non-majors at the University of Kentucky, where the students are most unlikely to have heard about evolution in school, but may well have been warned about its wickedness in church. With his permission, I am posting an article that he wrote in Orion Magazine describing his experiences. The first part dealt with the challenges he faces. This second part describes his response, which centres on a discussion of the nature of scientific reasoning, followed by the case study (described in greater detail[1]in’s American Biology Teacher), and concludes with a discussion of outcomes. Notice how many misconceptions Jim demolishes on the way, including confusion about the  role of theory in science, the curious but widespread belief that evolution science is without practical application, and (particularly important in his local context) the claim that accepting evolution is incompatible with religion.

Jim teaches, and touches the lives of, 1800 students a year – enough, over time, to flip a good few school districts and make a real difference to the cultural climate of the State. And we can be sure that his students will have plenty to talk about with their friends.

Defending Darwin (continued)

By James Krupa


The (now-extinct) Ivory-build Woodpecker, central to Prof Krupa’s case study

ONCE I LAY DOWN the basics of science, I introduce the Darwinian theories of evolution. Charles Darwin was by no means the first or only to put forth evolution; others came before him including his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, who wrote about descent with modification. Later, while Charles was amassing evidence in England for natural selection, one of the most eloquent scientific theories ever, Alfred Russel Wallace was also developing the same theory during his travels in Indonesia. But it was Charles Darwin alone who advanced the theory of descent with modification, with his bold idea that all species belong to the same tree of life and thus share a common ancestor. He also gave us sexual selection theory, which explains how evolution is shaped by competition for mates as well as choice of mates. Too often only natural selection and descent with modification are emphasized in introductory biology classes. I also cover Darwin’s theories of gradualism (including the nuance of punctuated equilibrium); descent from a common ancestor; multiplication of species; and sexual selection. I emphasize that five of the theories explain the patterns of evolution, while natural and sexual selection are the mechanisms that drive evolution.


The Piliated Woodpecker, closely related to the Ivory-billed

Once the two essential strands of the class have been presented—the basic tenets of science and evolutionary ­theory—it’s time to tie the two together and thread them through the rest of the semester. I choose examples that will catch the class’s attention, such as the plight of the ivory-billed woodpecker, also known as the Lord God Bird due to its magnificent appearance. The story of the bird’s decline from habitat loss and hunting, and the failed efforts to save it from extinction, is riveting and heartbreaking. It pulls students in as we discuss how evolution can explain why this North American bird is so similar to a group of large South American woodpeckers, as well as Old World “ivorybills.” Students have to generate hypotheses that explain this phenomenon, and determine what evidence is needed to support or refute their hypotheses. They use a fact-gathering approach, plus all the Darwinian theories, to explain how and why these similar groups of big woodpeckers, many with sturdy white bills, live on three continents. Both scientific approach and evolutionary theory are now intertwined—an approach that is, in my opinion, essential for the teaching of biology at all levels. It does not shy away from public resistance to evolution education but stares it directly in the eye. To this end, I include a section on human evolution, a topic that, somewhat surprisingly, is avoided by many who teach evolution.


But the Imperial Woodpecker is less closely related. How do we know this? And how might such a strong resemblance have come about? Take Prof Krupa’s class and find out

Rarely do I have a Kentucky student who learned about human evolution in high school biology. Those who did usually attended high schools in large urban centers like Louisville or Lexington. Given how easily it can provoke parents, the teaching of human evolution is a rarity in high school, so much so in Kentucky that it startled me when I first arrived. I had naively assumed it was something all students learned. I was fortunate to have attended Omaha Central High School in Nebraska, where the science teachers were excellent, and inspiring as well. They never sidestepped controversial ­topics relevant to their science. One teacher in particular—Creighton Steiner, the equivalent of my Funkhouser, and whom I regret not thanking in time before his passing—taught biology, earth science, and anthropology. One semester of his anthropology class was devoted entirely to human evolution. Steiner’s fascination with evolution ignited my passion for the subject. He was the first person to tell me about the age-old clash between science and religion, and how evolution was now at the heart of the conflict. He helped me realize that defending science and evolution is an obligation.

Australopithecus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus—I want my students to know these amazing beings, as well as the many more that have been discovered since my school days.

Human evolution is the greatest of all stories. It explains how we came to be. To weave the story of our ancestors and their evolutionary contributions to our existence is an exciting part of the semester. Australopithecus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus—I want my students to know these amazing beings, as well as the many more that have been discovered since my school days. The story of our evolutionary history captivates many of my students, while infuriating some. During one lecture, a student stood up in the back row and shouted the length of the auditorium that Darwin denounced evolution on his deathbed—a myth intentionally spread by creationists. The student then made it known that everything I was teaching was a lie, and stomped out of the auditorium, slamming the door behind him. A few years later during the same lecture, another student also shouted out from the back row that I was lying. She said that no transitional fossil forms had ever been found—despite my having shared images of many transitional forms during the semester. Many of her fellow students were shocked by her combativeness, particularly when she stormed out, also slamming the door behind her. Most semesters, a significant number of students abruptly leave as soon as they realize the topic is human evolution.

My classes provide an abundance of examples of how evolutionary theory explains biological phenomena, with evolutionary medicine surfacing toward the end of the semester. I focus on four basic points: our evolutionary legacy influences present-day health problems; overuse of antibiotics is causing pathogens to evolve resistance; treating conditions (fever, coughing, sneezing, diarrhea, vomiting) as symptoms of an illness can harm our health, while treating these conditions as adaptations and leaving them to run their course (unless they’re acute) can benefit our health; and how the ecological phenomenon of “corridors” (not washing hands, openly sneezing and coughing, shaking hands, unprotected sex) causes pathogens to spread easily, permitting them to evolve greater virulence, while maintaining “barriers” (washing hands, covering your mouth when sneezing and coughing, not shaking hands, using condoms) causes pathogens to evolve lower virulence.

If mild fever evolved as an adaptation to “cook” pathogens, and coughing, sneezing, and diarrhea evolved to expel them, then it is unwise to use medications to suppress these adaptations. Similarly, if a virulent strain can kill a host and escape to another via a corridor, greater virulence evolves. If, however, a barrier prevents spread of this pathogen, the most virulent die along with their host, leaving only less virulent forms to survive.

Students realize that not understanding evolution can have severe consequences to their health.

Evolutionary medicine brings the significance of evolution home. Students realize that not understanding evolution can have severe consequences to their health. If everyone understood that pathogens evolve (not develop) resistance to antibiotics when used excessively and unnecessarily, we would have fewer problems with ineffective antibiotics and highly resistant pathogens.

To explain evolutionary legacy, I point out that our physiology evolved for a hunter-gatherer diet and is not adapted for the modern Western diet, which is one reason obesity, diabetes, and other health issues are a growing problem. I also point out that a significant percentage of my students experience lower back problems—a seemingly odd phenomenon for such a young crowd. The explanation is that the vertebrate spine evolved 500 million years ago as a horizontal support structure from which internal organs hung (essentially a suspension bridge to oppose the forces of gravity). But seven million years ago, our ancestors evolved into upright walking creatures with vertical spines. Our spines no longer offset the pull of gravity, leaving our internal organs to push on our lower extremities. With the horizontal support structure gone, we are left to deal with lower back pain, ruptured disks, hemorrhoids, hernias, and varicose veins.

There are those who remain convinced that evolution is a threat to their religious beliefs. Knowing this, I feel an obligation to give my “social resistance to evolution” lecture as the final topic.

AFTER A SEMESTER filled with evidence of evolution, capped off with a dose of evolutionary medicine, one might expect that every last student would understand it and accept it as fact. Sadly, this is not the case. There are those who remain convinced that evolution is a threat to their religious beliefs. Knowing this, I feel an obligation to give my “social resistance to evolution” lecture as the final topic.

This lecture lays down the history of the antiscience and anti-evolution movements, the arguments made by those opposing evolution, and why these arguments are wrong. I make it clear that one can accept evolution and maintain their religious beliefs. They are not mutually exclusive. Among the religious groups and organizations that support the teaching of evolution are the Episcopal Church, Lutheran World Federation, United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church, United Unitarian Universalists, Roman Catholic Church, and the American Jewish Congress. In fact, 77 percent of all American Christians belong to a denomination that supports the teaching of evolution, and several high-profile evangelical Christians are ardent defenders of it, including former President Jimmy Carter and Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health. Even Pope John Paul II acknowledged the existence of evolution in an article he published in The Quarterly Review of Biology, in which he argued that the body evolved, but the soul was created. Pope Francis has made it clear that he accepts evolution as well.

This lecture should put students at ease knowing that religion and science need not be at odds. Of all the lectures I give, this one provokes the most discussion after class. And yet it often results in students expressing concern that I might not be saved. I never say anything about my personal religious beliefs, yet it is assumed I am an atheist. One student told me she hoped I could find God soon. When I again pointed out that John Paul accepted evolution—and he certainly wasn’t an atheist—the student countered that Catholics aren’t Christians. Several simply let me know they will be praying for me and praying hard. One student explained that as a devout Catholic he had no choice but to reject evolution. He accused me of fabricating the pope’s statements. When I explained that he could go to the Vatican website for verification or call the Vatican to talk to a scientist, he insisted that there was no such information available from the Vatican. He then pointed his finger at me and said the only way he would believe me is if Pope John Paul II came to my class to confirm these quotes face-to-face. The student then stomped out, again slamming the auditorium door behind him.

The thing about teaching is we are never sure we are making a difference. We never know how many students have been reached. What I have never come to grips with is that no matter how hard I try to be the best teacher I can, I will fail to connect with some students. Every time a student stomps out of my auditorium slamming the door on the way, I can’t help but question my abilities. Based on evaluations from the 24,000 students I’ve taught, 8 percent of my students simply detest me, but 90 percent love my class. That makes me one of the most hated and loved professors at the university.

[T]o shy away from emphasizing evolutionary biology is to fail as a biology teacher.

I’m occasionally told my life would be easier if I backed off from my relentless efforts to advance evolution education. Maybe so. But to shy away from emphasizing evolutionary biology is to fail as a biology teacher. I continue to teach biology as I do, because biology makes sense only in the light of evolution.

And it’s a message that sometimes gets through. There’s one student I can remember in particular, who took my freshman seminar on evolutionary medicine. He was an ardent evangelical Christian who believed in the literal truth of biblical creation. The seminar was very hard on him, and he struggled with the information, questioning and doubting everything we read. Several years later, our paths crossed, and we stopped for what turned out to be a long, easy chat. Now a doctor, he explained to me that, at the time, he was so upset with my seminar that he attended a number of Creationists’ public lectures for evidence I was wrong. He said he found himself embarrassed by how badly these individuals perverted Christian teachings, as well as known facts, to make their argument. He wanted me to know that he came to understand he could be a Christian and accept evolution. Then he did something that resonates with any teacher: he thanked me for opening his eyes, turning his world upside down, and blurring the line between black and white.

Hear a conversation with James J. Krupa about his experience teaching evolution.

James J. Krupa has won several national and state teaching awards, as well as every major teaching award at the University of Kentucky, where he is a tenured professor of biology.

1]Scientific Method & Evolutionary Theory Elucidated by the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Story, James J. Krupa,

Illustrations from Delaware Museum of Natural History via the above-referenced article and Jim Krupa.

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on January 5, 2019, in Accommodationism, Creationism, Education, Evolution, Science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Wow great read!
    What in your opinion are some of the best examples of evolution we can point to in order to show creationists that evolution is real?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent, Paul! The real “been there, done that” type of stories are really grabbing. Thanks for putting this out.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I salute Prof James J Krupa! Thank you for telling us about him.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “I make it clear that one can accept evolution and maintain their religious beliefs. They are not mutually exclusive. Among the religious groups and organizations that support the teaching of evolution are …” etc.

    There is a problem with this: Those religious groups that “accept” evolution really don’t accept evolution; they accept a bowderlized, fake evolution, and it shows in the surveys. It’s called “God-guided” evolution.

    38% say “God created humans in present form.”

    38% say “Humans evolved, WITH GOD GUIDING.”

    ONLY 19% agree with, “Humans evolved, but God had no part in the process.”


    Only 19% of people surveyed agree with Darwin and modern biologists. That is the direct result of religion.

    Imagine if 38% said, “AIDS is God’s judgement,” 38% said, “AIDS is caused by a virus, but God made it,” and only 19% said, “AIDS is caused by an evolved retrovirus of primates.”

    Imagine if 38% said, “Earth is flat and the center of a system around which the sun revolves,” and 38% said, “Earth is a spheroid revolving around the Sun, but God pushes it around the Sun,” and only 19% said, “Earth is a spheroid revolving around the Sun according to laws of gravity.”

    Imagine it. The fact is, anyone in the United States who pretends to teach evolution has to kiss the asses of the religious sects that rule this place.

    Mr. Krupa, brilliant, articulate man that he is, should tell his students this:

    2.5 million years ago, there were apes, and no religions. Religions are the product of ape brains.

    And Darwin’s theory falsifies every religious story that has ever been told. When will humans face up to the truth?

    Liked by 1 person

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