James Krupa on Responses to His Essay “Defending Darwin”

James Krupa
The March/April issue’s story about teaching evolutionary theory at the University of Kentucky has generated a significant reader response; the essay has also been reprinted in Slate, passed around the web, and resulted in several radio interviews. Here, Krupa tells of the e-mail he’s received from readers, both positive and negative.

In the days that followed the publication of my essay, I received 239 e-mails from 213 individuals. Ninety-six percent thanked me for the essay, 4 percent hated it. I received e-mails from many ministers and pastors, all of whom thanked me. I received e-mails from 8 individuals who consider themselves evangelical Christians, all of whom thanked me for clarifying that one can accept evolution and maintain their religious beliefs. Several shared stories of being treated like outcasts for accepting evolution theory. One e-mail was most touching and sad: A young college student told me that she has always been fascinated by evolution, and has been studying it since she was a child. But, as a result, a strain exists between her and her family, all of whom reject evolution. Most sad, she told me that after posting my essay on Facebook, 40 percent of her friends “unfriended” her.

I received 82 e-mails from teachers, from K-12 to the college level. Ninety-nine percent thanked me for the essay, and most agreed that evolution should be taught early in a course and continue as the theme throughout the semester. I received e-mails from teachers from 8 different states, including California, telling me that their teaching experiences are very similar to mine. In an odd way, I took comfort knowing that there are many of us out there trying to advance evolution education and facing the same problems. I received e-mails thanking me for telling the story of how Kentucky heroes Frank McVey, William Funkhouser, Arthur Miller, and Glanville Terrell defended academic freedom and stopped an anti-evolution bill from becoming law. Several were delighted and surprised to learn that Kentucky-born John Scopes graduated from the University of Kentucky.

I fully anticipated negative reactions, and I was not let down. I was told I am arrogant, condescending, combative, confrontational, and a lousy teacher. I was told I don’t understand evolution. I was told I should be embarrassed that I do not know the difference between a monkey and a chimp (I most assuredly do). I was told I am wrong to say monkeys and humans share a common ancestor (they do, but not in the recent past; all primates share a common ancestor). Several criticized me for not explaining to my students all the nuances of science and evolution. (Belabored explanations that go into too great a depth are one of the best ways to bore and lost students; the art of teaching freshman non-majors’ classes, as well as the art of teaching, is to avoid doing this. As either Socrates or Plutarch explained, and I paraphrase, the purpose of education is not the filling of the vessel, but the lighting of the flame.) Several told me evolution is not a theory but a law, and that I should know better. One individual told me evolution is not a theory but a “grand principle.” Several told me I clearly do not know the correct definitions of theory or fact.

Although I tried my best not to respond to negative e-mails, I did a few times. These were mostly to explain that my definitions of theory and fact are those provided by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Several e-mails informed me that there is no evidence for evolution, and that “intelligent design” is science that I have to teach as well.

What I take from the reactions I received is that many folks are passionately concerned that we provide to students the best science education—including evolution education—we possibly can. I was heartened by how many told me that they are able to maintain their religious beliefs and accept evolution with no feeling of conflict. Even though the message was clear that there are those whose minds are forever closed to the reality of evolution, many more are open-minded and anxious to know more.

When all is said and done, if my essay convinced just one person that they can accept evolution without it being at odds with their religious beliefs, I will consider this project a success. And if just one person realized the importance of science education (and evolution education in particular), I will also consider this project a success. Based on the reactions I received, I feel reason for hope that more will accept evolution in the future.

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.


  1. Thank you James Krupa for continuing your engagement in the discussion, as an educator! Thank you for not caving in and for not compromising. Thanks to Orion magazine for always inviting us to understand how our species interacts with all other species on a round, finite planet, for a finite period of time.

  2. Anyone who even attempts such a project deserves another teaching award. Please accept my thanks too.

  3. Secondary school curricula in biology is shaped in most part by local school boards which are easily dominated by evangelical christians or political conservatives. Neither of these groups are interested in Dr. Krupa’s explanations nor likely to take a semester, let alone a year long college course in biology. Unfortunately evolution, like climate change, is a political matter. Cast your votes and contribute your funds accordingly.

  4. This essay is the reason I decided to subscribe to Orion. I received my first issue in the mail and it is beautiful and everything you would expect from a publication that decided to publish this essay. Thank you.

  5. evolution theory is a slippery slope. If you follow it too far you end with the absurdity that all living things and the instincts that guide them are all derived from some unaccountable drive not only to survive gut to do so in the most diverse ways imaginable. If evolution proceeds as groping trial and error, how do we account for the incredible imagination guiding it?

  6. Some years ago, the physicist Leon Lederman proposed (In Technology Review, the MIT alumni magazine) that teaching high school science should be reversed: physics first, ending with biology.

    I take Professor Krupa’s position to be similar: start with basic organizing principles, advance to more complex manifestations.

    I do not blame science teachers for the low estate of science knowledge; for that I blame ignorant religious bigots. But the pedagogical methods could be improved. (I don’t suppose the students have the wit to dub him James “Gene” Krupa, but he rocks.

  7. I taught 9th grade biology in Houston, Texas, 20 years ago. My students were not familiar with evolutionary theory, but were eager to learn and open to new ideas. For years, I followed a lesson plan of assigning roles to students and letting them act out the debate over evolution. One was a preacher, one a teacher, one a parent, one a scientist, etc. Year after year they would come to the same conclusion: evolution is a process that explains the world we live in. It explains what is happening around us and it explains how we got here. If you want to put god in the middle of this process, go ahead. Maybe god used evolution to create the world. Although I am personally an atheist, I would never insert religion into our discussion. Nor would I reject their religious arguments. I used a short essay by Stephen J. Gould, Evolution is a Fact, for factual references. Students loved it and felt they were being very sophisticated by coming up with their own accommodations to a very controversial topic.

Submit Your Comments

Please Note: Before submitting, copy your comment to your clipboard, be sure every required field is filled out, and only then submit.