About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Americans don't believe in evolution, but why?

The depressing fact that half or so of American adults reject any notion of evolution has been documented by survey after survey. So has the fact that Europeans don't seem to have a similar problem with Darwinian theories. What is much less clear is why there is such discrepancy. As a European, I would love to tell you that this is because Europeans are so much more understanding of the principles of science, but I know that that is simply not the case. What then?

A recent study by Miller, Scott and Okamoto published in Science (11 August 2006) begins to unravel the mystery, data in hands. While the results are not actually surprising for anyone attuned to the political and religious ideological differences between the Old and the New worlds, it is nice to have solid quantitative evidence, rather than just personal intuitions backed up by the occasional anecdote.

First off, Miller and colleagues document once again the basic facts, this time using surveys in the US, 32 European countries (including Turkey, which technically is not part of Europe), and Japan. The findings include the rather worrisome (though, again, not altogether unexpected) observation that “only Turkish adults were less likely to accept the concept of evolution than American adults.” As we used to say when I was living in Tennessee and wanted to feel better about the sorry state of public education in that state (often ranking at n. 49 out of 50), “Thank God for Mississippi!” (which was often ranked n. 50).

Miller and co-workers went beyond the surveys and hypothesized that certain cultural variables, such as degree of fundamentalism religiosity, political conservativeness, and ignorance of basic science, would account for a significant proportion of the difference between American and Europeans in their attitude toward evolution. To test such hypotheses, they used a statistical technique known as structural equation modeling (SEM), a way to build mathematical models representing competing hypotheses and comparing them quantitatively. SEM cannot prove the correctness of a particular hypothesis (indeed, philosophically speaking, no empirical proposition can be proven with complete certainty), but it is an excellent first step toward assessing how well the available data fit whatever causal models the investigators think reasonable to consider.

Enough with the theory, let's get to the fun part. First off, religious belief. It turns out that the effect of fundamentalist religious beliefs on one's attitude toward evolution is twice as strong in the US than in Europe; Americans really are influenced by their strict religiosity more than their European counterparts. Second, political positions. Again, Miller et al's intuitions were supported by the data: pro-life attitudes – which in the US are more strongly associated than in Europe with the political platform of conservative parties – made it significantly more likely for someone to reject evolution. Moreover, if one self-identifies as a conservative, one is also more likely to both hold fundamentalist religious views and be pro-life, and the two factors add to each other's effect in decreasing one's acceptance of evolutionary theory. Finally, science literacy. While overall understanding of the basic facts of genetics was actually slightly higher among Americans than Europeans, there was a definite positive relation between such understanding and acceptance of evolutionary theory. In other words, the more one knows about science, the less scary evolution becomes. The bad news is that less than half of Americans can provide a basic definition of DNA...

So, all we need to end the creation-evolution controversy is to increase science literacy, decrease religious fundamentalism, and defeat the Republicans at the next elections. OK, folks, we got the knowledge, time to roll up the sleeves and get into action!


  1. For most of us, it's kind of a no-brainer that increased scientific literacy predisposes one towards acceptace of the validity of evolutionary theory. However, you don't think that religious conservatives aren't aware of that? It makes perfect sense, in context, why religious conservatives consistently de-prioritize science education (as well as arts education), or in lieu of that, seek to re-define what actually constitutes science (as in the ongoing ID brouhaha). After all, a poorly educated electorate is a right-wing theocrat's best friend.
    gary l. day

  2. This post appeared just in time to best appreciate Katherine Harris’ recent comments. I am reminded of a quote by Lucius Annaeus Seneca: “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” While Ms. Harris is far from “common”, she’s clearly not in the second group, and let’s hope she is not in the third group after the next election.

  3. It is "worrisome" at best that we "Americans" are not required, heck, hardly even encouraged to know (not just read) our own constitution and bill of rights! I am even more discouraged by the fact that in NY state a science cirruculum is not required (can you believe it?) at the elementary level. The next election maybe important, but the "black holes" in our education criteria for our future leaders is critical.

  4. mp: While overall understanding of the basic facts of genetics was actually slightly higher among Americans than Europeans, there was a definite positive relation between such understanding and acceptance of evolutionary theory."

    If the legitimate understanding of genetics was the central issue for the “non-fundamentalists”, more people would believe that evolution is a crock.

    (a) Darwin did not understand genetics himself. (was he a religious fundamentalist?) Mendel's understanding of genetics was correct, Darwin's was anything but.

    (b) Medelian genetics does not support the idea the "parents" traits are passed on and then, in enough cases to change the given genome, essentially erased. All genes that are non-negotiable for survival are at least dormant, (not evolved or selected out of existence as Darwin infered) or the species dies off. That places very specific limits on selection which evolutionists will not place on it themselves. And such a view is incompatible with real life genetics.

    (c) Survival is not the goal but the effect of orderly, systematic genetic information. Making it the "goal" as Darwin did, is to misunderstand and misinterpret the intricacies of the ENTIRE process. (which includes a whole lot more dependency on PHYSICS AND CHEMISTRY than it does on BIOLOGY,btw) And the outcome of the process is only significant AT ALL if one believes that the truthfulness of ALL OF THE ABOVE conclusions really do matter.

    So if you feel that an understanding of genetics should be the singular litmus test for scientific literacy, you'll simply never ask enough of yourself or others. Truth must begin in one’s heart and soul, Massimo. After that point, it can begin to permeate other areas of our thinking.


  5. As a high school biology teacher, I am troubled by the fact that the actual understanding of science we are able to get accros is so superficial, in fact, often not even true.

    When we teach genetics, we teach only simple dominance. I have been specifically told not to talk about incomplete dominance, codominance, etc. because they nare not on the state assessment. It just confuses them.

    To the student, we have partitioned the world into their real world of common sense observations (if you stop pushing something, it stops moving) and the science world that flies in the face of common sense. Unfortunately, it requires a fairly sophisticated understanding of science to figure out how science really does describe the real world, and how common sense can lead us astray.

    Until they learn elementary science in the elementary school where it belongs, we can't do any better in high school.

    The metric system and the enlightenment are both about 300 years old. It's time we got with the program.

  6. JK: "Unfortunately, it requires a fairly sophisticated understanding of science to figure out how science really does describe the real world, and how common sense can lead us astray."

    Really thought this comment of yours through JK, and I am wondering in what sense you mean "sophisticated".

    Scientific creativity or (curiosity) is not necessarily a matter of sophistication unless one adds somehow less than necessary components to your requirements.

    I have commented on this before, but it was confirmed for me again in my recent travels. My father's family has quite a few inventors and very inquisitive types within it. (lots more males in the family actually) On my recent trip to Wyoming, I met a cousin that I have not seen for a long time who was working on an invention that makes oil wells capable of sending info to cell phones via satellites, and so on. Tho I have hardly been acquainted with this man at all, I wasn't surprised that he was part of my dad's family. Every time I turn a new rock over, I find another thing that a family member has invented or is inventing. Some have not gone to college, some have. Some have been raised in close proximity to other family members, some have not. (as was the case with this cousin)

    If this science thing is such a sophisticated matter, why are there so many inventors in one family? Why do they all think this way? It almost seems as if it comes naturally for them.


  7. Cal,

    What I mean by sophistication is that the stripped down version of genetics we give students leads to a belief in a rigid and unrealistic type of genetic determinism, for instance.

    Common sense tells us that if we see some intricately designed thing functioning well as part of an even more complicated system,it must have been designed to act that way. It requires a pretty sophisticated knowledge of self-organizing systems and natural selection to understand how complex systems can arrise out of simpler replicators competing for scarce resources.

    Common sense tells us many things that usually serve us well. Unfortunately, common sense also leads to misunderstandings when we try to probe deeply into the natural causes of events in the real world.

  8. G'day

    Perhaps we could also stop calling such people "pro life" as this implies that those of us who are not like them must by definition be "anti-life" which is not the case. These "PL" folk are also often pro capital punishment or should I call that "pro-death". We should not respectfully call such hypocrites pro-lifers, they are not.

  9. I live in Tennessee, and I have this argument a lot. American's won't look past their religious views, especially in the Southern states. Evolution is a fact, and it baffles me when I discuss the topic and get the response, "I ain't come from no monkey."(not exaggerating, people around here are ignorant) They refuse to believe anything that requires them to think. It's so much easier for them to believe the Genesis story of creation than to actually use their minds and look outside the box. I've often heard people pass evolution off saying, "If it was real, why hasn't this or that evolved?" They won't look at the big picture. Evolution took millions of years to occur, creatures did not evolve in the 12,000 or so year period they choose to acknowledge. Not saying all American's are ignorant, but there are a large number of us that refuse to be open minded and have a "show me" attitude. I'm afraid to ask some of them about their views on dinosaurs. >.>;

  10. Nngghhh.
    Now, I appreciate evolution as a theory (a lot of work has been put into the field, etc.), however, it's a theory, not a fact, and it really annoys me at how people expect it to be treated as a fact in schools.
    So schools can spread theoretical non-fact and anti-religion (As many of my teachers have), but they can't even mention creationism.
    I don't believe in evolution or the Big Bang, and I don't necessarily believe in Creationism, either. The fact is that none of these can be proved. So as long as they all seem illogical, I will just lean towards Creationism...it makes a lot more sense to me, personally, even though to many it seems illogical.

    Just remember (if you believe in evolution), that to me evolution is just as crazy as Creationism is to you.

    1. Do you know what else is a theory? Gravity.

      In science, the term Theory is used the same way you use the term Fact. Science doesn't use Fact because they do not want to become dogmatic, as dogma closes minds. The way that non-scientists use the word Theory would be called a Hypothesis in science :)

      If evolution doesn't exist, then how do bacteria evolve to become antibiotic resistant?

  11. Yes, but that doesn't mean that I am just as detached from reality as you are.

  12. Just because you see something doesn't mean you "understand" everything. Who are you to say anyone is "detached" from anything. You did not create reality or anything in so don't act like you're god. Reality doesn't care what anyone so it doesn't matter. we are all going die the same death.

  13. Evolution is theory not fact, but it has a lot of rational indicators to back it up. Unless you believe in the Bible being literal and factual, what proof is there for creationism? If the Bible didn't exist, would creationism?

    Occam's razor...

    Familiarity seems simple and logical until you open your eyes to the unfamiliar. But, most religions don't want you to open your eyes fully because real life is far too scary and they don't think you can handle truth (or maybe they can't handle you seeking truth without them spoon feeding their version to you). Frankly, I'm not interested in something that thinks I'm incapable of truly living and logical evaluation.

  14. I think one of the more fundamental issues with the acceptance of evolution is the way it is presented. When listening to any given program about wildlife, when evolution is presented, it's presented as assuming some kind of intelligence in the process. "The zebra is striped black and white BECAUSE the lion doesn't have cones in it's eyes to see color, and thus the stripes blend into the grasses to provide camoflauge". (This is not a direct quote, but close, from a program I watched many years ago). A thinking person is then going to question... how did the Zebra know the lion couldn't see colors? How did the Zebra get to stripes instead of polka dots? How did the Zebra manipulate it's genes to come up with a new outfit if the old one was ineffective?". The presentation belies the actual point - that natural selection is the process at work. Instead, it's framed as some kind of intelligence on the part of the animal, which doesn't match with what people know of genetics. It makes no sense. It's too simplistic of an explanation, and because people hear this drivel from the time they are very small on virtually every program they see, they internalize that even evolution "must" have some kind of intelligence behind it. So if you want to know why people aren't buying the "scientific facts", take a good look at how those facts are being presented.... how does Europe present these facts versus how they are presented in America on your everyday wildlife show? In textbooks? How is the verbiage being used affecting the outcome?

    1. how did the Zebra know the lion couldn't see colors? How did the Zebra get to stripes instead of polka dots? : natural selection. The Zebra was not a Zebra, but an ancestral species. The species came in a few varieties. The ones that carried a particular pattern on their coat were not eaten that much by the lion's ancestor, so the population carried more of those patterns. The patterned guys were able to reproduce more, and thrived. Over a looong period of time, with many, many other modifications -as stripes were probably not the only survival mechanism, probably so was faster speed for example- , came the Zebra and other related species of Zebra as we see today.

  15. Turkey is a part of Europe. Part of its territory is, and its history is a large part of European history -remember the Eastern Roman empire, sick man of Europe? Cyprus is more east than Turkey is! Anyway, as a European, and a Turkish, I am amazed at deniers of evolution. Those who say that is is only a theory do not understand what a scientific theory is. Theory is the highest state a scientific ideal remains until it is unproven. A "belief" does not disprove a theory, therefore cannot be used as a counter argument.

  16. Bulls**t. Plenty of Republican Christians believe in evolution. My mother, who almost became a nun before she married my dad, is one of them. She taught evolution in her high school science classes back in the 1980s and never even mentioned creationism to me or any of my siblings. Of course, she has a fairly rational and scientific mind and is by no means a fundamentalist. Which leads me to this: I believe that the dominance of fundamentalist thinking in this country, is from whence this problem originates. Catholics, like my mother, tend to believe that the Bible was written by a community of divinely inspired people that had real human agendas and plenty of mortal failings. In recognizing this truth, these interpretations were continually revised over time to include and relate to humanity's ever-growing understanding of the physical world. That's why evolution is not in conflict with Catholic belief and no one gets excommunicated anymore for claiming that the world is round. Catholics (in general) tend to understand that the words in the Bible are subject to interpretation and are, in fact, just plain wrong at times. Fundamentalists, by definition, do not. To a fundamentalist, the Bible may as well have been written in stone and in order to help their believers to avoid any misinterpretation, they are instructed to take everything they read in the Bible at face value (i.e. fundamentally or literally) so that nothing proclaimed in the text could ever be in question. THE CATHOLIC: The world was built in 7 days? That's just allegory since ancient humans probably had a different perspective of time than we do now. But the underlying message of the story is what's important. THE FUNDAMENTALIST: The world was built in 7 days? OK. That sort of inflexibility built into the foundation of any belief system can never be overcome and anything that comes into conflict with its tenants simply becomes a non-truth with no further discussion. Fundamentalist thinking is an intellectual dead-end and it is the real reason behind this mass-refusal to consider the truth of a widely accepted and long-studied scientific theory.


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