I have been publishing guest posts in celebration of the blog’s tenth anniversary, and am pleased to conclude the series now with two posts by Michael Shermer, whom many of you will know from his writings and media appearances discussing (especially) religion and science.  Michael was a one-time committed fundamentalist turned outspoken skeptic.   Here is the first of his two-parter, on an issue of particular cultural and religious importance.

US public acceptance of evolution is growing but is still low compared to other countries. Why? Religion and politics. Here’s why that need not be.

As a career-long student of the century-long evolution-creationism debate I was encouraged to read the results of a new study on “Public Acceptance and Rejection of Evolution in the United States, 1985-2020” by Jon Miller, Eugenie Scott, Mark Ackerman, and Belén Laspra, published in the journal Public Understanding of Science. “Using data from a series of national surveys collected over the last 35 years, we find that the level of public acceptance of evolution has increased in the last decade after at least two decades in which the public was nearly evenly divided on the issue,” the authors write. That sounds encouraging, and the uptick of the blue line of acceptance and downward slope of the orange line of rejection in this graph appears encouraging, until one glances over at the vertical axis showing that progress here is defined as breaking the 50 percent barrier! That’s not especially encouraging for a robust science that began 162 years ago with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and accepted by 97 percent of all scientists.

What is the cause in the recent increase (however modest) in the acceptance of the theory? According to the study’s authors:

A structural equation model indicates that increasing enrollment in baccalaureate-level programs, exposure to college-level science courses, a declining level of religious fundamentalism, and a rising level of civic scientific literacy are responsible for the increased level of public acceptance.

Those of us in academia, and especially in the science education business, should find this especially encouraging, but I want to drill down into that variable of “religious fundamentalism,” which the authors defined and quantified as belief in a personal God who hears prayers, reading the Bible as literal truth, frequency of church attendance, frequency of prayer, and agreement with the statement “We depend too much on science and not enough on faith.” There was an inverse correlation between religious fundamentalism and acceptance of evolution: 32 percent acceptance on the high end of the scale compared 91 percent on the lowest end of the scale (and 54 percent of the entire sample). That 30 percent of Americans self-identify as religious fundamentalists goes a long way to explaining their doubt. As does their political affiliation. While 83 percent of liberal Democrats accept the theory of evolution, the researchers found that only 34 percent of conservative Republicans do so.

Why do Christians and conservatives doubt evolution? My 2006 book Why Darwin Matters (my only book with full frontal nudity) attempts to answer this question. For brevity here, I will outline four reasons:

                  1. Belief that evolution is a threat to specific religious tenets. If one believes that the world was created within the past 10,000 years, that will be in direct conflict with the geological evidence for a 4.6 billion-year old Earth. If one insists on the findings of science squaring true with religious doctrines, this can lead to conflict between science and religion.
                  2.  Misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. Many cognitive studies show, such as those by Andrew Shtulman and others in his book Scienceblind: Why Our Intuitive Theories About the World Are So Often Wrong, that most people—both religious believers and secularists alike—have a poor understanding of the theory, mixing in some Lamarckian notions of the inheritance of acquired characteristics (giraffes got their long necks by stretching), a misunderstanding of population genetics, and a fumbled explanation of what, exactly, natural selection is selecting for (not the good of the species or the group, not future environments, not structural or cognitive progress).
                  3.  The fear that evolution degrades our humanity. After Copernicus toppled the pedestal of our cosmic centrality, Darwin delivered the coup de gr­ace by revealing us to be “mere” animals, subject to the same natural laws and historical forces as all other animals.
                  4.  The equation of evolution with ethical nihilism and moral degeneration. This sentiment was expressed by the neo-conservative social commentator Irving Kristol in 1991: “If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded—or even if it suspects—that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe.” Similar fears were raised by Nancy Pearcey, a fellow of the Discovery Institute in a briefing on Intelligent Design before a House Judiciary Committee of the United States Congress. She cited a popular song urging “you and me, baby, ain’t nothing but mammals so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.” Pearcey went on to claim that since the U.S. legal system is based on moral principles, the only way to generate ultimate moral grounding is for the law to have an “unjudged judge,” an “uncreated creator.”


[Part 1 of 2]