On June 2, Gallup polls found that the percentage of Americans who believe that God created humans in His own image has not changed much in the last 22 years. However, the percentage of Americans who believe that humans evolved with no guidance from God is rising. The sample population in the Gallup poll consisted of 1,028 adults from all 50 U.S. states. The same questions have been asked since 1982. A similar study was also conducted on an international level, where most of the industrialized and developed countries were compared, including Iceland, Japan, United States, and those in Western and Eastern Europe. Published in Science in 2006, the research was done by American and Japanese researchers, led by Jon D. Miller, Ph.D., from Michigan State University. They found that about 14 percent of American adults thought that evolution was “definitely true,” while a third rejected it. Compared to European countries, such as Denmark, France, and Sweden, about 80 percent of the sample adult population accepted the evolution concept. Miller and colleagues identified three influences that could explain why some Americans deny evolution.
Fundamentalist religious belief on evolution plays a huge role in the U.S., having almost twice the effect in the U.S. as in Europe. According to Miller, Americans have a tendency and tradition to take the Bible literally and treat the Book of Genesis as an accurate explanation of human and life creation. “After European Protestants broke off from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, they retained a hierarchy that remained part of the university system,” Miller says in a report to National Geographic. “In the United States, partly because of our frontier history, most of the Protestant churches are congregational—they don’t belong to any hierarchy.” Thus, religious fundamentalists were free to pick their own beliefs and ministers and spread their ideas in the New World. Miller also stated that if people were sent to a Bible college, they would only know the Bible and preach only the Bible. In Europe, this is very rare.
Researchers also found very little correlation between political views and the evolution theory. In the U.S., anti-abortion and pro-life proponents tend to associate with the viewpoints of the Republican Party, which tends to reject evolution more than those who are pro-choice. In Europe, having left-wing or right-wing political views do not affect their viewpoint on evolution much. The researchers wrote that the conservative wing of the Republic Party adopted creationism as a foundation to garner support from the Midwestern and Southern states in the latter half of the 20th century.
The third influence is that adults who have some understanding of genetics are more likely to accept evolution. The researchers reported that less than half of American adults “can provide a minimal definition of DNA.” They also stated that a significant number of Americans are confused about of basic core concepts of 20th and 21st-century biology.
Karl W. Giberson, Ph.D., who teaches writing, science, and religion at Stonehill College, pointed out in a recent article that he wrote in The Daily Beast that the percentage of the surveyed Americans who believe that humans had evolved with God’s guidance — called theistic evolution or evolutionary creation– has dropped in the last four years. The number is at its lowest ever, dipping down to 31 percent 2014 from 38 percent in 2010. Giberson had expected theistic evolution to rise because it provides a “balance” between science and religion. The movement has been promoted at evangelical colleges in the U.S. for decades, yet it seemed to lack significant progress. “So why is it moving backwards rather than forwards?” he asked.
Giberson stated that the American evangelicals’ position on gay marriage, women’s role, abortion, and evolution “are being blamed for young people abandoning their churches.” In fact, Millennials have the highest percentage of non-religious affiliates — 29 percent — compared to previous generations, such as Generation X (21 percent), Baby Boomers (16 percent), and Silents (9 percent), according to the latest report on Pew Research on generation diversities and changes.
Another explanation of why some American deny the evolution theory could be found in psychology. A 2011 study published in Cognition could help explain why beliefs and ignorance prevail in some people. Andrew Shtulman, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California, who led the study, stated that people are not “empty vessels” when they learn new knowledge. Many people had already acquired naïve intuitions in their childhood and adolescence in which most are not true. For example, some people believe that sun revolves around the Earth, plants are non-living things, and heat is a type of substance. Therefore, science education is not just about learning new ideas or theories. Instead, it requires people to unlearn their intuitions, getting rid of false beliefs.
In the study, Shtulman asked 150 college undergraduates who taken various college-level science and math courses to assess the truth of several hundred scientific statements as fast as possible. Some statements were both factually and intuitively true (“Rocks are composed of matter”), both factually and intuitively false (“Numbers are composed of matter”), intuitively true yet factually false (“Fire is composed of matter”), and intuitively false yet factually true (“Air is composed of matter”). The first two were labeled “consistent,” and the latter two were labeled “inconsistent.”
The students’ response time was measured, and in every subject, including astronomy, evolution, and physics, students took longer to answer the inconsistent statements than consistent ones. Even among facts that people know are true in the inconsistent statements, they needed to hold their instincts at bay before answering logically, which caused a significant time delay. The study’s result showed that even though the students were able to rationalize and understand a scientific concept, their previous beliefs may be still hanging around in the mind. The false intuition is still there but is ignored. Thus, new scientific learning and knowledge that contradict a previous belief does not “supplant” it — they simply “suppress” it.
Like quantum physics and astronomy, evolution requires some amount of understanding, questioning, and studying before one can make an informed judgement. Because it may be challenging for some people to understand, they may resort to ignorance, confirmation bias, or another type of logical fallacy to reject evolution. This phenomenon is known as personal incredulity, referring to the fact that something cannot be true because it is difficult to understand or the person is not aware of how it works. Deniers use this as a mean to “distrust science on the basis of it being highly technical and difficult to put into layman terms,” according to Truly Fallacious.
While there is no single or simple answer on explaining why more Americans deny evolution than Europeans, a combination of politics, culture, and psychology provide some insight on this issue. The theories proposed by Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo took centuries for the world to accept and understand. Darwinian evolution — less than 200 years old — may eventually hit mainstream.
By Nick Ng