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Why People Don’t Accept Evolution

Cameron Smith has an interesting column in the Skeptical Inquirer that I think makes a valuable point. People have a difficult time accepting evolution even if they aren’t particularly religious. Why? At least partly because our brains seem biased against non-teleological thinking:

No, I think the widespread misunderstanding of evolution runs very deep. I think it has a lot to do with the way our minds work—with, basically, being human itself. That’s because the essence of humanness is in the proactive making of things. I believe this proaction—quite unique in the animal kingdom—has conditioned the human mind to believe that complex phenomena (like plants and animals) must also be the result of proactive making

I argue that behavioral modernity is rooted in proaction and creation. Non­human life-forms change by an evolutionary process that is entirely reactive, and while some other animals do make and use tools, humans are entirely dependent on creating things—such as a stone tool, an igloo, or a Polynesian sailing vessel—to survive…

Humanity’s trick—and it’s a good one—is the ability to quickly adjust to any environmental pressure by inventing adaptations. Inventions can be artifacts, like a pair of warm boots, or complex behaviors, such as a dance that symbolically communicates how to hunt a particular animal. Whatever the invention, the point is that people thought it up; they perceived a problem and then designed a solution specific to that problem. And we don’t just do it for fun—we live or die by our ability to buffer our frail bodies against an ever-changing array of selective pressures…

From all of this we can see that humanity’s most useful adaptation has been the invention of invention. And from the day we learn that a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich doesn’t just spontaneously assemble itself—that it must be assembled with intent (preferably by someone else)—it seems obvious that all of the other things we see in the world (or at least those at least as complex as a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich) were similarly assembled with intent. An acorn, for example, or a sturgeon: each is such a wonder of design (you try to make one!) that we feel they must have been made, with intent, as humans make things with intent. Superficially this seems reasonable enough and it has been the basis of the “Argument from Design” since the early nineteenth century, when William Paley wrote about the obviousness of design in nature in Natural Theology: “Upon the whole; after all the schemes and struggles of a reluctant philosophy [to explain complex things], the necessary resort is to a Deity. The marks of design are too strong to be gotten over. Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is GOD.”

I think that’s an excellent point. I think the other non-religious reason many people have a hard time accepting evolution is that we find it very difficult to comprehend the time scales involved. We can’t really conceptualize billions of years very easily.

Comments

  1. says

    I have to disagree Ed. I see no value-added here. And a fair amount of what might be described as evo-psych woo. “That’s because the essence of humanness is in the proactive making of things. I believe this proaction—quite unique in the animal kingdom—has conditioned the human mind to believe that complex phenomena (like plants and animals) must also be the result of proactive making…”

    Speaking as someone who knows woo–that’s a darn good example. It surely isn’t a scientific statement–not that you claimed it was.

  2. John Pieret says

    It is no accident that the Intelligent design “movement” offers as its only “positive” evidence for design the “argument” that the only cause of we know of designed things are designers (us).They then point to complex things (the baterial flagellum) and say it must be designed and therefore, there must be a designer. Of course, at the heart of it is a circular argument: complex things are designed because they are designed to be complex. But, whether through our brains being hardwired or just through experience, we tend to leap over that circularity.

  3. Nemo says

    One thing I find interesting is how badly the teleological viewpoint accounts even for our own creations. Sure, sometimes we design things. But much of human culture has simply evolved. This is really obvious in the case of something like language, where the changes have occurred in historical time, are well documented, and for the most part, were clearly directed by nobody.

  4. steve oberski says

    @heddle

    I would be the last to dispute your claim as to being a expert on woo.

    So what part of the quoted statement was woo ?

    The part about humans being quite unique in the animal kingdom ?

  5. Alverant says

    We have no problem accepting the facts clouds aren’t shaped by a designer or how a bunch of things can randomly come together so I’m not sure how much weight to give teleological arguments. The reason why 99% people don’t accept evolution is either 1) they don’t understand it 2) it would invalidate their religious beliefs 3) both IMHO.

  6. says

    steve oberski,

    So what part of the quoted statement was woo ?

    The part about humans being quite unique in the animal kingdom ?

    All of it. All that I quoted in italics in #1. If I had only intended to zero in on the “quite unique in the animal kingdom” then I would have done so.

  7. marcus says

    “At least partly because our brains seem biased against non-teleological thinking:”
    Schopenhauer alluded tho this when stated (paraphrased) that when a person looks back on their life there is the illusion that it unfolded as a story or myth might, that things appeared to happen when they “should” and that serendipitous and coincidental occurrences were predetermined or guided. It makes sense that this illusion would also be attractive culturally and racially.
    Nor do I think it is “evo-psych woo”. It is merely an observation about how the human mind seems to work and a speculation about why it might be a useful trait.

  8. colnago80 says

    I would also have to take some exception in that it is difficult to find an evolution denier who is not also under the influence of religious thought. As Jerry Coyne and Jason Rosenhouse point out, acceptance of the Theory of Evolution strongly suggests that there was no Adam and Eve, thus no forbidden fruit eating and thus no need for the sacrifice of Yeshua of Nazareth on the cross.

  9. says

    Nor do I think it is “evo-psych woo”. It is merely an observation about how the human mind seems to work and a speculation about why it might be a useful trait.

    Which is what every evo-psych argument is, e.g., “It seems to me we evolved such that that men prefer blondes because…”. You are correct: it is just-so speculation. Fair enough–just don’t let it masquerade as science.

  10. machintelligence says

    Quiz from a Creationist pamphlet:

    Have you ever seen a building that didn’t have a builder? yes no

    Have you ever seen a painting that didn’t have an artist? yes no

    Have you ever seen a car that didn’t have a manufacturer? yes no

    If you answered yes to any of the above give details!

    Because we make things from a top down approach, we have a hard time conceiving a process that works (mindlessly) from the bottom up. The genius of Charles Darwin was that he discovered the algorithm for that process.
    It is counter-intuitive, which is why the “argument from personal incredulity ” is so popular.

    The above example was from Daniel Dennett’s book: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.

  11. hunter says

    I’m not persuaded. It would be interesting to see some comparisons between people from cultures and/or belief systems that subscribe to a linear view of history — the universe was created, history is finite, and it will all end, one way or another, as evidenced mostly in the Abrahamic religions — and those with a cyclic view — the world was discovered, or arose from something else, and will eventually give rise to the next world, whether through cataclysm or some other means.

    While I’m not intending to sell the human problem-solving ability short, we forget how many times our leaps forward have been due to happenstance as much as anything else.

    One thing I will agree with, although Smith doesn’t seem to frame it in these terms: we are story-tellers. It’s our primary means of organizing information, or was throughout most of our history — and probably prehistory, as well. Historically, that’s been the way we make sense of the universe. But the kind of stories you tell depends on your beliefs and culture — hence, a Christian will fall back on a creator or designer, a traditional Navajo or Hindu, not so much.

  12. says

    steve oberski,

    So you don’t think that human beings are quite unique in the animal kingdom ?

    Why don’t you just go full troll and ask me, à propos nothing, something related to my religion? I have to say you don’t do “coy” very well.

    But to answer your question, humans are indeed quite unique. I mean, you do know the definition of species, don’t you?

  13. marcus says

    steve oberski @ 13 I will let heddle answer for himself but I do have an opinion. In context the question would be whether we are “quite unique in the animal kingdom” because we are the only animals who make shit up. The answer is, of course, that we have no way of knowing.

  14. puppygod says

    I’m not convinced. From my perspective – as an European – evolution denial is minority. If it was caused by something about our brains, you would expect to be little difference across cultures. Yet there is huge gap between US and this side of the pond. So even if there is some biological factor here (I can’t say for sure there isn’t any), it’s importance is far behind things like education, secular tradition and public acceptance (note that majority of religious denominations in Europe do oficially accept evolution).

  15. mudpuddles says

    I’m largely in agreement with heddle. Ed says “People have a difficult time accepting evolution even if they aren’t particularly religious.” But which people, exactly? The vast majority of Europeans don’t have a hard time accepting evolution. Understanding and acceptance of evolution is also pretty high and in the majority in East, South and South-east Asia and South America.

    Cameron Smith makes sweeping statements about humanity that in reality (and demonstrably) only apply to the minority of people in most countries for which statistics exist.:

    I believe this proaction—quite unique in the animal kingdom—has conditioned the human mind to believe that complex phenomena (like plants and animals) must also be the result of proactive making…

    That’s a weird assumption, unless he is specifically referring to those discrete populations where evolution is rejected by a majority or near-majority… in which case its still odd, claiming that the human mind has been conditioned to believe something which clearly vast numbers don’t believe (unless Smith forgets that the US does not represent all of humanity? surely not). In those populations where evolution is largely rejected, the root of that rejection is religious teaching that tends towards fundamentalism e.g. in the Middle East, a few parts of eastern Europe, parts of north Africa, South Africa etc). In other countries, where religious observance and teaching is more liberal, evolution and belief in gods are often not in conflict (India, China, Mexico, even here in Ireland where the majority accept evolution and also claim to be religious).

    As for his argument that “we believe god obviously created life because we have to make our own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches…” that’s just pathetic.

  16. Sastra says

    People have a difficult time accepting evolution even if they aren’t particularly religious. Why? At least partly because our brains seem biased against non-teleological thinking:

    I don’t agree that this is a “non-religious reason” for rejecting evolution. I think it is a reason — an explanation — FOR religion/spirituality. Our brains tend to think teleologically and anthropomorphisize and this leads to a top-down view of reality with unseen agency/emotional responsiveness within or behind Nature. This IS the spiritual approach. Religion simply adds details which helps bond and identify tribes.

    heddle #1 wrote:

    Speaking as someone who knows woo–that’s a darn good example. It surely isn’t a scientific statement–not that you claimed it was.

    As someone else who knows ‘woo,’ I think you’re defining it wrong. The term “woo” is generally reserved for supernatural claims which don’t specifically fit into a religious system. The paranormal is a good example. ESP is woo; prayer is religious. But the distinction is a social one, since they more or less refer to the same proposed phenomenon.

    Claims which are purported to be merely speculative, untestable, untested, etc. — like evolutionary psychology, string theory, or time travel — are not woo because they don’t involve some form of pure mentality or ‘magic.’

    As it is, I’m wondering which aspect of this explanation bothers you the most. First off — do you deny that “our brains seem biased against non-teleological thinking?”

  17. Sastra says

    mudpuddles #18 wrote:

    In other countries, where religious observance and teaching is more liberal, evolution and belief in gods are often not in conflict (India, China, Mexico, even here in Ireland where the majority accept evolution and also claim to be religious).

    Theistic evolution, however, still points to an evolution which can’t be accepted without a fundamental agency behind it. The Teleological Sky Hook simply moves back beyond what can be observed and tested. I think it’s also been shown that people who are very spiritual or religious will often misunderstand what the theory of evolution actually says, instead inserting a Great Chain of Being or creative driving force into the process. But they confidently agree that yes, they believe in evolution.

    And they believe in it enough to satisfy the polls and politics.

  18. Michael Heath says

    I don’t find this sort of speculation at all compelling. Cameron Smith should go off and do some research to test the assertions Ed quotes here. What does the empirical evidence have to say in regards to what we think, how does our conclusions group into different ways of thinking – as if we all think the same – that’s there seems to me to be a self-evident load of crap, and then what influences our thinking.

  19. says

    Sastra,

    As someone else who knows ‘woo,’ I think you’re defining it wrong. The term “woo” is generally reserved for supernatural claims which don’t specifically fit into a religious system.

    Maybe. I’m not going to get into a definition war. I’ll just say that I use woo, here, for a simple argument that tries to sound sciency and is invoked to explain a complicated phenomenon, with little or no experimental data to substantiate the claim.

    As it is, I’m wondering which aspect of this explanation bothers you the most. First off — do you deny that “our brains seem biased against non-teleological thinking?”

    As already pointed out by others, this is very culture dependent and hence the explanation cannot be so simple as “the essence of humanness is in the proactive making of things. I believe this proaction…—has conditioned the human mind to believe that complex phenomena (like plants and animals) must also be the result of proactive making…”

    That’s what bothers me–this is just pure speculation (which is OK when one is up-front about it.) As for me, not knowing anything about it, I neither deny nor support the notion that we are biased against non-teleological thinking.

  20. says

    steve oberski,

    So humans are unique just like everything else ?

    Troll someone else. I already gave your bait more attention that it deserved.

  21. says

    An acorn, for example, or a sturgeon: each is such a wonder of design (you try to make one!) that we feel they must have been made, with intent, as humans make things with intent.

    As an amateur observer of nature, particularly birds, I would offer that this is exactly backwards.

    This morning, I spent a happy few minutes watching the birds, especially the Blue Jays, fly in and out of the area where I have some bird feeders. The Blue Jays zoom in, often on a swooping, descending arc, and “pull up” just in time to land gracefully on the deck rail. To do this, they manipulate their wings tails in specific ways that that brought to mind the placement of and movements of on ailerons on planes and jets during deceleration* and … WAIT A MINUTE. Bird morphology and flight mechanics do not mimic aircraft. It’s precisely the other way around.
    .
    I would venture that most of what humans know about design and engineering comes from nature. I know it’s obvious and that most rational people accept that, but in the context of this conversation it seems worth stating.
    .
    And also, I appreciate Ed’s use of the term “accept evolution” rather than “believe in evolution.”

    .

    *I am not an engineer and don’t pretend to know the correct terminology or whatever.

  22. hunter says

    In keeping with a couple of other comments here, I’d say that Smith’s assertions about making things as definitive of our thought processes is off base. As I pointed out above, we as a species organize information. (I’d guess that any other species does, as well, but I don’t know what they’re thinking or the mechanisms of that organization.) The way we organize it is dependent on a lot of cultural/social factors that encompass a host of patterns and influences, from religious belief to level and kind of education to willingness to engage in critical thinking. I don’t think human beings automatically start looking for a designer, but I’d suggest that they do start looking for patterns.

    In fact, the more I think about it, the more Smith’s article seems like poppycock.

  23. freehand says

    The proper informal (oxymoron alert!) term for this is a “just-so” story. An evolutionary explanation is offered for a trait (usually about humans) which sounds plausible but for which there is no evidence and usually no conceivable way for getting any.
    .
    It is my observation that almost all rejection of evolutionary science is associated with religious fundamentalism. Muslim, Christian, even Hindu fundies will (typically) reject it. Most seculars or members of more progressive denominations will accept evolutionary science, but misunderstand it. Of course, in the USA anyway, most people misunderstand the most basic ideas in science. I am not brilliant, but I am astonished that most of my fellow Yankees cannot understand the difference between [proof of X] and [evidence compatible with X], or that theories are not idle speculation, or that research scientists will often try pretty hard to prove that they themselves are wrong before publishing a paper, or that humans are not the most evolved animal (and are certainly not the goal of evolution!), etc.
    .
    Most folks, whether they accept evolutionary science or not, cannot give a correct short description of evolution.
    .
    Steve, Heddle made it clear that he understands that all species are unique. I suspect that if he encountered that phrase in isolation he would not have a problem with it. Are you disagreeing with Heddle (and me) and arguing that Smith was doing good science here?

  24. freehand says

    hunter: As I pointed out above, we as a species organize information. (I’d guess that any other species does, as well, but I don’t know what they’re thinking or the mechanisms of that organization.)
    .
    Cats organize things into four categories (which I learned in Internet University):
    1. Things to eat
    2. Things that want to eat them
    3. Things to have sex with
    4. Rocks

  25. Sastra says

    heddle #24 wrote:

    As for me, not knowing anything about it, I neither deny nor support the notion that we are biased against non-teleological thinking.

    The bias towards teleological thinking seems pretty universal, given that virtually all cultures now and in the past have had widespread beliefs in various forms of supernatural causation, anthropomorphism, spirits, ghosts, occult forces, magic, superstitions, spirituality, and religion. This is a cosmos in the image of humans — or vice versa.

    We want things; we create things: we in turn were wanted and created by a higher Being. I’m not disagreeing that there’s a leap which might need more support, but it seems to me to be a very small leap. Machineintelligence’s quotes from #11 shows the analogy in action.

    (And I won’t get into a definition war about ‘woo’ either except to note parenthetically that you used it wrong .)

  26. Sastra says

    @freejhand #29:

    I shudder to ask, but what did Internet University have to say about in which category cats place us?

  27. says

    Taz, #32,

    Sometimes the simplest answer is the best. I don’t know if it’s necessary to come up with a theory why so many Americans reject evolution when 25% of them don’t even know that the Earth orbits the Sun.

    Or,
    Never attribute to evolution that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

  28. marcus says

    freehand @ 29 This just demonstrates the innate superiority of dogs. They have an hierarchical processing ability.
    If you can’t: (a) eat it or (b) fuck it
    then (c) piss on it.

  29. says

    Sastra said:

    I don’t agree that this is a “non-religious reason” for rejecting evolution. I think it is a reason — an explanation — FOR religion/spirituality. Our brains tend to think teleologically and anthropomorphisize and this leads to a top-down view of reality with unseen agency/emotional responsiveness within or behind Nature. This IS the spiritual approach. Religion simply adds details which helps bond and identify tribes.

    This. What you said. Smith shouldn’t have located the need to find a designer in the invention of invention, but rather the invention of intention. The intentional stance. And we’re not unique in having it, but we’re the ones who insist on applying it to everything, especially everything we don’t understand. Everything beyond our control.

    Humans are agency detectors, and we’re amazing at it. Often too amazing, because we see it in places it doesn’t exist, can’t exist. That is the root of religion in my view, but it doesn’t mean that we are religious by nature and it sure doesn’t mean that we’re unable to not impute agency. It means we’re inclined, in some cases doggedly, to do so. And I think it’s quite a good explanation of the refusal to see cranes in favor of skyhooks, to reject evolution for teleology.

  30. jba55 says

    Sastra @31: I think we’re between one and two, they might want to eat us and they assume we might want to eat them but since they aren’t sure they stick around to see whats what. Unless we need to do something then they think we’re 4 and it’s nap time.

  31. Matt G says

    We are not unique. Think of all the other Homo species which are no longer with us. Not to mention other lineages which branched off after the split with the chimpanzee lineage.

  32. geocatherder says

    “I think the other non-religious reason many people have a hard time accepting evolution is that we find it very difficult to comprehend the time scales involved. We can’t really conceptualize billions of years very easily.”

    I wouldn’t discount this as an issue, especially in theistic evolution. If evolution is so slow, how could it produce us (God’s special children) if unguided? It’s really hard to get your mind around deep time. I’m reminded of that whenever someone asks what time period I covered in my MS geology thesis, and I answer “Oh, I don’t go back in time very far, just about 800,000 years ago to the present”. To a person, the non-geologists give me a puzzled look as though I’ve said an oxymoron.

  33. uncephalized says

    @Quodlibet #26

    To do this, they manipulate their wings tails in specific ways that that brought to mind the placement of and movements of on ailerons on planes and jets during deceleration*…

    *I am not an engineer and don’t pretend to know the correct terminology or whatever.

    I am. You pretty much nailed it IMO.

  34. steve oberski says

    @freehand

    Ask heddle about his position on the reconciliation of the biblical fable of Noah’s flood and science.

    Or his position on a malignant deity that routinely ordered the genocidal slaughter of other tribes that didn’t chop bit’s off of their male children’s penises.

    Or his position on how the human species just happened to appear on this planet.

    He is the very last person you would turn to for a definition of doing good science.

    My point about human beings being quite unique touches directly to the point of heddles position on the inerrancy of his big book of bad ideas.

  35. says

    steve oberski,

    Ask heddle about his position on the reconciliation of the biblical fable of Noah’s flood and science.

    Or his position on a malignant deity that routinely ordered the genocidal slaughter of other tribes that didn’t chop bit’s off of their male children’s penises.

    Or his position on how the human species just happened to appear on this planet.

    He is the very last person you would turn to for a definition of doing good science.

    My point about human beings being quite unique touches directly to the point of heddles position on the inerrancy of his big book of bad ideas.

    He is, I suspect, not a derailing douchebag troll like you. My comment #1 that this was poor science is related to my career as a professional scientist–what exactly are you? What are your credentials? My religion is not relevant to this discussion. You really are a loser.

  36. Lofty says

    Sastra @31
    The correct answer is “all of the above” but not necessarily all at the same time.
    Cats bite fingers and toes.
    Cats run and hide when humans stamp around the house.
    Cats tails rise to the ererctile pose when their backs are stroked.
    Cats grumble when the knee they’re sitting on starts to wriggle.

  37. savagemutt says

    I shudder to ask, but what did Internet University have to say about in which category cats place us?

    This assumes they care enough to even consider us.

  38. steve oberski says

    @heddle

    Ah yes, mild mannered physicist by day, masked wackaloon fundie by night.

    So comfortable in your belief system that you are busy indoctrinating the next generation of IDiot creotards in your Sunday school. Isn’t that sweet. I’m sure the kids are just riveted by your little talks on predestination and free will. Have you covered hell and eternal damnation yet ? Lake of fire anybody ?

    Just what we need, more intellectually damaged, home schooled victims of socially sanctioned child abuse to take all those fast food and hospitality industry jobs. You should be proud of yourself.

    Guess what, if you peddle bronze age bullshit, don’t be going all butt hurt when it’s pointed out to you that you are the least qualified person in the room to say what woo is, you poor, pitiful thing.

  39. says

    oberski #45,

    Your comment (besides being factually wrong) is neither on-topic nor a reasonable side-thread based on any of my or any other comments. Review this thread. You are the only person who diverted it to be about something irrelevant: me. Nice piece of work.

  40. colnago80 says

    Re Steve Oberski @ #41

    In addition, Heddle has,, in the past, claimed that the Sun was observed to still in the sky for a day by Joshua and his followers, just as stated in the Book of Joshua. As a physicist, familiar with Newton’s laws of motion, he knows that this is physically impossible for such an event to actually occur, but still claims that this, at least appeared to happen, ignoring the fact that there is no evidence that other civilizations in existence at the time took notice of such an event. He has also opined that god sent the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 65.5 million hears ago. Now Heddle is a smart fellow; one doesn’t get a PhD in nuclear physics at a reputable university by being a dumbass so I think we may look at him as an extreme example of Christopher’s admonition that religion poisons everything.

  41. eric says

    I would not be surprised if nonreligious people had problems acceepting evolution, but I think there is a completely different bias causing it. IMO people have a very difficult time estimating the rate of exponential growth or change. A simple example is compound interest – people underestimate how much it returns over long periods of time. But evolution is a similar process, where mutations occur on previously mutated systems. It would not surprise me at all if human beings – for no religious reason at all – underestimated the ability of evolution to create highly complex structures within a few hundred million or billion years.

    Put another way, evolution is another example of the wheat on chessboard story. If you don’t estimate that number correctly (and few of us will), then you probably won’t estimate the amount of change evolution can produce over billions of years correctly.

  42. steve oberski says

    @heddle

    Would that you and your fellow religious snake handlers were irrelevant.

    “A person who believes that Elvis is still alive is very unlikely to get promoted to a position of great power and responsibility in our society. Neither will a person who believes that the holocaust was a hoax. But people who believe equally irrational things about God and the bible are now running our country. This is genuinely terrifying.” – Sam Harris

  43. says

    “Sastra @31: I think we’re between one and two, they might want to eat us and they assume we might want to eat them but since they aren’t sure they stick around to see whats what.”

    I used to tell the cats whose house I lived in that the “Ming Jade” was only a mile away. They would look at me smugly and then go shit on the bed.

  44. dean says

    The term “woo” is generally reserved for supernatural claims which don’t specifically fit into a religious system

    I’ve always understood it to refer to anything that “is meant to sound like science” but really is complete blather – as is the comment to which Heddle referred.

  45. dingojack says

    All this talk of cats (LOL or not) puts me in mind of:

    ‘To begin with,’ said the Cat, ‘a dog’s not mad. You grant that?’
    ‘I suppose so,’ said Alice.
    ‘Well, then,’ the Cat went on, ‘you see, a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.’
    ‘I call it purring, not growling,’ said Alice.
    ‘Call it what you like,’ said the Cat. “

    Dingo

  46. says

    steve oberski,

    Jet keep trolling. Although it is hard to believe it is possible, you look more and more like a jackass with each post.

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