We are so screwed.
That’s the result of a new survey of people’s attitudes toward evolution. Notice where the United States lies: nearly dead last. We beat Turkey.
There was more to this study than just asking whether a person agreed with the statement that “Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals.” They also collected other data on age, gender, education, genetic literacy, religious belief, attitude toward life, attitude toward science and technology, belief in science and technology, reservations about science and technology, and political ideology, and carried out a statistical analysis to determine the relative contribution of these variables to ignorance about evolution.
I’m sure you can all guess what the number one biggest obstacle to accepting evolution was.
The total effect of fundamentalist religious beliefs on attitude toward evolution (using a standardized metric) was nearly twice as much in the United States as in the nine European countries (path coefficients of -0.42 and -0.24, respectively), which indicates that individuals who hold a strong belief in a personal God and who pray frequently were significantly less likely to view evolution as probably or definitely true than adults with less conservative religious views.
The number two problem?
Second, the evolution issue has been politicized and incorporated into the current partisan division in the United States in a manner never seen in Europe or Japan. In the second half of the 20th century, the conservative wing of the Republican Party has adopted creationism as a part of a platform designed to consolidate their support in southern and Midwestern states—the “red” states. In the 1990s, the state Republican platforms in seven states included explicit demands for the teaching of “creation science”. There is no major political party in Europe or Japan that uses opposition to evolution as a part of its political platform.
On the positive side, one factor that improves the acceptance of evolution is genetic literacy, and the authors advocate improved science education in our public schools. We need it, desperately.
It appears that many of these adults have adopted a human exceptionalism perspective. Elements of this perspective can be seen in the way that many adults try to integrate modern genetics into their understanding of life. For example, only a third of American adults agree that more than half of human genes are identical to those of mice and only 38% of adults recognize that humans have more than half of their genes in common with chimpanzees. In
other studies, fewer than half of American adults can provide a minimal definition of DNA. Thus, it is not surprising that nearly half of the respondents in 2005 were not sure about the proportion of human genes that overlap with mice or chimpanzees.
Despite the good suggestion about improving education, the paper ends on a grim and pessimistic note. Like I said, we are so screwed.
The politicization of science in the name of religion and political partisanship is not new to the United States, but transformation of traditional geographically and economically based political parties into religiously oriented ideological coalitions marks the beginning of a new era for science policy. The broad public acceptance of the benefits of science and technology in the second half of the 20th century allowed science to develop a nonpartisan identification that largely protected it from overt partisanship. That era appears to have closed.
Hmmm. I wonder what the Discovery Institute thinks of all this. Let’s ask Bruce Chapman!
“A better explanation for the high percentage of doubters of Darwinism in America may be that this country’s citizens are famously independent and are not given to being rolled by an ideological elite in any field,” Chapman said. “In particular, the growing doubts about Darwinism undoubtedly reflect growing doubts among scientists about Darwinian theory. Over 640 have now signed a public dissent and the number keeps growing.”
I think the study shows precisely the opposite effect. Americans are being rolled in large numbers by an ideological ‘elite’ nested in our churches and in the Republican party—the reason we are falling so far behind in our understanding of the biological sciences is that political and religious authority figures are lying to the people and fostering ignorance, and Americans are dumbly falling for it…and the more ignorant they are, the more they depend on those false authorities.
Americans aren’t second to last because they are “famously independent.” They’re failing biology because they’re god-soaked sheep, and the Republican party has exploited that failing.
By the way, I am quoted on Fox News on this one. That feels…strange.
Miller JD, Scott EC, Okamoto S (2006) Public acceptance of evolution. Science 313:765-766.