Less than one third of Americans believe in evolution

(Note: Because of the misleading way in which Pew presents its own findings, multiple reports run with a headline similar to this one in USA Today: “One-third of Americans reject human evolution.” That would appear to imply that two-thirds of Americans accept the theory of evolution that provides the foundation for evolutionary biology. However, the rejectionists that the survey identifies are those who believe in the literal truth of Genesis, Adam and Eve etc.. Those who subscribe to Intelligent Design or other non-scientific Creationist evolutionary narratives are viewed by Pew as believing in human evolution.)

I am not a militant atheist. I have little patience for the anti-religion campaigning engaged in by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and their ilk. The idea of trying to rid the world of religion makes no more sense than trying to abolish sport.

Human beings are not governed by reason and people who become enslaved by rationality, inevitably become emotionally malformed. The human capacity to express and experience love is a capacity without which we would cease to be human. As Pascal said: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.”

We live in a world constructed by thought and shared ideas and our ability to make sense of life springs in large part from the fact that we continuously filter our experience through stories — stories through which we tell ourselves who we are, where we live, and why we live.

Because of this, I don’t think that science should or can be thrust down anyone’s throat…

And yet to learn that less than a third of Americans believe in evolution is deeply depressing — even if not surprising.

Those who want to put a strong political spin on the results of a new Pew Research Center poll on views about evolution are emphasizing the fact that the greatest concentration of skepticism on evolution is among Republicans while pointing to the figure of 67% of Democrats believing in evolution.

The pollsters, however, fudged the basic question by implying that it’s possible to believe in evolution without accepting its scientific basis.

Pew’s primary interest was in differentiating between those Americans who take Genesis literally and those who don’t. Those Americans who believe “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today” are counted as believing in evolution, even though they don’t believe in natural selection.

The fact that Pew chose to slice the question in this way is itself illustrative of the weak influence science has in American culture. “Evolution” is being treated as an object of belief coming in many varieties, rather than as hard, incontrovertibly proven scientific fact.

No one would conduct a poll asking Americans whether they believe the Earth revolves around the Sun and yet when it comes to the subject of evolution, the deference to religious belief is so engrained that evolution is treated as a completely subjective term — evolution, whatever that means to you.

Why does this matter?

The world cannot tackle climate change if America turns its back on science. And yet as a culture, America currently stands somewhere between the sixteenth and the twentieth century. Copernicus was successful but the jury’s still out on Darwin.

If two-thirds of the population is skeptical about evolution, what chance is there of persuading them that climate change is caused by human activity?

It hardly seems coincidental that almost exactly the same number of Americans who believe in human-caused climate change also believe in evolution through natural selection. (I would hazard a guess that it’s not just the same number, but also the same Americans.)

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13 thoughts on “Less than one third of Americans believe in evolution

  1. bobs

    I believe the Catholic Church has no problem with evolution, nor does the Anglican Church or any of the mainline European brands of Christianity. Americans are mostly non-Christians. Of course they claim they are but they are not: they belong to various cults with the name Christian attached to it. Jerry Falwell and Joel Olsteen are further from Christianity than the Pope is from Islam. The first thing cults do is make you renounce reason. So little surprise they can actually believe that Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs on their way to WalMart (when we all know they drove chevys).

  2. Steve Zerger

    It’s good to hear that you’re not a militant atheist, because ideology is always blinding. And I share your deep depression over American culture and its disastrous direction, which is of course the important point.

    On evolution in particular: It is perfectly reasonable and logically defensible to believe that the evolutionary outcomes which we see are both contingent and a manifestation of purpose. Atheism doesn’t necessarily follow from acceptance of natural selection as a basic principle of evolution. God (a problematic word, but difficult to avoid) is the great improviser.

    There have always been many varieties in the story of evolution:


    And try as we might, we can never seem to banish purpose from the story. It finds our blind spot and sneaks in every time.

  3. bobs

    Paul: Not to nitpick, but it’s wrong to call evolution a “fact.” It’s a theory (or a proto-theory because it does not enable predictions). A fact is dumb: a “dropped apple will fall to the ground” is a fact. A fact has no explanatory power. Now to say that the apple falls to the ground with an acceleration inversely proportional to the square of the distance to the center of the earth, now that’s a theory!

    A theory is by definition wrong. For example, what I just said is wrong (general relativity tells us it’s wrong at long distances and quantum mechanics that it’s wrong at short distances) but it’s “mostly” right. Until the early 20th c, Newton was the best we had. Now we have better theories.

    The Modern Synthesis is the best we have. But it is wrong. Much more wrong than Newton was, in fact. Worse, evolution is not even really a theory, because it’s not quantitative. (And the part that is cannot be validated with any scientific rigor: if anyone has a confirmation of Hamilton’s rule whose validation criteria pass the laugh test, let me know. The underlying principle is sound: the algebraic inequality is bullshit.) Evolution is a set of exceedingly simple principles that are probably mostly right. But we don’t have a theory yet. It’s at the level of Newton’s gravitational law if it only said: “two bodies will attract each other.” Physics would not call that a theory of gravitation.

    I believe honesty is crucial in science. I don’t care if creationists will twist what I say into confirmation of their demented views about all that Intelligent Design crap. Scientists lose credibility when they’re not honest about their field. Every time Dawkins talks about the selfish gene (which is unscientific baby talk), the cause of global warming takes a hit. Physicists set the standards of science. Evolutionary biologists have been doing their utmost to trash them. This is not to excuse the lunatics out there, but Dawkins bears responsibility for the utter failure of his field to persuade the masses.

  4. Paul Woodward

    One of the reasons I’m not a militant atheist is because in my upbringing, I was influenced by religious values and those values still make sense even if the theology does not.

    I don’t think accepting natural selection necessitates atheism but it accounts for biological change without requiring that it be governed by any external agency.

    But I also think that atheism has quite a narrow and specific meaning and does not constitute a belief — it simply involves the rejection of a belief in a creating deity. If someone tells me they are an atheist, I only know what they don’t believe; I don’t know what they believe.

    Some atheists may view existence as random and meaningless — a view that I don’t share. To such an atheist, I might look more like a pantheist since I believe in the indivisibility of existence.

  5. Paul Woodward

    It might look like I got the title wrong if you simply read how this poll is being reported and how the poll represents its own finding.

    According to a new Pew Research Center analysis, six-in-ten Americans (60%) say that “humans and other living things have evolved over time,” while a third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

    However, if you continue reading the report it explains that only “a third (32%) say that evolution is ‘due to natural processes such as natural selection.'” When Pew says that 60% of Americans say humans “evolved” they are including views of “evolution” that have nothing to do with the scientific view of evolution. For instance, people who believe in intelligent design or many other forms of creationism would be included in this 60%.

    Part of the problem in conducting an opinion poll about people’s beliefs in evolution is that people will blithely respond in what might appear to be a clear way and yet unless someone has taken a class in biology, they would probably struggle to define the term. I imagine that if Pew had gone around asking people whether they believed in descent with modification, 99% would have answered: “don’t know.”

  6. Paul Woodward

    Bobs – “not to nitpick” is a bit like the expression, “with all due respect” — it tends to be followed by the opposite of what it heralds. Be that as it may, and not to invalidate the rest of your comment, what I was alluding to when I was contrasting belief and fact was the difference between the way the term theory is used in everyday discourse and the way it is used in science. For most people, theory is conjecture and so the “theory of evolution” ends up sounding like scientific speculation. I take it that you would agree that to assert that humans and dinosaurs share a common ancestor is an established fact — not a matter of conjecture.

  7. Steve Zerger

    You do look more like a pantheist to me. I on the other hand probably look more like an atheist to someone who believes in an omnipotent creator deity. But I don’t call myself an atheist. Funny how we choose our labels.

  8. Paul Woodward

    Yes, well I generally only adopt “atheist” for the sake of indicating which clubs I don’t belong to. It’s a habit I acquired after moving to the Bible Belt. On the not infrequent occasions on which I have been accosted by an evangelist, I naively imagine that once I’ve labelled myself an atheist, I will have identified myself as a lost cause. It doesn’t work. Maybe I should try: “I am a figment of your imagination.”

    Like Groucho Marx I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.

  9. bobs

    Actually, in this case, “not to nitpick” means “I agree with 99% of what you wrote. The remaining 1% might not be germane to your point but it’s still worth mentioning it.”

    Yes I agree with you that it is a fact that humans and cucumbers share a common ancestor. But that was known about 100 years before Darwin. It’s Darwin who came up with a theory (or a pre-theory). Scientific theories are among the most glorious things humans can claim as their own. You’re right that it also implies uncertainty but that only adds to the glory. The great theories of science are up there with the cantatas of Bach and the plays of Shakespeare.

    Dawkins fails to understand the magic of science (because he’s not a physicist or because he doesn’t understand magic). Biology is entirely miraculous but his presentation of it as the obsessive machinations of nucleic acids is dull. It takes all the magic away. Quantum mechanics is entirely mathematical, it has been validated way beyond anything in biology, and it is completely magical. One day scientists will explain why biology works and why it’s magical. And it won’t need any appeal to divinity. Until that day comes, biology will continue to be presented as an astonishingly pedestrian affair involving natural selection (a concept with the intellectual depth of a third grader).

  10. Laurie

    The book of Genesis does not describe creation. The sons of Adam and Eve went over to the land of Nod to get wives. They did not mate with their mother. There is no description of how the Nods ascended. It helps if you don’t study the religious manuals.

  11. Nick

    This is an intellectually disingenuous article.

    It’s insulting to reinterpret a study’s results to achieve an alarmist conclusion. Labeling those who are religious who struggle to incorporate rational, accurate science under their own paradigms of faith as people who do not in any way believe in Evolution is Fox News level sensationalism.

    As an agnostic it pains me to see people resorting to these kinds of distortions in order to cull an opinion out of the crowd in the same manner that the religious create complete disinformation to generate fear and thus compliance with their worldviews.

    A person who willingly and openly agrees not just with evolution but with the scientific model of it’s process and simply falls back onto “because God does it” rather than accepting that science does not understand the exact mechanism by which some traits are selected for and others not in a combination which is beneficial to a particular species does not mean that someone “does not in any way believe in evolution”

    It is simply a substitution of faith for an as yet undefined series of variables in the natural world. Labeling that as “does not believe in evolution” is a purposeful reinterpretation of the data to suit your desired perspective of pessimism of the population.

    In other words, shut the hell up, you’re making the rest of us look bad.

  12. rosemerry

    Thanks for the article, Paul. The evidence for evolution really does extend past “only a theory”, as many critics call it. To read the beliefs of so many of the people who claim to be christians and to represent the US citizens in Congress and in various State administrations makes me doubt human superiority to any “lower creatures”!!!

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