Sometimes on Sunday I catch up on my backed up journal reading. High profile journals like Nature and Science are great except for one major defect: they come once a week, every week. They tend to pile up. So I browse them, looking for interesting articles or just satisfying my somewhat eclectic scientific interests. No surprise, with a Freethinker Sermonette due, the article by Miller, Scott and Okamoto, “Public Acceptance of Evolution” would catch my eye (Science 11 August 2006:Vol. 313. no. 5788, pp. 765 – 766):
Beginning in 1985, national samples of U.S. adults have been asked whether the statement, “Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals,” is true or false, or whether the respondent is not sure or does not know. We compared the results of these surveys with survey data from nine European countries in 2002, surveys in 32 European countries in 2005, and a national survey in Japan in 2001.
A dichotomous true-false question format tends to exaggerate the strength of both positions. In 1993 and 2003, national samples of American adults were asked about the same statement but were offered the choice of saying that the statement was “definitely true, probably true, probably false, definitely false,” or that they did not know or were uncertain.
Americans, it turns out, are among the least convinced of evolution of any country surveyed. On the “yes” or “no” question, they are split about 40% – 40% – 20%, the latter group uncertain. In the more flexible version, about a third of adults firmly rejected evolution with only 14% saying it is “definitely true.” Combining the “probably” and the “not sure” gives us about 55% of Americans with varying degrees of hesitation as to whether humans were the product of an evolutionary process.
This pattern is different from that seen in Europe and Japan. Looking first at the simpler true-false question, our analysis found that significantly (at the 0.01 to 0.05 level by difference of proportions) (11) more adults in Japan and 32 European countries accepted the concept of evolution than did American adults (see figure, right). Only Turkish adults were less likely to accept the concept of evolution than American adults. In Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, and France, 80% or more of adults accepted the concept of evolution, as did 78% of Japanese adults.
A cross-national study of the United States and nine European nations in 2002-2003 used the expanded version of the question. The results confirm that a significantly lower proportion of American adults believe that evolution is absolutely true than adults in nine European countries. . . . A third of American adults indicated that evolution is “absolutely false”; the proportion of European adults who thought that evolution was absolutely false ranged from 7% in Denmark, France, and Great Britain to 15% in the Netherlands.
So what’s the explanation for why the US is so different than Europe and Japan? The authors believe the political role of American Protestant fundamentalism is the reason:
First, the structure and beliefs of American fundamentalism historically differ from those of mainstream Protestantism in both the United States and Europe. The biblical literalist focus of fundamentalism in the United States sees Genesis as a true and accurate account of the creation of human life that supersedes any scientific finding or interpretation. In contrast, mainstream Protestant faiths in Europe (and their U.S. counterparts) have viewed Genesis as metaphorical and–like the Catholic Church–have not seen a major contradiction between their faith and the work of Darwin and other scientists.
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” (1). There is no major political party in Europe or Japan that uses opposition to evolution as a part of its political platform.
Using a causal modeling statistical technique, the authors identify the influence of pro-life views and religious conserative views on beliefs about evolution. No suprises, so far. But the authors also identify a third factor, which seems highly problematical to me.
Third, genetic literacy has a moderate positive relationship to the acceptance of evolution in both the United States and the nine European countries. This result indicates that those adults who have acquired some understanding of modern genetics are more likely to hold positive attitudes toward evolution. The total effect of genetic literacy on the acceptance of evolution was similar in the United States and the nine European countries.
Although the mean score on the Index of Genetic Literacy was slightly higher in the United States than the nine European countries combined, results from another 2005 U.S. study show that substantial numbers of American adults are confused about some of the core ideas related to 20th- and 21st-century biology. When presented with a description of natural selection that omits the word evolution, 78% of adults agreed to a description of the evolution of plants and animals. . . . But, 62% of adults in the same study believed that God created humans as whole persons without any evolutionary development.
The authors label these views “human exceptionalism,” i.e., evolution doesn’t apply to humans.
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 [cites omitted] 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.
I can’t really believe the problem is lack of biological education. I expect many people who believe in evolution and know some biology were nonetheless surprised at the extent to which mammals share the same genes. The problem isn’t, as the authors suggest, that science eduction is lacking in US middle schools and high schools. It is that religious fundamentalism represents a particular reaction to the modern world. The one third of Americans who outright deny evolution are a hard core who have reacted to the changes in society, as reflected in MTV, sexual mores, popular culture and the manifest diversity in religious perspectives, in a specific way. For them, science represents a particularly threatening set of doctrines that strike at the heart of social beliefs that are already in a precarious state. The authors come close to recognizing this in their final paragraph:
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.
But it is the Republican party, at this stage in its history, that has exploited this issue and politicized it (cf. Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science). When the Republicans have milked it for all its value, it will abandon this “base” and science policy will resume its non-partisan aspect. First, we will have to spank the Republicans good and hard by turning them out of office in the November mid-term elections.