Our Views On Evolution Aren’t Evolving

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In the beginning…

Well, actually, in the United States, the beginning is very contentious. When the Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project polled Americans on whether they believed in evolution, 60 percent of the respondents agreed with the statement “Humans have evolved over time.” The statement “Humans existed in present form since the beginning of time” got 33 percent of the votes. The percentage of people who believe in evolution didn’t change between 2009 and 2013.

These numbers don’t even represent a dramatic victory for science, since only about half of the pro-evolutionists think that evolution took place “due to natural processes such as natural selection.” Most of the others agree that “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.” This may be an endorsement of Hugo de Vries’s mutation theory of evolution, but somehow it doesn’t seem likely.

The Pew report did reveal a sort of evolution itself, along political lines. In 2009, 54 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of Democrats believed in evolution – only a 10 percent difference. According to the 2013 poll, the pro-evolution Democrats had increased to 67 percent, but among Republicans, belief in evolution dropped to 43 percent – a much larger gap.

There have been a number of studies examining why people, including those with apparently solid educational backgrounds, grow up to reject science, but one of the most convincing was published by Paul Bloom and Deena Weisberg in Science in 2007. The authors reported that if children encounter a statement that seems reasonable on its face, and is communicated by somebody who seems trustworthy, then that “fact” gets locked in. Thus, ”Resistance to science, then, is particularly exaggerated in societies where nonscientific ideologies have the advantages of being both grounded in common sense and transmitted by trustworthy sources.”

As any child can see, the Earth is flat, and when this statement is confirmed by someone as trustworthy as a teacher, not to mention echoed in a textbook, that factoid enters into the superego as firmly as a warning against pulling the cat’s tail. Admittedly the flat Earth stuff can be unlearned – cats reinforce their message. That’s the reason there is so much concern with textbook selection in Texas. Texas boasts the second-largest population in the country, and dictates its textbook selections for the entire state. Public schools have no choice but to buy what Texas orders.

Lately, though, Texas textbooks have become less doctrinaire. In 2011, conservatives tried to get a history book changed to downplay the achievements of Thomas Jefferson because of his support for the separation of church and state. In 2013, selection of a science textbook was delayed because one reviewer complained that its lessons on evolution and natural selection were presented as factual rather than a theory on par with biblical dogma. The objections were put aside in both cases, and Texas made good choices. Even Louisiana is coming around: in 2010, biology textbooks including evolution received approval.

But don’t get too excited just yet. Zack Kopplin, who as a high school senior launched the campaign to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act, reported in Slate that Texas charter schools operated by the Responsive Education Solutions system have been using proprietary textbooks that practice a form of stealth creationism. In a previous report, Mr. Kopplin wrote that Texas’s science curriculum is still designed to sabotage the teaching of evolution by requiring teachers to “analyze, evaluate, and critique” evolution and teach “all sides” of evolution to encourage “critical thinking.” If the door is closed, come in through the window.

One thing that seems to be true of creationists is that they’re sincere. Aside from the owners of the Creation Museum in Petersberg Kentucky, which charges $30 per person for admission, there’s not much money to be made advocating creationism. The Creation Museum gained attention in large part because of its exhibits showing humans living at the same time as dinosaurs, and in 2007 it welcomed over 400,000 attendees. For the next two years the admissions dropped to 300,000, and in 2012 there was a further drop to about 250,000. Still, patrons come from an average distance of 250 miles, and the museum is a draw comparable to a well-run theme park.

On February 4th, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” participated in a debate on creationism and evolution with Ken Ham, the museum’s CEO. In a 2012 Associated Press interview, Mr. Nye said, “If we raise a generation of students who don’t believe in the process of science, who think everything that we’ve come to know about nature and the universe can be dismissed by a few sentences translated into English from some ancient text, you’re not going to continue to innovate.”

The debate has sparked opposition from both sides. In a YouTube video, conservative commentator Glenn Beck accused Mr. Nye of trying to silence creationism: “Is he going to look like the people who threw Galileo up?” From the pro-science contingent, the Richard Dawkins Foundation said that scientists should not debate creationism because “debating creationists offers their position credibility.”

Wise or otherwise, the Great Nye vs. Ham debate of 2014 reflects a persistent cultural divide our national fabric that only seems to deepen as our political discourse sharpens and acceptance of anti-intellectualism gains ground.

About Sam Uretsky

Sam is a trained pharmacist and freelance writer with degrees from Columbia University and the University of Michigan. He lives in Long Island, New York, with Kandi the Cocker Spaniel and Minerva, a cat.
Posted in: Religion, Science, Society