Is the American Stance on Evolution Evolving?

The theory of evolution faced a strong backlash in the very beginning. In fact, Charles Darwin did not even venture near the topic of human evolution when he initially published his now famous On the Origin of Species. Then, he faced the threat of religious disapproval in 19th century England, but hundreds of years later, is the United States, a country where comparable advancements in science and technology have occurred, any more conducive to scientific reasoning and logic?  One would certainly hope so. Yet the percentage of public schools that teach evolution appears to be strikingly slim: only 28% of high school teachers consistently teach Evolution following the guidelines set by the National Research Council [1]. Even more alarming is the statistic that 13% of high school teachers teach Creationism as fact [1]. The remaining percentage of teachers fall somewhere in between, not ready to endorse the theory as concrete science. This is all despite the Supreme Court’s ruling that banning the teaching of Evolution would violate the Establishment clause of the Constitution, which prevents the passing of laws that would impose any particular set of religious beliefs. [2]. Why is Evolution still such a controversial topic? Should it even be a hot topic in today’s “modern and progressive” world?

Delving deeper into the realm of education, a more complex story seems to unfold. Analyzing the education system is particularly helpful when thinking about Evolution because the education system is where the majority of people receive their knowledge on Evolution. A 2012 Gallup poll shows that 46% of Americans completely reject the theory of Evolution, 32% believe God “guided” Evolution, and 15% believe that Evolution occurred without divine intervention [3]. When this data is categorized by education level and analyzed, a few more differences become apparent. Out of those polled with a high school education or less, 11% believed in Evolution sans divine intervention, whereas 29% of individuals with postgraduate degrees believed in Evolution [3]. While the percentage is still much lower than one would expect for a highly educated class of people, one must also keep in mind that higher education does not necessarily mean that these individuals were more exposed to Evolution theory than someone without the same level of education. That being said, there is still a clear correlation between higher education level and a belief in Evolution.

Another educational factor to consider is that of homeschooling. While still regulated with guidelines, homeschooling provides a vast degree of freedom, and parents can elect to teach their children a modified curriculum. This means that parents have the opportunity to explore certain topics in much more depth than what would be feasible in public schools, but it also means that certain topics, such as Evolution, can be omitted. The latter possibility is not far-fetched; as of 2007, 83% of homeschooling parents cited moral or religious reasons for excluding Evolution from their homeschool curriculum [4]. This, coupled with the fact that some Christian publishers are selling textbooks which propagate the tenants of Creationism heavily, implies that homeschooling provides an effective outlet for the teaching of Creationism as fact over the scientific theory of Evolution [5].

This is not meant to say that people of faith do not believe in Evolution. Multiple religious authorities, including the Pope, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, have explicitly stated that Evolution is compatible with religious beliefs [6]. Despite this, however, the largest opposition to Evolution still comes from those who participate more in religious activities. [3]. The same 2012 Gallup poll that provided data for belief in evolution across education levels did the same across differing frequencies of church attendance. The results showed that 67% of those who “attend church weekly” believe in Creationism, whereas only 25% of those who “seldom or never go to church” hold the same opinion [3].

This belief in Creationism persists in the face of scientific evidence. Something that many opponents of Evolution like to point out is that the fossil record is incomplete. While this assertion is partially true, fossilized remains such as that of Lucy, a partially complete Neanderthal skeleton, provide paleoanthropologists with the critical pieces of information to further complete the puzzle of human evolution. On a non-human front, transition fossils like Tiktaalik, a fish-like organism with limb-like features that enabled it to waddle terrestrially, provide insight about the evolutionary transition from sea to land.

The aforementioned fossils, however, are relatively old discoveries in light of current evolutionary research. Today, research builds on the fact that Evolution is an accepted scientific theory, and the goal is to shed light on how Evolution has occurred and continues to occur, not if it occurred. That said, recent advancements in the field of molecular biology have solidified existing evidence in support of Evolution. In a recent interview, Dr. Tanya Smith, professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, pointed out that, “analysis of fossil DNA provides an independent line of evidence for Evolution that is in agreement with what we see in the fossil record” [7].

With all these scientific advancements, it is hard to believe that Evolution is still debated in the United States. It boils down to education: for the majority of students, their exposure to Evolution is through one, maybe two, biology courses they take throughout high school. As previously discussed, even those biology courses do not always teach Evolution, which leads to a lack of understanding about what Evolution is in the scientifically accepted Darwinian model. When students do not understand Evolution, they are more likely to believe whatever Creationist story is taught to them because they have not been given the scientific facts and the critical thinking skills to evaluate what they hear from other sources.

The crux of this educational dilemma is the cultural climate. Most teachers do not want to endanger their jobs or reputations by teaching something as controversial as Evolution. As Dr. Smith points out, “there seems to be this intentional ignorance” on the side of fundamental Creationists that prevents being open-minded to scientific logic [7]. She observes a dichotomy between “modern progressive thought and threatened conservative religious thought” about what should be taught to students [7]. Yet this same dichotomy does not seem to be present in European and other Western nations.

By examining the data on belief in Evolution across countries of similar levels of development, a huge discrepancy between the U.S. and other Western nations becomes apparent. A 2005 poll among 34 developed nations revealed that the U.S. has the second highest proportion of residents who reject Evolution [8]. This poll included countries such as Japan, France, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, countries that the U.S. considers itself to be on par with in terms of education and development. This suggests that there is something inherently different in American culture that facilitates the rejection of Evolution theory. A change in these trends would first require a comprehensive cultural shift to a more accepting view of Evolution. When asked if she foresaw a change in the nation’s view on Evolution in the near future, Dr. Smith replied that she did not [7]. However, she was optimistic about a change with subsequent generations [7]. This is a reasonable hope, considering the previously discussed statistics about differing beliefs in Evolution across education levels and the trend of more and more individuals going on to college and postgraduate degrees [9]. However, change takes time and big cultural changes like the one needed to facilitate more widespread belief in Evolution require even more time. For the past few decades, the percentage of people who believe in Creationism and Evolution has remained fairly constant [3]. When all is said and done, it does not seem that the stance on Evolution in the United States is evolving at a noticeable rate. Perhaps this is a pessimistic outlook, but the numbers are not currently swaying in favor of Evolution.

References

  1. Bakalar, N. “On Evolution, Biology Teachers Stray From Lesson Plan.” The New York Times, February, 2011.
  2. Matsuumura, M. and L. Mead. “Ten Major Court Cases About Evolution and Creationism.” http://ncse.com/taking-action/ten-major-court-cases-evolution-creationism
  3. Newport, F. “In U.S., 46% Hold Creationist View of Human Origins Highly Religious Americans Most Likely to Believe in.” http://www.gallup.com/poll/155003/hold-creationist-view-human-origins.aspx
  4. Bielick, S. “1.5 Million Homeschooled Students in the United States in 2007.” Jessup (MD): U.S. Department of Education (U.S.); 2008 Dec.
  5. Lovan, D. “Top home-school texts dismiss evolution for creationism.” USA Today, March 2010.
  6. “Science, Evolution, and Creationism.” http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11876.html
  7. Smith T. Interviewed by: Bhupal H, November, 2012.
  8. Owen, J. “Evolution Less Accepted in U.S. Than in Other Western Countries, Study Finds.” http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/08/060810-evolution.html
  9. Post-Secondary Education Statistics in 2001. http://www.policyalmanac.org/education/archive/2001_Postsecondary_Education.shtml
  10. Jungers, W.L. “Lucy’s length: Stature reconstruction in Australopithecus afarensis (A.L.288–1) with implications for other small-bodied hominids.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology, no. 2 (1998): 227-231. Accessed October 3, 2012. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/store/10.1002/ajpa.1330760211/asset/1330760211_ftp.pdf?v=1&t=h7xomnog&s=246fc9e1935dcaa2b9afcfb3d56b2483f7435cb0
  11. Pollitt, K. “Darwin, Still Losing After All These Years.” Accessed September 29, 2012. http://web.ebscohost.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=3da9ba4c-386f-4a64-b3ec-edfa4605db96%40sessionmgr14&vid=6&hid=15
  12. Young, D. The Discovery of Evolution, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Image Credit: Virtual Physiological Human Institute

Image Credit: Howard Health and Life Sciences High School

Herman is a sophomore at Harvard College, with a religious background and a belief in Evolution. Having always successfully reconciled her religious beliefs with the theory of Evolution, she sought to investigate the continuing tendency to reject Evolutionary theory in the United States. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.