17 September 2021

Accepting Evolution

Welcome back. Although creationism and intelligent design proponents are going strong, a majority of American adults now accept evolution. At least that’s what researchers with the University of Michigan, National Center for Science Education and Spain’s University of Oviedo found through analysis of national surveys from 1985 to 2020.

To be sure we’re on the same playing field, I’ll define some terms and review the status, then get back to the researchers’ analysis.

Evolution, Creationism, Intelligent Design from Merriam-Webster
Evolution is the scientific theory that explains the development of new species and varieties of living things from preexisting forms through the action of biological mechanisms (e.g., natural selection, genetic mutation or drift, and hybridization).

Creationism is a doctrine or theory that matter, the various forms of life and the world were created by God out of nothing, usually in the way described in Genesis.

Creationism versus evolution (graphic by Sidney Harris from
Intelligent design is the theory that matter, the various forms of life and the world were created by a designing intelligence.

Science or Religion?
Creationism took a hit in 1987 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a Louisiana law that required “creation science” be taught in public schools where evolutionary science was taught (Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578). In support of Aguillard, 72 Nobel Prize-winning scientists, 17 state academies of science and 7 other scientific organizations filed amicus briefs that described creation science as being composed of religious tenets.

But the hit was far from fatal. Although no state currently bans teaching evolution, Oklahoma makes it optional, Louisiana and Tennessee give the freedom to question scientific theories like evolution, and about 20 states still allow creationism to be taught.

The intelligent design movement arose out of the creation science movement. Its chief activities are promoting awareness of the intelligent design concept, lobbying policymakers to include it in high school science, and legal actions to defend or remove barriers to it being taught.

Intelligent design’s scientific material has been criticized as containing factual misrepresentation and misleading, rhetorical and equivocal terminology. Scientists responding to a poll overwhelmingly said intelligent design is about religion, not science. The National Academy of Sciences stated that creationism and intelligent design are not science because they cannot be tested by scientific methods.

In contrast, evolution is one of the most substantiated theories in science, backed by such disciplines as geology, paleontology, genetics and developmental biology. Like other scientific theories (e.g., gravity), evolution does not address God or religious belief. A 2009 Pew Research Center survey of scientists found 97% accept evolution and 51% believe in God or a higher power.

Surveying Evolution’s Acceptance
The researchers’ analysis of evolution’s acceptance was based on a mix of national surveys. Since 1985, several years of biennial National Science Board surveys, several national surveys funded by other units of the National Science Foundation, and a new time series focused on civic scientific literacy funded by NASA have asked U.S. adults to agree or disagree with the statement, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.”

While survey results during the two early decades were generally split, acceptance of evolution increased significantly during the last decade. The percentage of U.S. adults agreeing with the statement increased from 40% to 54%, which reflected a small decrease in overt rejection and a larger decrease in those unsure about evolution.

Response of U.S. adults, from 1985–2020, to the statement, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals" (from journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/09636625211035919?journalCode=pusa).
Through statistical analysis (structural equation modeling) of the combined data set, the researchers were able to attribute the increased acceptance of evolution to higher enrollment in baccalaureate-level programs, exposure to college-level science courses, a declining level of religious fundamentalism and a rising level of civic scientific literacy.

Wrap Up
The rise in evolution’s acceptance in the U.S. is certainly significant, however 54% is likely to still be low for a developed nation. By “still,” I’m referring to a 2005 study of evolution’s acceptance in 34 developed nations. Only one nation, Turkey, scored lower than the U.S.

Response of adults in selected countries in 2005 to the statement, “Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals” (graphic from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Level_of_support_for_evolution modified from data on 34 countries, 1985-2005, www.science.org/lookup/doi/10.1126/science.1126746).
Nevertheless, if the factors identified by the researchers as affecting the increased acceptance are correct, acceptance in the U.S. should keep rising. Thanks for stopping by.

Study of U.S. acceptance of evolution, 1985-2020, in Public Understanding of Science journal:
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/925987
U.S. Supreme Court case Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987): en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwards_v._Aguillard
Intelligent design movement: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intelligent_design_movement
Teaching of evolution, 2021: worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/states-that-dont-teach-evolution
Pew Research Center survey: www.pewresearch.org/politics/2009/07/09/section-4-scientists-politics-and-religion/
Example of National Science Board reports: ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsb20207/public-familiarity-with-s-t-facts

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