James Owen for National Geographic News August 10, 2006
People in the United States are much less likely to accept Darwin’s idea that humans and apes share a common ancestor than adults in other Western nations, a number of surveys show.
A new study of those surveys suggests that the main reason for this lies in a unique confluence of religion, politics, and the public understanding of biological science in the United States. In the U.S., only 14 percent of adults thought that evolution was "definitely true," while about a third firmly rejected the idea. In European countries, including Denmark, Sweden, and France, more than 80 percent of adults surveyed said they accepted the concept of evolution.
The proportion of western European adults who believed the theory "absolutely false" ranged from 7 percent in Great Britain to 15 percent in the Netherlands. The only country included in the study where adults were more likely than Americans to reject evolution was Turkey.
The investigation also showed that the percentage of U.S. adults who are uncertain about evolution has risen from 7 percent to 21 percent in the past 20 years. Researchers from the U.S. and Japan analyzed additional information from these surveys in an attempt to identify factors that might help explain why Americans are more skeptical about evolution. Led by Jon D. Miller, a political scientist at Michigan State University, the team reports its findings in tomorrow’s issue of the journal Science. American Culture and Evolution The team ran a complex analysis of the statistics, testing for a causal link between aspects of U.S. culture and Americans’ attitudes toward evolution.
The study identified three key influences on Americans. First, the researchers found that the effect of fundamentalist religious belief on opinions of evolution was almost twice as much in the U.S. as in Europe. After European Protestants broke off from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, they retained a hierarchy that remained part of the university system, Miller says. "In the United States, partly because of our frontier history, most of the Protestant churches are congregational—they don’t belong to any hierarchy," he added. "They’re free to choose their own ministers and espouse their own beliefs." That freedom also included the creation of their own Bible colleges for training ministers, Miller says. "If you send them to a Bible college that teaches only the Bible, they’ll come back preaching only the Bible," he added. "There are very few European counterparts to that."
European Attitudes Second, the researchers tested whether an American’s political views influenced his or her view of evolution theory. The team found that individuals with anti-abortion, pro-life views associated with the conservative wing of the Republican Party were significantly more likely to reject evolution than people with pro-choice views. The team adds that in Europe having pro-life or right-wing political views had little correlation with a person’s attitude toward evolution.
The researchers say this reflects the politicization of the evolution issue in the U.S. "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 part of a platform designed to consolidate their support in Southern and Midwestern states," the study authors write. Miller says that when Ronald Reagan was running for President of the U.S., for example, he gave speeches in these states where he would slip in the sentence, "I have no chimpanzees in my family," poking fun at the idea that apes could be the ancestors of humans.
When such a view comes from the U.S. President or other prominent political figures, Miller says, it "lends a degree of legitimacy to the dispute." A Natural Selection? Third, the study found that adults with some understanding of genetics are more likely to have a positive attitude toward evolution. But, the authors say, studies in the U.S. suggest substantial numbers of American adults are confused about some core ideas related to 20th- and 21st-century biology. The researchers cite a 2005 study finding that 78 percent of adults agreed that plants and animals had evolved from other organisms. In the same study, 62 percent also believed that God created humans without any evolutionary development. Fewer than half of American adults can provide a minimal definition of DNA, the authors add.