Why People Don’t Accept Evolution

Cameron Smith has an interesting column in the Skeptical Inquirer that I think makes a valuable point. People have a difficult time accepting evolution even if they aren’t particularly religious. Why? At least partly because our brains seem biased against non-teleological thinking:

No, I think the widespread misunderstanding of evolution runs very deep. I think it has a lot to do with the way our minds work—with, basically, being human itself. That’s because the essence of humanness is in the proactive making of things. I believe this proaction—quite unique in the animal kingdom—has conditioned the human mind to believe that complex phenomena (like plants and animals) must also be the result of proactive making

I argue that behavioral modernity is rooted in proaction and creation. Non­human life-forms change by an evolutionary process that is entirely reactive, and while some other animals do make and use tools, humans are entirely dependent on creating things—such as a stone tool, an igloo, or a Polynesian sailing vessel—to survive…

Humanity’s trick—and it’s a good one—is the ability to quickly adjust to any environmental pressure by inventing adaptations. Inventions can be artifacts, like a pair of warm boots, or complex behaviors, such as a dance that symbolically communicates how to hunt a particular animal. Whatever the invention, the point is that people thought it up; they perceived a problem and then designed a solution specific to that problem. And we don’t just do it for fun—we live or die by our ability to buffer our frail bodies against an ever-changing array of selective pressures…

From all of this we can see that humanity’s most useful adaptation has been the invention of invention. And from the day we learn that a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich doesn’t just spontaneously assemble itself—that it must be assembled with intent (preferably by someone else)—it seems obvious that all of the other things we see in the world (or at least those at least as complex as a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich) were similarly assembled with intent. An acorn, for example, or a sturgeon: each is such a wonder of design (you try to make one!) that we feel they must have been made, with intent, as humans make things with intent. Superficially this seems reasonable enough and it has been the basis of the “Argument from Design” since the early nineteenth century, when William Paley wrote about the obviousness of design in nature in Natural Theology: “Upon the whole; after all the schemes and struggles of a reluctant philosophy [to explain complex things], the necessary resort is to a Deity. The marks of design are too strong to be gotten over. Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is GOD.”

I think that’s an excellent point. I think the other non-religious reason many people have a hard time accepting evolution is that we find it very difficult to comprehend the time scales involved. We can’t really conceptualize billions of years very easily.

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