Does Acceptance of Evolution Matter?

Does Acceptance of Evolution Matter? June 15, 2012

There’s an unusual debate going on between Andrew Sullivan and Kevin Drum on whether it really matters that nearly half of Americans believe that humans were created by God in the last 10,000 years, as polls have shown for the last 30 years. Sullivan, a Catholic, argues that it matters a lot:

We can over-analyze single poll results, but absorbing this chart is a useful tonic to anyone feeling optimistic about bringing the country together. A clear plurality of Americans believe in something empirically untrue: that human beings in our current form were created 10,000 years ago…

I’m not sure how many of the 46 percent actually believe the story of 10,000 years ago. Surely some of them know it’s less empirically supported than Bigfoot. My fear is that some of that 46 percent are giving that answer not as an empirical response, but as a cultural signifier. That means that some are more prepared to cling to untruth than concede a thing to libruls or atheists or blue America, or whatever the “other” is at any given point in time. I simply do not know how you construct a civil discourse indispensable to a functioning democracy with this vast a gulf between citizens in their basic understanding of the world.

Kevin Drum, a mostly secular liberal, argues the contrary:

Come on. This 46% number has barely budged over the past three decades, and I’m willing to bet it was at least as high back in the 50s and early 60s, that supposed golden age of comity and bipartisanship. It simply has nothing to do with whether we can all get along and nothing to do with whether we can construct a civil discourse.

The fact is that belief in evolution has virtually no real-life impact on anything. That’s why 46% of the country can safely choose not to believe it: their lack of belief has precisely zero effect on their lives. Sure, it’s a handy way of saying that they’re God-fearing Christians — a “cultural signifier,” as Andrew puts it — but our lives are jam-packed with cultural signifiers. This is just one of thousands, one whose importance probably barely cracks America’s top 100 list…

I’m not optimistic about anyone or anything “bringing the country together,” but not because lots of people choose to deny evolution. Frankly, that’s one of the least of our problems.

I think the focus of the argument is wrong. We aren’t going to “bring the country together” — whatever that means — no matter what people think about evolution and creationism. But there are far better reasons to be bothered by the lack of acceptance of evolution than that it divides us. Because rejection of evolution does not typically travel alone; it is a symptom of a much larger problem of overwhelming ignorance of science.

Widespread rejection of evolution has two primary causes. The first is an almost complete ignorance of how science operates and even what basic words mean in science. That’s why we hear “it’s just a theory” so often, because those who believe that have no idea what that word means in a scientific context. And this makes them doubt not only evolution but any finding of science that might conflict with their preconceived notions of how the world works.

The second is a preference for religious and political explanations over scientific ones. And this is not limited to evolution, it pervades our political discourse. If science says that evolution is true but your church says it’s not, evolution must be wrong; if science says global warming is real and threatens our future but your political party says it’s not, global warming must be wrong. And not merely wrong but a massive conspiracy by evil and satanic liberals who want to destroy God, grandma and apple pie.

Sullivan is right that rejection of evolution is largely a cultural signifier, a tribal marker. But the tribe that it signifies membership in is one that consistently prefers religion and politics over science and irrationality over rationality. And yes, that matters a lot.

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