A most human heresy

Millions of people in well-educated countries reject the scientific consensus on evolution. Why is it so easy to doubt?

Illustration by  Simona Seizova

Illustration by Simona Seizova

In 2015, the Pew Research Center released a report exploring differences of opinion between members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (who were all scientists) and adult members of the US public. 98% of the scientists agreed with the statement “Humans and other living things have evolved over time.” Only 65% of the public agreed. Active disbelief in evolution in the US appeared to be around 30% of the population.

Evolutionary biologists likely greeted the news with a sigh — it’s common knowledge that their academic work is rejected out of hand by a sizeable chunk of the population, no matter which prestigious journal they publish it in. It’s just a fact of life. But geologists don’t worry about people rejecting plate tectonics, and neither do physicists worry about Einstein’s special relativity being controversial. Why are basic facts of evolution debated endlessly among non-scientists, and not fundamental theories in other fields. Why does evolution get all the heat? 

Across the Pacific, a 2010 report by the Australian Academy of Science indicated that the public acceptance of evolution in Australia might be between 70 to 80%, with only 10% of people taking a hardline stance against it. While the US has a bigger problem with evolution, its scientists don’t struggle with this alone.

It might be tempting to assume that rejection of evolution by a minority isn’t particularly important. But a failure for the public to understand science and its value leads to reduced governmental funding for research, and active opposition to particular areas like evolutionary biology can lead to a slow leaching of talent from the discipline over generations. Mike Pence, the US 2016 Republican Vice Presidential candidate, is an avid anti-evolutionist, and previous Australian Cabinet ministers have harboured similar feelings. The more the public disbelieves in evolution, the more likely it is that such a viewpoint will make its way into positions of power. 

Science depends on evolutionary knowledge, and it’s not all merely academic. Bacteria and viruses harness evolutionary forces to avoid our attempts to control them with vaccines, antibiotics and our own immune systems. Insects routinely resist even the most toxic pesticides we use in agriculture. And climate change, that great looming threat, will push ecosystems to their limits as they attempt to adapt to rising temperatures. Knowing whether or not they’ll be even partially successful depends on a robust understanding of the limits of rapid evolutionary change. Evolutionary theories have helped save the endangered kakapo parrot, provide epidemiologists with ways of tracking and responding to disease outbreaks, and has even aided drug discovery.

Evolution has a special place in my own research, too. When I study insect genetics, I use the knowledge that all insects share a common ancestor to make predictions about the purpose of specific genes. With enough genomic information, you can track the evolutionary history of individual genes back hundreds of millions of years, to see how they’ve split, fused or died out in different lineages. In turns out this is a very powerful complement to the ‘normal’ genetic methods. Without evolutionary biology, our ability to peer deeper into the nature of life is pretty seriously reduced.  

Of course, due to its usefulness, and its great success as an explanatory framework, evolutionary theory is not controversial in the scientific community, and its basic tenets — that all life is descended from a common ancestor, that random genetic changes accumulate over generations, and that the environment can ’select’ for these changes — are among the most well-supported in the history of science. So why is evolution publicly controversial? It’s all about ‘meaning’. 

For many, it's easy to see the 'purpose' in a bird's wing: to fly. But if it evolved, does it truly have any higher purpose?   Internet Archive Book Images/Wikimedia Commons  (public domain)

For many, it's easy to see the 'purpose' in a bird's wing: to fly. But if it evolved, does it truly have any higher purpose? Internet Archive Book Images/Wikimedia Commons (public domain)


It’s natural to want to inject meaning or purpose, or teleology, into biology. Natural selection, one of the key evolutionary forces, is often thought of as purposeful, even causal among evolutionary biologists. This is because it seems to be selecting traits for a specific reason: greater reproductive success.  But this purpose is illusory: we don’t consider a boulder rolling down a hill to have a purpose — neither it nor the hill ‘want’ it to happen, it just does. A lack of such purpose pervades evolutionary explanations too. Teleology seemingly evaporates under Charles Darwin’s gaze — all that’s left are mechanistic ecosystems.

Evolution’s indifference toward teleological considerations is a major reason for its low rates of public acceptance. “The human body is not the way it is because it is meant to be that way,” biology textbooks seem to say, “but because unthinking, unfeeling forces have shaped it over unimaginable stretches of time, like a piece of the Earth’s crust being squeezed into mountains, volcanoes and valleys.” Are human beings therefore only as important as rocks, as the boulder rolling down the hill? Most people wouldn’t like to think so. So evolution has to go.

Religion, with its intrinsic set of beliefs about divine teleology and the purposefulness of humanity, facilitates a lot of the conflict over evolution. “Initially, churches did not reject evolution as such, but they did reject the loss of teleological thinking — that life lacks an innate or external purpose,” said Dr John Wilkins, a philosopher of biology at the University of Melbourne. “This was among the very first objections to Darwinian thinking.”

This seed of pro-teleology has since blossomed into a thriving mess of creationism. Inherently anti-evolutionary, creationism asserts that God is responsible for life in a way that evolutionary biology appears to reject. Different forms of creationism push against evolution in varying ways: ‘young Earth’ creationism rejects all of geology, cosmology and ancient history, denying the billion-year age of the Earth; ‘old Earth’ creationism is fine with all that, but asserts that life was created whole-cloth 6,000 years ago; while still milder forms allow for the evolution of all life apart from humans, who were created in God’s image without interferences from Darwinian processes. The dividing lines between these camps aren’t usually scientific disputes, but theological ones. 

Young-earth creationism, as the most dramatic form of creationism, is particularly visible, with websites like Answers in Genesis (helmed by Australian expat Ken Ham), which rile up biologists all across the Internet. This sort of creationism prefers to take pseudo-philosophical detours around scientific questions rather than directly engage the scientific consensus. From the creationist’s perspective, this is quite reasonable; to the scientist, it’s maddening. Here’s a typical example, from an Answers in Genesis article by Dr Tommy Mitchell:

Look at the Grand Canyon. The rock layers there and the fossils in many of the layers are often used as “proof” that the earth is millions of years old. The creationist comes to an entirely different conclusion.
What we actually have to examine are the rocks and the fossils themselves. They don’t come with labels saying how old they are. We weren’t there when the rock layers were laid down. No scientist has seen the creatures, now fossils, evolving slowly over millions of years. We must “interpret” the fossils and the rock layers to make our conclusions. Our starting point determines how we interpret the evidence.

It’s fair to call this sort of stance “anti-scientific,” because it undermines some fundamental principles that make science possible. Malleable logic, an unwillingness to understand their critics’ positions and a disregard for accumulated knowledge makes the average ‘evangelical’ creationist a pain to talk to. 

Extreme forms of creationism are popular in the US, and some even have their own museums, such as this one in Kentucky.   Jelson25/Wikimedia Commons  (public domain)

Extreme forms of creationism are popular in the US, and some even have their own museums, such as this one in Kentucky. Jelson25/Wikimedia Commons (public domain)


But not every creationist is so boldly ignorant. Standing out from the sea of anti-evolution beliefs is intelligent design (ID), a relatively recent addition to the gang. ID has stepped in where traditional creationism — with its talk of huge arks, giant floods and flimsy ‘just-so’ explanations for ancient history — seems far too implausible to a modern religious crowd. Followers of ID often don’t have a problem with science per se, but are nonetheless wary of how their beliefs fit in with evolutionary ideas. ID is a well-funded and relatively professional child of numerous US-based think tanks with roots in soft creationism and religiously infused political conservatism. Since the late 90s, it has come to be one of the dominant anti-evolutionary ideologies in the US and other Western countries. 

ID’s claims to fame are that it is rigorously scientific, overly non-religious and being unjustly censored in the academic arena. Swapping talk of God with a nondescript ‘designer,’ making appeals to analytical philosophy and information theory, and directly incorporating the findings of genetics and molecular biology make ID seem positively reasonable, even to many non-creationists. 

Pro-ID books, like Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell (2009), uniformly fill their first few pages with praise from sympathetic scientists, their PhDs and professorships prominently displayed. Absent, of course, are the evolutionary biologists, but to most readers, scientists are interchangeable.

In the text of Signature in the Cell, basic biology lessons are wrapped in metaphors and persuasive appeals to the reader’s intuitions about the structure of the world. Life is designed because it just really seems like it’s designed! Many readers are learning about molecular biology and biochemistry for the first time, and that dynamic compounds into an almost profound intellectual experience. "Here’s what you already thought," Intelligent Design says, "and science is actually on your side!"

Signature in the Cell is also full of extensive citations and footnotes, and must seem quite impressive to those outside of the scientific community.

These intellectual, near-academic touches serve a purpose; ID creationism is, after all, about intellectualising disbelief in evolution and providing a positive model in which doubters can ground themselves. In the modern world, to be broadly anti-science is clearly absurd — where do our iPhones come from, after all? — but to be selective in your rejection of science can seem like appropriate skepticism, especially when you can point to facts and figures and people with higher degrees who are on your side.

However, this science-y thinking, I suspect, doesn’t win the majority of ID’s public support. Other pro-ID books, such as William Dembski and Jonathan Witt’s Intelligent Design Uncensored (2010), take things a step further, explicitly connecting moral decay with acceptance of evolution, which they call the “poison of materialism.” If evolution is true, they argue, humanity is nothing special, nothing more than a collection of mere animals. Animals don’t have the rule of law, the ability to produce art or a moral conscience, so to accept evolution is to deny even the possibility of society and morality. To attack evolution is to defend the way things ought to be.

Of course, it’s entirely possible to be religious and accept the scientific account of humanity’s origins in its entirety. But for many Christians in Western countries, who are possibly already concerned with the decay of traditional moral values, the moral argument ticks a lot of boxes. Add in that their social and religious communities may be strongly sympathetic to creationism, yet wary of the anti-science stigma attached, and ID sounds very attractive. 

The human eye is a commonly cited example of a complex biological structure that ID advocates claim must have been designed.   Adi Nag/Flickr  (CC BY-ND-ND 2.0)

The human eye is a commonly cited example of a complex biological structure that ID advocates claim must have been designed. Adi Nag/Flickr (CC BY-ND-ND 2.0)


It’s meaningful to note that many arguments for ID rest on the premise that human minds are special. Minds (or “intelligent causes”), ID asserts, can do things “natural causes” are unable to do, like build “irreducibly complex” biological systems, such as the eye or DNA replication machinery. Scientists don’t yet have watertight explanations for the origins of these systems — ergo, design happened. Human exceptionalism saves the day; our minds are the reason evolution is false, but also why creationism is true.

The idea that wanting to place humanity above all other forms of life feeds into widespread disbelief in evolution is a persuasive one. Modern evolutionary biology, which has had great success using the tools of genomics and evolutionary history to reconstruct deeper and deeper relationships between organisms, now regularly announces attempts at sketching an accurate ‘tree of life,’ upon which humans and bacteria alike are merely branches, separate but connected. For someone not used to putting their friends and family in the same category as tiny, invisible ‘bugs,’ it must feel uncomfortable to hear such a thing. So it’s understandable why some might not want their children hearing about it in the classroom.

“The idea of Homo sapiens as the pinnacle of all lifeforms often connects to their personal identity. You put forth an idea that challenges that position and you get push back,” said Dr. Amanda Glaze, a researcher into evolution education at Georgia Southern University in the US. “The same person who tells you they accept that life has changed since its beginnings will often, in the case of the United States, also tell you that applies to all life on Earth except for humans.”

So if evolution in general is hard for some to accept, then human evolution is the most difficult chapter of all. For humans to be just another ape (those dumb, violent creatures?) pushes against the bounds of decency, surely. Outrage over comparing people to apes and monkeys possibly plagued even the first academic debates over Darwin’s famous natural selection-birthing work, On the Origin of Species. One possibly apocryphal debate between the pro-Darwin T. H. Huxley and the anti-Darwin Bishop Samuel Wilberforce is said to have infamously climaxed with Wilberforce comparing Huxley’s ancestors to apes. While this may never have happened, that the story persists demonstrates the lasting grip human-ape comparisons have around evolution. In his time, Darwin was often illustrated as a monkey — the public was well-aware of the supposed implications of his theory. 

This rather positive caricature of Charles Darwin from 1878 shows him as a monkey breaking through "ignorance."   La Lune Rousse/Wikimedia Commons  (public domain)

This rather positive caricature of Charles Darwin from 1878 shows him as a monkey breaking through "ignorance." La Lune Rousse/Wikimedia Commons (public domain)


The conflict between evolution and the public isn’t about scientific disagreement, or even pure scientific ignorance, but tension between pre-existing ideas and new, challenging information. In this way, disbelief in evolution follows a very similar pattern to disbelief in the Earth’s changing climate. You might see the occasional person persuaded by dodgy ‘facts,’ but most are convinced by prior beliefs. 

In his paper “Are creationists rational?”, Dr Wilkins, a philosopher and historian of science, argued that where science is rejected by individuals and groups, it is often in conflict with folk traditions — ideas about the world that come from communities and societies. ‘Biblically literal’ Christianity is clearly one of the dominant folk traditions in the US, as well as a smaller tradition in Australia and other Western countries. In Asia and the Middle East, similarly fundamentalist forms of Islam play a comparable role where creationism is rife. 

But folk traditions aren’t restricted to religion, and they can often be more subtle. Our old friend, human exceptionalism, is a powerful folk tradition that can undercut many scientific ideas, including evolution and climate change. ‘Naturalistic’ folk traditions can also conflict with the use of genetically modified crops, modern agricultural practices, vaccination and modern nutritional science.  

With folk traditions on the table, convincing evolution doubters to see the light is no small task. In fact, many steadfast adults won’t be able to be convinced that evolution is a valid, scientifically supported idea. Getting through to children through education, before they lock into a particular traditional world-view, is an attractive idea, but can be hard to implement, as Dr Glaze knows first-hand, as a specialist in evolution education.

“For many, the only exposure they have had [to evolution] has been negative, so it takes a special kind of approach to even start the conversation,” said Dr. Glaze. “I have found that some people walk into evolution discussions with the preconception that those who reject (in whole or in part) just don't understand evolution and need more lecture and evidence, but that is contrary to my experiences in dealing with people around the South for the last five years (and my lifetime growing up there).”

Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet for changing minds about evolution, especially not in religious US communities. Sometimes a creationist’s identity is so centred around opposing evolution that to shift their thinking would require a complete overhaul to their perspective on the world. But others might be more on the fence, particularly school children.

“We really have to change the way we interact with people,” said Dr Glaze. “People don't just exist in two dimensions and there are complex lived experiences that frame the choices they make regarding evolution and other controversial topics. It is by understanding these experiences and looking through the lens of the learner that we can craft approaches that are culturally responsive and allow conversations to take place.”

Dr Wilkins agrees: “It is better to show younger people that science works, rather than just telling them facts. If they learn early that science is reliable, they are less likely to accept that science is just another authority system like their belief.” Facts are easy to ignore, especially when they’re inconvenient. But a deeper sense of the worth of science goes a long way.

This goes for many other science-doubting communities, too, of course, from climate change deniers to anti-vaccine activists. Scientists need to start remembering that everyone has prior beliefs, folk traditions and skewed perceptions of the world — even themselves — and use this to show that science has value as a process. 

Some folk traditions can live in harmony with science, while others will harshly conflict. Being sensitive to why people believe the things they believe surely can’t hurt the attempts to meld the research community and the public together. 

Edited by Diana Crow

By Jack Scanlan

Jack is the Editor-in-Chief of Lateral.