I Believe in Evolution

Do you believe in evolution?  Forty percent of Americans don’t (more on that later).  A student asked me this question on day one of the first introductory anthropology class I ever taught.  I believe that any difficult-to-answer question is a good one, and this one baffled me with its simplicity.

Short answer: yes, I believe in evolution…but why was a modern college student in the United States asking me this?  The student was intelligent, curious, and friendly.  If anyone was naive, it was me for not expecting the question.  He’d simply been shaped by our culture to see evolution as a divisive matter of public opinion – and he wanted to know where I stood on the issue.  It would have been easiest to take his question at face value, answer yes, and move on to discussing the details of human evolution.  But, like so many idealistic teachers, I grasped the “teachable moment” and ran with it (annoying the many students who already believed in evolution and wanted to get into the good stuff):

  • Science is an empirical method that (at least ideally) is not based on belief.  All scientific conclusions are tentative.  Scientific knowledge is evidence-based, ever-growing, and self-correcting since new or contrary evidence can be discovered at any time.  When asked what evidence would convince him that evolution was false, biologist J.B.S. Haldane remarked “Fossil rabbits in the Precambrian.”  Like all scientifically-testable ideas, evolution is falsifiable.  If rabbit fossils are found in Precambrian layers of rock (millions of years too early), I’ll be happy to explore alternative theories!
  • There is also a major difference between the general and scientific uses of the word theory.  In everyday usage, theory means a guess or speculation.  In science, a hypothesis does not rise to the level of a theory without overwhelming evidence and explanatory power.  Anti-evolutionists dismiss evolution as “just a theory,” but scientifically-speaking, this is a gracious compliment.  Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has survived 150 years of rigorous challenges in every field from geology to genetics.
  • Evolution may be politically, culturally, and emotionally controversial.  In the 19th Century, Darwin’s “dangerous idea” caused spiritual crises for many.  However, in the 21st Century, biological evolution is not scientifically controversial.  It’s an understatement to say that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming.
  • Finally, scientific inquiry has revealed other phenomena that I “believe” in.  I believe in a round earth, though my senses tell me it’s flat.  I believe that the earth orbits the sun, not the other way around.  I believe in sexual reproduction, not the stork theory of baby origins.  I believe in particles like quarks, though I can’t see them directly.  And I do believe in evolution.

That’s a pretty long preamble, and one that most of my students had heard in middle school or high school biology classes.  Still, I thought “Do you believe in evolution?” deserved a thoughtful answer.  These days, I might answer “Yes.  Please read Jerry Coyne‘s Why Evolution is True” to save time.  After that, we were able to move into the actual evidence for evolution, all the cool hominid skulls, etc.

Assuming that Precambrian rabbits, or comparable out-of-place fossils, aren’t found anytime soon, the reality of evolution has been scientifically proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  So, it’s no longer necessary for anthropologists to summarize the scientific method before discussing human evolution, right?  Unfortunately, in the United States, evolution is still presented as if it was a political issue and, in some cases, it does enter the political arena (e.g., school board decisions).  Informed people can have differences of opinion over political issues.  In fact, one thing that ties Americans together is the core belief that political issues should be decided democratically.  But evolution is a scientific theory, subject to empirical evidence, not public opinion…and that may be a good thing.

Gallup poll results from December 17, 2010 show that 40% of Americans believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”  Make no mistake, the last 10,000 years have been a fascinating part of the human story – but they’re not the whole story!  Poll results like these make me feel both discouraged and reflective.  How is this possible in a developed country with educational opportunities like ours?  What can I do to better explain the human past (ALL of it)?  There is some truth to the argument that more and better education would help.  The same Gallup poll divides anti-evolution respondents by education level:

Gallup Poll on Evolution vs. Education

So education helps, but education alone cannot overcome the cultural/religious impediments that prevent more widespread understanding of biological evolution in the U.S.  Undoubtedly, many of the survey respondents took biology or anthropology as part of their education and still hold the belief that humans are new and separate from all other forms of animal life.  One hopeful sign is that 40% is the lowest percentage of “creationists” in Gallup’s history of asking this question – down from a high of 47% in 1993 and 1999.  There will probably always be a percentage of the population that is beyond the reach of evidence, especially with an emotionally-charged subject like evolution (after all, no one is freaking out about teaching gravity in public schools).

For cultural and historical reasons too numerous to go into here, Americans are not yet ready to embrace Darwin’s grand view of life – a view that has become so much grander and more elegant over the last 150 years.  It might take another 150 years for the culture to catch up with the science.  Those of us who love the science of humanity will keep doing our part to share the evidence for evolution and its role in shaping our species.

Do you believe in evolution?

30 thoughts on “I Believe in Evolution

  1. I wonder if Gallup broke down how Catholics and Protestants opined. I know most Catholics (at least that I know) believe that the creation account in Genesis does not deny evolution or exclude it. Most, again in my experience, also believe that the Bible is not a science textbook, that it tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. That it tells us THAT it happened, not how. Evolution also does not contradict that the human race stemmed from one human man and one human woman.

    1. Gallup did break their results down by regularity of church attendance and political affiliation, but not by religious denomination. That would be interesting to see.

  2. During my undergraduate studies, I took a class called “The Philosophy of Science”. On the first day of class, the teacher explained that we were going to discuss/compare the scientific foundations between evolution and “intelligent design”. At first I thought that this class was going to be a breeze, since I couldn’t imagine what kind of scientific evidence intelligent design could possible have that would surpass the evidence of evolution. While I had a more complete understanding of the scientific theory of evolution at the end of the class, I also understood some of the spurious logic and stretching of facts that intelligent design proponents use to make their theory have any legitimacy in the scientific world. The lengths that some people will go to “prove” their religious and/or political beliefs amaze me!

    1. Randy Olson’s movie “Flock of Dodos” (about the evolution-intelligent design “circus”) is fun, if you haven’t seen it yet. Thanks for your comment!

    1. Any definition you’d like. Though I titled the post “I Believe in Evolution,” a main point is that evolution is not a matter of belief. More accurately (see PaulaZ) below, I accept evolution.

  3. Hi, Jay. As an anthro teacher, I too have faced this question. To help my students understand the difference between items of faith (beliefs) and items of science (facts), I often tell them that I accept the theory of evolution rather than believe it. As you pointed out in your article, belief is not part of the scientific method. Facts can be accepted or rejected; belief has nothing to do with them.

    1. Thanks, PaulaZ! That’s an important distinction and the primary reason why the student’s question surprised me. Beliefs can be arbitrary. I believe that Skittles are delicious, but for very different reasons than I believe in evolution. Let’s hope that more and more Americans begin to accept evolution while continuing to believe whatever else they’d like to.

  4. Science does indeed require “belief” of a sorts. A type of
    Positivism, logical positivism, is common and probably necessary
    for science. We have to accept that what we call “data” really is
    from the external world and really does represent “reality”. Also,
    there is a long running contention (several, really) with that
    Gallup poll. And that has to do with the third category not
    discussed – the idea that God guided evolution. The problem here of
    course is that the scientific theory of evolution has no statement
    about a God or gods. Thus, the percentage of Americans accepting
    evolution as science defines it – the sum of the results of
    processes such as natural selection, sexual selection, mutations,
    genetic drift, etc. that describes the common descent of all living
    organisms – is much smaller than the 60% you imply
    (100-40.)

  5. It is fascinating to read this debate from an
    anthropological point of view … I live in Europe (Italy) where
    evolution is widely accepted and taught in schools: it is not a
    cultural issue at all. friendly saying, you really are a diverging
    civilization !

  6. I found this to be an interesting topic. As an adult
    student, I was shocked when the topic of evolution and intelligent
    design came up in one of my Anthropology courses. It felt as if
    everyone was on pins and needles when attempting to discuss their
    view on the subject. In one of the previous comments, education was
    mentioned. I have to agree that education plays a role, however it
    is the “home” education that seems to have the biggest impact on
    this issue.

  7. I would like to add to my previous comment. As an aspiring
    Anthropologist, one has to accept the belief systems of our many
    cultures, this is in fact one item that makes us human. However I
    am concerned that some religious ideas are preached as fact, and
    are drilled into the minds of our children to a point that even
    well educated persons are not willing to think about the scientific
    evidence. I would approximate that 1/4 of my class had a strong
    belief in intelligent design and would not accept or even openly
    discuss the possibility evolution. I am concerned that in times of
    hardship like today, where more and more people turn to religion
    for strength and comfort. That these beliefs will be stronger than
    ever and as a race we may begin taking a step back in our mental
    evolution. This statement may seem a tad extreme, however we would
    not be having this conversation it if were not a valid
    topic.

  8. “The lengths that some people will go to ‘prove’ their religious and/or political beliefs amaze me!”

    Many don’t bother to ‘prove’ them at all. They just accept them. And that’s a worry. I’m sure atheists are quite capable of being fanatics but I’ll bet that the guy who shot the politician in Arizona claims he’s a ‘christian’, and probably a fundamentalist. Religious fundamentalism, whether Christian, Muslim, Jew or Hindu is dangerous and we should all be doing our best to oppose it.

  9. I used to be an evolutionist, but I now teach creation science. I have found that scientific evidence actually supports creation and a young Earth. Darwin came up with his theory long before we even knew what a gene was or had even discovered DNA, so it was based on his imagination. The fossil record does not support evolution, unless you go to great pains to interpret it with evolution as your predetermined outcome. Mutation and natural selection are incapable of explaining evolution from one kind to another. Creation scientists have demonstrated that speciation is caused by a loss of genetic information, rather than the gain in information that is required for true slime to man evolution. Dating methods do not support evolution. Fossils are often discovered in the wrong layers! Dinosaur “fossils” are found with flesh and soft tissue including protiens and genetic material intact – that’s not possible if they’re millions of years old. There’s a lot of additional scientific evidence that supports creation, and little, if any, that supports evolution without biased interpretation.

    1. Thanks for your comment, David. Obviously, you make several claims that I disagree with. I was particularly struck by “Dating methods do not support evolution. Fossils are often discovered in the wrong layers!” Really? If true, those facts would represent the “fossil rabbits in the Precambrian” that Haldane spoke of – and it would be front page news around the globe! Can you support these claims with information from peer-reviewed science journals, or other reputable resources? Thanks again.

    2. Read “your Inner Fish” by Neil Shubin, it is a great book and it could let your culture grow.

      and please….be so kind to tell me where I can see dinosaur flesh, I’m a curious person. Have they carried DNA tests on them ?!?!?!?
      I’m always ready to change idea in front of a specimen….be ready to support your empty words with facts.

      I add, for your information that fossils are not the only support for evolution: the physics and chemistry of the rocks prove that the earth is not young….it would be strange to discover that life appeared onto this planet after Billions of years in the last thousands….really miraculous !

      1. “Your Inner Fish” is a great book! I’d also recommend Sean Carroll’s “Remarkable Creatures” and “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future” by Mooney and Kirshenbaum. Richard Dawkins is a pretty polarizing figure, but his “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” is a wonderful book. Anyone else have relevant book recommendations? Please share!

  10. Interesting post and comments. I think most anthro teachers have faced this question in one form or another. I have found that the anthropological tools we use for communicating across cultures powerful tools in winning the minds of students on this issue. For me success hinges on finding a way in each encounter to be respectful of the belief systems behind these sorts of questions and to show a deep understanding of the radical clash of perspectives this question represents. The evidence and logic of the evolutionary perspective tends to carry the student the rest of the way.

    One philosophical note:
    “Science is an empirical method that (at least ideally) is not based on belief.” This is rather a problematic statement because at its roots the scientific method rests on a set of minimalistic assumptions. Strictly speaking these assumptions represent a belief structure. Therefor science is based on belief.

  11. Scientists, it seems, have it fairly easy.
    They base their ‘belief’ on what they can see and measure.
    But, this is not belief, its evidence. Otherwise it wouldn’t be science.

    New discoveries occur on occasion that can further support a theory.
    Its even more fun for a scientist when a new discovery challenges parts of a theory!

    Is it possible, 45000 years from now, that a rabbit fossil will be found where it is not expected? Not impossible, but there exist any number of future discoveries that will change or adjust the theory of evolution.

    Of course I’m interested in learning about new discoveries in science.
    But I expect the theory of evolution will look very different 45000 years from now (whether it evolves or mutates). Regardless of the class of discoveries made, that which is taught in school now will probably be fully re-written before that time. I don’t have 45000 years to wait and find out, or even 45 years.

    I choose to live by Jesus’ difficult words, “Thomas, now that you’ve seen me, you believe. Blessed are those who have not seen and still believe”.

    Why do so many have to get ugly about this, I don’t know. Scientists, keep discovering, and don’t stop questioning the discoveries. Believers, keep believing, but take the time to find out what the scientists have discovered.
    Maybe, within 45000 years, there will be just one book of life; undeniable and even believable. Until that time, everybody be nice to each other.

    1. “Scientists, it seems, have it fairly easy.
      They base their ‘belief’ on what they can see and measure.
      But, this is not belief, its evidence. Otherwise it wouldn’t be science.”

      Your opening statement is an interesting one. It portraits a general lack of clarity over what “science” actually is in practice. You are correct in pointing out that what one observes and can measure is evidence and distinct from belief. However, when a scientist deduces a pattern from sets of observations and proposes an explanation for this pattern they are setting up an argument they “believe” is true. In other words, the scientist proposes a theory in which they have reached the psychological state of holding the proposition or premise(s) of their theory to be true. This, by definition, is “belief” (see WordNet.Princeton.edu ). However, this same scientist may not put much trust in the proposed explanation. Or they may choose only to place trust in the explanation only under specific conditions. This sort of “faith” (see WordNet.Prinston.edu) in the scientist’s explanation grows only when the explanation is found to work with other similar observations. Such explanations can be overturned if they are inadequate. They may be found to be adequate only under limited conditions. They may, over time, be shown to provide an adequate explanation every time. Finally, the explanation may be found to explain much more than the original observations. It is the job of a scientist to tease these subtitles out of the evidence and explanations. So choosing what to believe is most certainly an important part of what science is.

      The key distinction in science is an explicit adherence to a materialistic view of what constitutes evidence. Given humanities propensity to go beyond a materialistic view of their world and its inherent bias towards preconceived ideas, science is anything but an easy endeavor. A scientist should “question with boldness” everything. Choosing to place faith (trust) in a person, institution, religious perspective, even a theory with or without evidence is the easy part. Building the explanations from evidence, choosing what explanations to believe and how much faith should be placed in these explanations is exceedingly more difficult.

  12. Your student probably asked the question because so many cultural anthropologists seem to skate right to the edge of denying Darwinian evolution. I taught at college and university for 37 years, and I often met faculty who claimed to believe in “evolution,” by which they seemed to mean Spencer’s or Lamarck’s unscientific versions but not Darwin’s. Such attitudes are rampant in the humanities and social sciences, see David Stove’s “Darwinian Fairytales” for an especially good example. Your European friends who mock us most likely fall into this category. Some physicists and mathematicians have problems with Darwin; they get fixated on the random and can’t grasp the selection. And even some biologists have doubts. Behe is everyone’s favorite example, but note how close to denying Darwin both Lewontin and Gould (pace) get. They at least find all sorts of way to minimize natural selection.

    Most socialists seem to believe that Darwinian evolution undercuts or prohibits their social agendas, and they are among Darwin’s most severe critics.

    Anyway, continue the good fight. Victory is always possible, if not imminent.

    1. David Stove is an interesting character. I think that you are over selling the value of “Darwinian Fairytales” in undercutting what you call “unscientific Darwinism.” I wonder if you are as supportive of some of his other writings like “The Intellectual Capacity of Women”. Why not deal with the writings of someone like Stephen Jay Gould when talking about the modern view of evolution. That would be much more appropriate.

  13. The way human beings deal a dispute in western societies has evolved over time…..
    During the Middle Age ruled the “Principle of Autorithy” ….. no one had to demonstrate anything (from our modern point of view): disputes found their resolution through the use of quotations of texts and sources. From late Renaissance, flowing to the Enlightenment, the principle of Authority was slowly replaced by the Rationalism, the primacy of reason….
    Unfortunately the replacement is not yet complete!
    My impression is that many of the persons that fight against evolution try to support their statements citing what a certain person told, his/her “theory” or try to analyze the etymology of words.
    I’m a scientist. Let me explain how we approach a problem:
    1) We collect data
    2) We propose an “explanation” that “fits” with all the observed fact
    3) We use as a “tool” this “explanation” to predict some new, not yet observed, phenomenon
    4) The more phenomena this “tool” is able to explain, the more reliable it is.
    In case some data doesn’t fit with the proposed explanation, this one could be completely wrong, partially correct or it can fits only to a restricted number of cases (Newton to Einstein)
    I purposely used different alternative words in brackets to derail possible attempts to play with the words.
    Move now over facts: the Darwins’ Explanation itself evolved over time….it is not a shame, it’s a glory of rational thinking.
    What are the facts that refute it? List them. You know them, otherwise your statements are matter of faith.
    I end saying that scientists are persons….and persons desire to have success, to find the solution of a problems….. so some of them (many of them, maybe) hope that their work hypotheses are correct…….but this is not belief…..this is hope !

  14. I’m a librarian, in Belgium, not an anthropologist at all. But I want to share something about the belief/science question that has been made. In a library where I have worked I received a package with books from an organisation promoting ‘intelligent design’ accompanied with a letter where I was asked to add these books, which I got for free, in our collection in the ‘science section’.
    I even did not think about it, I simply threw them in the paper bin.
    What I want to say, is that there are certain organisations, with a dubious agenda (gaining followers to grab their money) that try to influence educational institutions to get their ‘beliefs’ seen as ‘science’. When these kind of questions are made in class, I think this influence might be added, it’s not only a natural ‘culturally evolved’ phenomenon.

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