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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?