The evolution of the public understanding of Evolution


Evolution is one of those hot topic scientific items that is greatly misunderstood. Many deeply religious people reject it without really understanding what it actually is and instead opt to cling to older creation myths that are embraced as “Truth”.

Hot Tip: Supernatural entities doing it via “Magic” has never been the right answer for anything … ever.

The word “Theory” when used within the phrase, “The Theory of Evolution”, inspires some to dismiss it “as just a theory”. It is true that the word “Theory”, in general usage, describes a wild crazy idea that somebody dreams up. However, within a scientific context, it describes a well-established scientific fact that has mountains of supporting evidence. For example Germ Theory or Gravitational Theory.

We do appear to live in an age where many are actively refusing vaccines, and so those same individuals might indeed dismiss Germ Theory as just a wild theory that can be ignored. That, for many of them, is rather tragically the hill some are choosing to die on … literally.

The reason for this posting is that a new paper has been published that explores the public acceptance of evolution, so let’s dive into that.

Will it be yet another insight into how utterly stupid some can be?

Perhaps, but there is some good news here.

How many in the US Accept Evolution?

Our understanding of Evolutionary biology has been with us for quite some time. The concept was famously introduced by Charles Darwin with his 1859 publication of “On the Origin of Species“. By about the 1870s the idea had become widely accepted as fact, not because it was a new dogma, but because it beautifully explained the diversity of life. Rather obviously our understanding has grown and deepened considerably since then. Today there are multiple independent lines of evidence that robustly validate it.

If it is a topic you are not familiar with, then a great place to start is via the following link that takes you to Berkeley University’s Evolution 101.

Historically, the public acceptance of Evolution in the US has been low. This is down to the prevailing popularity within some faith communities of “God did it” as the only acceptable answer and anything else, regardless of the actual evidence, been deemed to be heresy. To confirm all this, every now and then a poll will pop up revealing some rather depressing numbers. For example a 2019 Gallop Poll revealed that only 22% of people in the US could correctly state that humans developed over millions of years and that a god played no role in that. Another 33% did agree that it happened over millions of years, but that God played a role. That left a huge chunk embracing some variation of mythological Creationism as fact. (The “magic” option)

We have some new insights now.

The journal, Public Understanding of Science, has just published – “Public acceptance of evolution in the United States, 1985–2020

What the study behind this new paper did was to examine national surveys over the last 35 years. By crunching all that data it reveals that the level of public acceptance of evolution has increased in the last decade after at least two decades in which the public was nearly evenly divided on the issue …

“From 1985 to 2010, there was a statistical dead heat between acceptance and rejection of evolution,” said lead researcher Jon D. Miller of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. “But acceptance then surged, becoming the majority position in 2016.”

Why has this happened, what changed?

One word – education.

“Almost twice as many Americans held a college degree in 2018 as in 1988,” said co-author Mark Ackerman, a researcher at Michigan Engineering, the U-M School of Information and Michigan Medicine. “It’s hard to earn a college degree without acquiring at least a little respect for the success of science.”

Here are a few more additional gems from this study …

  • Even those who scored highest on the scale of religious fundamentalism shifted toward acceptance of evolution, rising from 8% in 1988 to 32% in 2019.
  • As of 2019, 34% of conservative Republicans accepted evolution compared to 83% of liberal Democrats.

But But But …

Yes, I know, I know, the above detail is a cue for somebody who is deeply religious to wade into the comments to advise that Satan and his minions have befuddled me and blinded me. In this case it turns out that “Satan’s minions” consists of almost every credible scientific body and educational institution on the planet.

Good luck to them winning that argument


The problem creationists face is that it is not about different opinions, but is quite literally myth vs fact. When Ken Ham, the director of Answers in Genesis was debating Bill Nye and advocating for a 6,000 year old universe, Bill rather famously quipped back, “Ken, there are trees older than you think the earth is“.

Intelligent Design

There does exist what is termed “Intelligent Design”. This supposedly offers scientific proof. Dig a bit and what you discover is that it is all incandescent vapours and translucent surfaces (smoke and mirrors). Ask yourself this – If there is indeed solid evidence for “intelligent design”, then why is it not being published within credible peer-reviewed scientific journals?

Some might quip, “that’s because of bias”. That’s probably correct, the entire scientific community is indeed biased against any scientific paper on any topic that does not produce actual independently verifiable evidence to backup a claim being made.

Michael Behe who currently serves as the professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania is a well-known intelligent design champion. He has full freedom to publish, and has written various creationist books that have been robustly debunked. He is wholly free to retain the beliefs he holds, and to publish whatever he wishes to publish … so far nothing truly credible has emerged, but any day now … (well no, I’m not holding my breath).

Side Note: Behe’s university has had the following banner up on their website for years …

The department faculty, then, are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory, which has its roots in the seminal work of Charles Darwin and has been supported by findings accumulated over 140 years. The sole dissenter from this position, Prof. Michael Behe, is a well-known proponent of “intelligent design.” While we respect Prof. Behe’s right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.

That banner raises a rather good question. How exactly do you test “Intelligent Design”?

For any hypothesis to be scientific it needs to be testable and falsifiable. If you can’t actually test it, then it is not a scientific hypothesis.

Evolution visibly in action today

We can all literally see evolution in real-time. COVID is evolving; new versions have been naturally selected and those that have a distinct advantage such as the delta variant now thrive.

If you are still struggling with the basic concept, then permit me to spell it out.

  • Parents have children. Those children are not clones, they are a little bit different. That’s variation
  • Some kids do far better than others, thrive, and have their own kids. Others, not so much. That’s natural selection

Generation after generation it all adds up, accumulates, and leads to the diversity of life all around us.

One last Thought – It’s not a binary choice, it never has been

Some are deeply immersed in a specific religious cultural identify. They might fear Evolution as something that threatens their identity and so perceive it to be a personal threat. This need not be the case at all. Many who adhere to a specific religious tradition have also made peace with the scientific reality. Facts are facts, and the multiple lines of evidence are abundantly clear, so they accept that it really is the way things are. To retain their religious tradition they take the stance, “Evolution is how God did it”.

For clarity, I’m not making that last bit up, that is the official Catholic position, a denomination the represents the largest group of Christians on the planet.

Bottom line: We are not as anti-science as we once were, it really is getting better, and that appears to be down to better education.

Time to pop a few corks perhaps.

Questions for Commenters

  • If you accept creationism as the best possible answer, what is it that convinces you to adopt this position? (I promise to not have a go at you in the comments, I’m curious to understand your position, that’s all)
  • If you once accepted some variation of creationism, but have since then changed your mind, what persuaded you?

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