Creationists vs. Evolutionists: An American Story

GallupEv2.JPG

About half of Americans--46 percent, in the latest Gallup Poll--believe human beings weren't created by evolution.

Over at the Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan says this is a grave problem. "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."

Over at Mother Jones, Kevin Drum says Andrew should calm down. "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."

As the narrator of the old Certs commercial used to say: Stop! You're both right!

I agree with Kevin that it's not a big problem--at least, not a big inherent problem--that America is divided over evolution. There's only one policy arena where the two Americas naturally clash--the science curriculum of public schools--and even there they manage to avoid clashing most of the time.

But I do think that in recent years disagreement over evolution has become more politically charged, more acrimonious, and that the rancor may be affecting other science-related policy areas, such as climate change.

My theory is highly conjectural, but here goes:

A few decades ago, Darwinians and creationists had a de facto nonaggression pact: Creationists would let Darwinians reign in biology class, and otherwise Darwinians would leave creationists alone. The deal worked. I went to a public high school in a pretty religious part of the country--south-central Texas--and I don't remember anyone complaining about sophomores being taught natural selection. It just wasn't an issue.

A few years ago, such biologists as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers started violating the nonaggression pact. [Which isn't to say the violation was wholly unprovoked; see my update below.] I don't just mean they professed atheism--many Darwinians had long done that; I mean they started proselytizing, ridiculing the faithful, and talking as if religion was an inherently pernicious thing. They not only highlighted the previously subdued tension between Darwinism and creationism but depicted Darwinism as the enemy of religion more broadly.

If the only thing this Darwinian assault did was amp up resistance to teaching evolution in public schools, the damage, though regrettable, would be limited. My fear is that the damage is broader--that fundamentalist Christians, upon being maligned by know-it-all Darwinians, are starting to see secular scientists more broadly as the enemy; Darwinians, climate scientists, and stem cell researchers start to seem like a single, menacing blur.

I'm not saying that the new, militant Darwinian atheists are the only cause of what is called (with perhaps some hyperbole) "science denialism." But I do think that if somebody wants to convince a fundamentalist Christian that climate scientists aren't to be trusted, the Christian's prior association of scientists like Dawkins with evil makes that job easier.

I reiterate that this theory is conjectural--so conjectural that "hypothesis" is a better word for it than "theory". The jury may remain out on it forever.

Meanwhile, some data to keep your eye on: Check out the extreme right of the graph above. Over the past two years, the portion of respondents who don't believe in evolution has grown by six percentage points. Where did those people come from? The graph suggests they're people who had previously believed in an evolution guided by God--a group whose size dropped by a corresponding six percentage points. It's as if people who had previously seen evolution and religion as compatible were told by the new militant Darwinians, "No, you must choose: Which is it, evolution or religion?"--and pretty much all of them chose religion.

There's no telling whether these last two years were just a blip or the beginning of a trend. But if this turns out to be a trend, it may be bad news not just for public school biology curricula but for the making of science-related policy more broadly.

[Update, 6/12, 10:30 a.m.: Some commenters have convinced me that, in saying that people like Dawkins and Myers "violated the nonaggression pact," I made the violation sound more unilateral than it was. I don't doubt that some creationists had already amped up their assault on the curriculum (and sometimes succeeded not just in a formal sense but more subtly). Still, my main points are (1) even if this is what provoked Dawkins, Myers, et. al., their gratuitously insulting reaction (IMHO) was still counter-productive, fueling the anti-evolutionism fires; (2) their reaction may well have abetted anti-scientism in areas unrelated to evolution, such as climate change.]

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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