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Part I: “I don’t believe in evolution.”

Now appearing at a museum near you! (If you live near D.C.) Photo by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History

by Robert O'Malley

“I don’t believe in evolution.”

I hear variations of this comment on a semi-regular basis while doing science engagement at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). As a primate behavioral ecologist, I have studied wild chimpanzees for most of the last fourteen years.  I became interested in chimpanzees both because they are fascinating on their own merits, and to assist in making inferences about the nature of extinct hominins (the various species of apes that occupied the earth for hundreds of thousands or millions of years, and from which our own species only recently emerged). Though human beings did not evolve from chimpanzees, studies of the latter can help put ‘flesh on the bones’ (metaphorically speaking) of what we know, or think we know, about the hominins whose behavior we will never be able to observe directly.

Though no longer working in academia, I continue to be involved in research projects through collaborations at the Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology (CASHP) program at George Washington University and the nutrition laboratory of the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.  Through participation in the NMNH’s “the Scientist Is In” program, I’m also able to continue directly engaging with the public about my past and ongoing research and why it matters.

Despite being one of the foundational principles of biology, evolution is not widely accepted among the U.S. public (though the number is rising). High levels of misconceptions about basic evolutionary principles are found even among middle- and high-school teachers and college undergraduates.[i] While the reasons for failing to understand or accept evolution are complex, religiosity is the main negative predictive factor for evolution acceptance.[ii]

Like many scientists I would like to help build understanding and acceptance of evolution among diverse U.S. publics, including among people of faith.  Not only is evolution fascinating as a concept, I believe that understanding the fundamentals of evolutionary theory can be critical for engaging with many pressing issues at the interface of the life sciences and society, ranging from conservation decisions, to human diversity, to epidemiology, and to other issues related to human health and well-being.  So, when encountering uncertainty or disbelief about evolution in an informal science setting, what is a scientist or science communicator to do?  First, some points to consider:

  1. As shown by Yale researcher Dan Kahan and colleagues, whether someone chooses to reject evolution has very little to do with their overall scientific literacy. To paraphrase Kahan, a statement like “I don’t believe in evolution” isn’t necessarily just a statement about what a person knows, it is also a reflection of who they are. Ideas about evolution (as well as other socially contested topics such as climate change) are often thoroughly entangled with political, cultural, religious, and community identity.[iii]  Suggesting that respect for the process and findings of science is fundamentally incompatible or inevitably in conflict with being a person of faith is profoundly counterproductive for science engagement (and also false).
  2. Studies show that most people don’t change their minds about core values easily. From a cognitive reasoning perspective, people (across the political and social spectrum, at least within the [largely American] populations surveyed) tend to be highly motivated to seek out information that confirms their existing beliefs, and to rationalize away any information that doesn’t conform to their existing worldview. Furthermore, many individuals respond to direct challenges to their core beliefs by ‘doubling down’, a mechanism sometimes referred to as the “backfire effect.” People also tend to respond differently to information (especially challenging information) depending on who is sharing it. Information is more likely to be trusted (and accepted) when it comes from family members, friends, or those who otherwise have something in common with them- though that “something” might be as simple as being a fellow Texan, a fellow parent, a fellow fan of certain movies, or a fellow church-goer.[iv]  In short, people are more likely to really engage with new ideas and consider new perspectives that come from trusted sources, or at least from sources within their own social or cultural sphere.
  3. Scientists have an interesting public relations problem.  While scientists typically enjoy tremendous prestige and influence as competent problem-solvers, and the scientific enterprise is viewed extremely positively by a vast majority of Americans, scientists aren’t considered particularly warm or trustworthy.[v]  Consider how scientists are often portrayed in popular media: as individuals of great intellect who are also cold, arrogant and dismissive of others (e.g., Dr. House of the eponymous television show), unconcerned with the social or ethical dimensions of their research, or profoundly corrupt and immoral (e.g., Gaius Baltar of Battlestar Galactica). These conceptions of science all reinforce a perception that scientists may hold very different values and priorities than non-scientists, which (given point 2 above) can create a barrier to constructive engagement.
Super villain scientist Sauron
The supervillain scientist Sauron does not share Spider-man’s values.| Image copyright Marvel Comics

Stay tuned for Part II of this blog where I’ll use the AAAS Public Engagement Framework to share one approach to this issue that has worked well for me in informal contexts.

About Rob O'Malley

Rob O'Malley is a Senior Program Associate with AAAS's Dialogue on Science, Ethics and Religion (DoSER) program.

[i] Gregory TR. 2009. Understanding natural selection: Essential concepts and common misconceptions. Evolution: Education and Outreach 2: 156–175. doi:10.1007/s12052-009-0128-1
[ii] Barnes, M. E., & Brownell, S. E. (2017). A call to use cultural competence when teaching evolution to religious college students: Introducing religious cultural competence in evolution education (ReCCEE). CBE-Life Sciences Education, 16(4), es4.
[iii] Kahan, D. M. (2017). ‘Ordinary science intelligence’: A science-comprehension measure for study of risk and science communication, with notes on evolution and climate change. Journal of Risk Research, 20(8), 995-1016.
[iv] Webb, B. S., & Hayhoe, D. (2017). Assessing the Influence of an Educational Presentation on Climate Change Beliefs at an Evangelical Christian College. Journal of Geoscience Education, 65(3), 272-282.
[v] Fiske, S. T., & Dupree, C. (2014). Gaining trust as well as respect in communicating to motivated audiences about science topics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(Supplement 4), 13593-13597.