More cause for celebration: evolution acceptance on the uptick

December 8, 2011 • 9:48 am

According to a Gallup poll released today, there’s some heartening news: acceptance of evolution in America is on the rise. It isn’t jumping up precipitiously, but here are the latest data in a long-term (29-year) survey of Americans’ views on one aspect of evolution: how humans came to be (click to enlarge):

The good news is that  although America still remains well behind most European countries in accepting a purely naturalistic scenario for human evolution, an increase from 9% to 16% is a 77% rise!  That’s not to be sneezed at.  And the proportion of Americans who think that God poofed humans into existence has dropped by 4%—a 10% decrease.  (Those who think God helped human evolution along—the official position of the Catholic Church—have remained steady at 38% with some minor ups and downs.)

Some of the pro-evolution change has come from the “undecided or don’t know” camp, which this year is 6% but in 1982 was 9%. The other 4% of the increase came from the drop in straight creationists.

So things are looking up, I think.  And this increase resolves what had been a puzzle for me.  The data on religiosity in the United States shows it declining over time (see Sigmund’s post from earlier today).  Here, for example, is a figure from a 2011 paper by Solt et al. in the Social Science Quarterly  on religiosity and economic inequality.  (I discussed this paper a while back):

So if religiosity is dropping in America (the data above shows a decline of 20% in religiosity since 1955 or 13% since 1982), and Coyne’s Theorem predicts that acceptance of evolution is negatively correlated with religiosity (because religion prevents people from accepting evolution), then why hasn’t acceptance of evolution increased? Well, the latest data show that it has: the increase that seemed to begin in 2000 has been sustained.

It’s not a big increase, but remember also that, at least among countries, the Darwin-vs.-God curve is relatively flat.  Here’s a slide I made from survey data showing the relationship between acceptance of evolution and belief in God in 32 European countries (the US is circled).  The regression on these data (which is highly significant: p = 0.0002) shows that religious belief among countries explains 36% of the variance in evolution-acceptance (this may, of course, not be causal!), and that the slope of the line is -0.33.  That means that to get a 10% increase in evolution-acceptance, you have to give up 33% of your belief in God.  So there’s a flat curve for the tradeoff between Darwin and God. (I am aware, of course, that the relationship among nations may not be relevant to the tradeoff in the U.S).

But, at any rate, we have good news today.  And many of us feel that the benefits of waning religiosity far exceed those of simply increasing acceptance of evolution.


53 thoughts on “More cause for celebration: evolution acceptance on the uptick

  1. Why, it’s almost as if those uppity militant angry Gnu Atheists weren’t driving religious people away from evolution and science in droves!

    In fact, it might even be that they’re… dare I say it? Helping?

  2. Warning: I’m about to say something accommodationist-sounding that isn’t necessarily my own view.

    At the Thanksgiving table, someone made a crack about should we say grace if there’s an evolutionary biologist (me) at the table? I made diplomacy (there was also an evangelical Christian at the table) and said the existence of God and the truth of evolution were not necessarily mutually exclusive. There could be 1) a god AND evolution could be true, 2) a god and evolution could be false, 3) No god and evolution is true, or 4) no god AND evolution could be false.

    In that situation, there wasn’t time to explain why #3 is best supported by the evidence.

    My point is that although religion obviously hinders acceptance of evolution (and other science), there is some residual variation in your regression figure. So I will concede an infinitessimally small piece of ground to accommodationists that teaching evolution and criticism of religion don’t ALWAYS have to go hand-in-hand.

    1. I prefer something like “Sure, anyone who wants to say grace should do so. Meanwhile, I’ll perform my Pastafarian Genuflection ritual.”

      1. hahaha!

        Another point I thought of is that those four options are maybe a starting point for discussions with strong evangelicals. Most of them assume that it’s God OR Evolution, but don’t realize they are mutually exclusive and require separate evidence.

    2. Someone asked, “should we say grace if there’s an evolutionary biologist (me) at the table?” and you muffed it. You should have very cheerfully chirped, “Really, I get to choose? Or were you kidding about me having a say in this?”

      1. Point taken. But see also “there was also an evangelical Christian at the table.” So if I had tried to assert that power, it might have been countered. From the numerical standpoint, it would have been a wash.

        1. Oh yes, I assumed you would have lost. The point was to make it clear that they always impose their prayer on you and you always politely look at the table cloth while the ritual is performed. (That’s what I always do, anyway.) And you wouldn’t even have had to be “rude” by raising the subject.

  3. …only about 40 points more to go until the levels of European states are reached (e.g. Germany acceptance of evolution without god: 60%)…

  4. “Humans evolved, but God had no part in the process.”

    That “but” still bothers me. “And” is sufficient without communicating any kind of preconceived notions about how one might expect humans to have come about.

  5. I can not understand the questions that are asked by pollsters. This seems to be how they frame their questions :

    As an American I am a:

    a)EVO-gelical (lover of God)
    b)EVO-lutionist (hater of god)

    It is hard to get the Bible thumping hordes to sit and listen in biology class when they feel that it is their duty to launch a crusade against godless science.

    Why not ask the poll takers whether they accept the scientific evidence that indicates that life began billions of years ago as a result of descent with modification from the common ancestor.

  6. Good news, to be sure, but I still mourn the fact that 4 out of 10 of my fellow countrymen are completely delusional. Though I think a lot of the rise has to do with the same factor that is driving less religiosity, namely the younger generation. So at least it has the potential to get better still.

  7. I’m thrived. Americans who believe in evolution is actually 54%. I could care less whether or not one believes God had any involvement. Evolution is evolution. If you were more interested in promoting science and less interesting in promoting your religion of fundamentalist Atheism, perhaps you too can get excited that we Evolutionists are a majority!

    1. Few here will be impressed by “your religion of fundamentalist Atheism”. A string of words that is meaningless on many levels.

      A person who believes in a theistic god can not really be said to understand evolution, an entirely undirected and material process.

      The goal of most of us who frequent the WEIT blog is not a celebration of “believers” in evolution. The goal is to have a citizenry that is capable of critical thinking and unwilling to take the existence of supernatural friends on faith. Understanding of evolution will follow.

      1. So, in other words, except Critical Thinking into your heart first and clear understanding of the universe will follow! Sounds familiar, dude.

        1. Not at all. Critical thinking goes on in a person’s brain. That’s where we differ. Your “heart” comment exposes you for what you are, someone who is all caught up in faith, not reason. And what’s with capitalizing “Critical Thinking”? Feeling a need to deify another bit of the material world?

    2. Oh boy. I am trying to hold my tongue but that is REALLY stupid. You are interested in science but you are OK that the vast majority of people who accept evolution don’t understand its mechanism? Isn’t that likel saying global climate change is real but not caused by human activity (a common, albeit false claim)? And if someone cares about mechanisms in science he can be motivated only by “fundamentalist atheism”? Speaking of which, please find me someone who claims “the God Delusion” is infallible. Alternatively, stop posting when you are smoking crack.

  8. I wonder what country is in the top right? Israel? But they aren’t European… I should find the source I suppose.

    1. I think it is Malta or possibly Portugal

      The acceptance of Evolution axis is based on THIS CHART

      [it] depicts the public acceptance of evolution theory in 34 countries in 2005. Adults were asked to respond to the statement: “Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals.” The percentage of respondents who believed this to be true is marked in blue; those who believed it to be false, in red; and those who were not sure, in yellow.

      A study of several such surveys taken since 1985 has found that the United States ranks next to last in acceptance of evolution theory among nations polled. Researchers point out that the number of Americans who are uncertain about the theory’s validity has increased over the past 20 years.

      Chart courtesy Jon Miller, et al.

  9. What is the source of the graph at the bottom (sorry if I’m being an idiot)? I’d be interested to see where the UK is. I worry that the trend here might be in the opposite direction – that might just be my innate pessimism though as it’s not based on actual evidence!

    1. Well, I don’t doubt the negative slope. But I want to know why, when I hover the pointer over it, it says “flat demand curve”.

  10. Will no one note that this survey is a year old? Or, for that matter, that none of these moves are outside the margins of error, thus that we cannot distinguish them from random fluctuations?

    Why would anyone with a working knowledge of statistics assert an “uptick,” let alone try hinting at causation for a shift that may not exist?

      1. Indeed, there is a statistically significant increase in the bottom line (purely natural evolution) over the last 30 years, though note that it’s a shift of about 1/4 of a percentage point per year. Statistically significant, yes. Practically significant? Perhaps. Is there an uptick? No. The latest poll result is not statistically different either from no change or the expectation given the long-term trend.

        1. If it is a year old statistics, so much the better. The trend would be even better now.

          Why we are not concerned with merely the statistics is because of the model of Coyne’s theorem. If you have a model you need to test against that as null hypothesis, obviously.

          To do that rigorously is not something I will do this close to bed time, but a doubling in signal (from 9 to 16 %) is what the AGW has against noise factors and is taken as valid. So I would assume we are in the ball park – Coyne’s theorem is valid and within that model we note a recent uptick.

          1. How did climate change come into this?

            Setting that aside, you keep referring to an “uptick” that does not exist. All that we can assert legitimately is that there’s was a statistical fluctuation upwards.

            So to say that the trend would be stronger today is kinda silly, unless you’re just referring to the .25 percentage point rise that we’d predict from the long-term trend, a shift too small to detect since Gallup rounds off decimal points.

            If you want to do something rigorous, great. Until then, can we not spread statistical illiteracy?

        2. Okay, I _am_ tired, AGW has a doubling in drivers (mainly CO2). Even better, then the small temperature signal is relatively minute to what we see here.

    1. Rosenau, you banned me from your website some time ago–or at least you deleted a comment I made that is perfectly reasonable. Can you explain to me why I should allow you to post here if I can’t post at your site?

      And don’t pretend that you didn’t blacklist me.

      1. Oh, FFS. I didn’t ban you at TfK, and if you thought a comment got lost in the system or wrongly moderated or whatever, you know how to contact me.

        Now, might you correct the statistical and factual errors in the post above, and perhaps even edit or withdraw the comment bogusly claiming that I banned you?

        1. I posted a critical comment on your site a while ago that was trenchant but not insulting, and it never made it through. I haven’t tried to post since then. You might not have banned me, but you certainly deep-sixed that comment, of that I have no doubt. “Wrongly moderated,” indeed!

          And the trend, as you noted, is positive, and statistically significant as well. So something is going on. I happen to think it’s practically significant as well. I don’t understand how you can claim that the trend doesn’t mean anything given that the increase is statistically significant. What I meant by “uptick” was the general increase, not the jump in the latest year or two. I’m sorry if you misinterpreted that, but that’s what I meant. After all, I talked about the change since 1982, not in the latest year. I ain’t gonna correct anything beyond this post; if you don’t like what I said, go write one of your patented 2000-word posts that gets three comments.

          And I don’t appreciate the comments about “statistical illiteracy,” especially from someone who just posted on the need for civility.

          1. Jerry,

            I don’t know what comment you’re talking about, I have no recollection of seeing it, and I don’t know why you leap first to personal and malicious explanations. Your apparent mindreading powers aside, what reason is there to think I ever saw that comment – that it didn’t get caught in moderation?

            I’ve never seen “uptick” used to describe an unchanging trend throughout a dataset. Nor do I see how “a Gallup poll released yesterday” would be “heartening news” unless you were referring to something new that the poll showed. And again, the poll wasn’t released “yesterday.” It was released ~360 days ago.

            I blogged about these data in September, and there’s nothing new to blog about now:

            You write: “the proportion of Americans who think that God poofed humans into existence has dropped by 4%—a 10% decrease.” But no! There’s no statistically significant trend in those data, so saying that there’s a 4% decrease i wrong. Even, as I said, statistically illiterate.

            You might actually read that post on civility, since it doesn’t say what you seem to imagine it does.

  11. It is amusing that people like our troll Dan, who celebrate acceptance of evolution withoutever at all understanding it, are not aware of their rich inheritance.
    Trofim Lysenko, the henchman of Stalin, was among those who liked evolution but rejected natural selection at its heart on purely ideological grounds (not unlike the theistic evolution Dan is so jubilant about). Lysenko sent Nikolai Vavilov, the soviet biologist whose pioneering work in agriculture is considered ground breaking, to a labor camp simply because of this ideological dispute. He also ruined soviet agriculture and may have contributed to untold human suffering.
    Dan you should be proud.

    1. Really, if you go mechanism-less there is no reason to entertain evolutionary creationism.
      The reasonable definition then is “intelligent design” aka “anything goes”.

      The world is 1 week old or the world is 100 billion years old, species can speciate or baramins remain baramins, who cares? Anything is a testament to gods.

      Also, you want to make the risible jump that everything non-specified a posteriori is a testament to specified gods a priori. Funny how that works.

  12. The graph of aggregate religiosity suffers from not having the Y-axis scaled to show its zero point. As shown, it exaggerates the decline in religiosity. Given that people don’t always look at graphs as closely as they should, many will come away with an incorrect idea about the decline in religiosity.

    IIRC (possibly I don’t) Tufte in his first book, “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” points out the evils of such graphs.

  13. A related question: Among those who (a) resist evolution, and (b) go through great pains to hide behind all the canards, how much of it is an argument against the science versus a refusal to consider its implications?

    1. I ask because a close relative of mine, who attended a reputable medical school, parrots the thermodynamics, “missing link” type stuff at me whenever we discuss evolution. We’re both religious, and I’m beginning to think the evidence isn’t his problem.

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