Public acceptance of evolution grows in the U.S.

August 24, 2021 • 11:30 am

According to a survey just published in Public Understanding of Science, acceptance of evolution is increasing in the United States. Click on the screenshot below to read the article (it’s free), or access the pdf here.

The survey continued data collected over 35 years, but a lot of the methodology is described in the Supplemental Materials, which are not given in this link nor on the journal page, where I can’t find this article (it’s clearly an early publication).  Now other surveys have found a smaller percentage of Americans who accept evolution (see below), but it’s surely because of the different ways the questions were asked.

Here’s the question this survey posed to Americans:

The following question was used in all of the years in this analysis:

For each statement below, please indicate if you think that it is definitely true, probably true, probably false, or definitely false. If you don’t know or aren’t sure, please check the “not sure” box.

Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.

Acceptance must be the sum of “definitely true and probably true”, while rejection would be the converse.

So the question at hand is simply: evolution or no evolution of humans? And for the first time, acceptance of human evolution, now at 54% , was seen in a majority of those surveyed—an increase of 14% in the last decade. Rejection of evolution (red line) appears to be about 37%, while “don’t know” is about 9%. As the authors note, the increase in acceptance since 2009 or so seems to be due more to those who “don’t know” moving into the acceptance column than to rejectors moving into the acceptance column.

If you look at a similar survey of a Gallup poll over 36 years (below), you see a different pattern, but that’s because they surveyed for more than just acceptance of evolution: they asked whether people accepted human evolution as purely naturalistic (22%), accepted human evolution but with God guiding it (33%), or simply rejected human evolution in favor of Biblical creationism (40%). The figure for rejection is pretty much the same as shown in the figure above, but the difference in “evolution acceptance” is undoubtedly due to the fact that “acceptance” below includes evolution guided by God. If you added that up with the naturalistic acceptors, the Gallup poll would show that 55% of Americans “accepted” human evolution, again close to the data above. But there are two types of evolution being accepted, one involving supernatural intervention. (Intelligent design would qualify, in this way, as “acceptance of evolution.”)

The data, then, are not that disparate between the two polls, but the apparently heartening 54% acceptance of evolution in the poll above seems to conceal the fact that most acceptors see a hand of God guiding evolution. I don’t find a teleological or theistic view of evolution all that heartening, for it still gives credence to divine intervention. And although the authors mention that disparate results of different surveys depend on the questions asked, it would have been nice had they compared the data above with that below.

A few other points. First, among the demographic data (age, gender, education, college science courses, children at home, etc.), the most important factor determining acceptance of evolution is whether the respondent took at least one college science course.

But “demographic data” did not include religion, which, as usual, turns out to be the most important factor determining how one answered the new polls. (The authors play this down in the paper, perhaps because the National Center for Science Education, two of whose members or former members are authors of the survey, have always been accommodationists.)

Nevertheless, when you do a path analysis of how these factors interact, and parse out the individual effects of factors that normally interact (for example, Republicans are more likely to be religious, and therefore to reject evolution), you find that “fundamentalist” religion has by far the biggest effect on evolution acceptance—in a negative direction, of course. (Because I can’t access the supplementary material, I can’t see how they determined whether a religious person was “fundamentalist”.)

Here’s the complicated path analysis and the weight of each factor. Religious fundamentalism has nearly twice the effect, in isolation, of any other factor on whether one accepts or rejects evolution.

Two more points. More men than women accepted evolution (57% vs 51% in 2019, a reduced disparity from 1988, when the data were 52% and 41%, respectively). This is probably because, on average, women are more religious than are men. And in terms of politics, here are the data for its relation to evolution. As you might expect, the more liberal you are, the more likely you are to accept evolution, and there is a huge difference between conservative Republicans and Liberal democrats in accepting evolution (34% vs. 83% respectively in 2019).  Republicans just can’t get with the program!


There’s one other point I want to mention. The authors claim that it’s really “fundamentalist religion” that’s at odds with evolution, not really other forms of religion, though I’ve maintained otherwise. Here’s what they say:

Religious fundamentalism plays a significant role in the rejection of evolution. The historical explanation of the low rate of acceptance of evolution in the United States involves the central place of the Bible in American Protestantism. In a country settled piecemeal by colonists of varying religious views and without a state church, it was natural for people of faith, especially Protestants who already accepted the principle of sola Scriptura, to privilege the Bible—or their interpretation of it—as the primary source of religious authority and an inerrant source of information about history and science as well as faith and morals. In contrast, religion in European countries is strongly structured by ecclesiastic institutions and the public receptivity to creationism has been limited as a result (Blancke et al., 2014Branch, 2009).

It is thus a particular form of religion that is at the foundation of American anti-evolutionism of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, not religion in general (see Coyne, 2012, for a dissenting view). Indeed, evolution is routinely taught in Catholic parochial schools in the United States, and mainstream Protestant denominations similarly accept evolution (Martin, 2010). While not all anti-evolutionism originates in Fundamentalism and its inerrantism about the Bible, it largely reflects a conservative form of Protestantism with relatively inflexible and inerrantist religious views (Scott, 2009), which we have been calling fundamentalism.

I would deny the claim that it’s only Protestant fundamentalism that’s at odds with evolution instead of religious belief in general. I say this for two reasons/

First, across the world, where Protestant fundamentalism doesn’t have such sway, you still see a negative correlation between religiosity and evolution. Here are data I published in a paper in 2012. There’s a strong negative correlation between religiosity and acceptance of human evolution across 34 countries, but it’s significant even omitting the U.S.point. Further, the only country lower in evolution acceptance than the US is Turkey, which is a Muslim nation.

More important, here are data taken from the Gallup survey mentioned above. Look at “religion”. Yes, Protestants are more likely to be creationists than are others (note that they don’t subclassify “fundamentalist Protestants”), but the Catholics, touted above as being good for teaching evolution in their schools, are still 34% young-earth creationist! What is taught is not always what is accepted!

No, it’s religion of all stripes in the U.S. that’s inimical to accepting evolution. I wish the authors would have mentioned these data as well.

Nevertheless, both surveys show a general acceptance of evolution, though I like the data from the Gallup poll better because it decouples theistic evolution from naturalistic evolution. What I teach is naturalistic evolution, and so I want to know what proportion of Americans accept evolution the way I teach it to students.

When will nearly everyone in America accept evolution, then? When America is like Iceland: a country that is basically atheistic.

20 thoughts on “Public acceptance of evolution grows in the U.S.

  1. One of my favorite cartoons, I cannot recall where it appeared, shows a morose group of bar-flies
    sitting in a tavern, staring glumly at the table. One of them says: “Is human evolution still going on, or is this pretty much it?

  2. No, it’s religion of all stripes in the U.S. that’s inimical to accepting evolution.

    This is undoubtedly true. The question is why this is continually obfuscated. When I was in public grade school I was taught that evolution really just meant that life evolved gradually over millions of years but this did not mean that God was not involved. But there is no question that involvement by a deity is excluded. I suspect that part of it has to do with those trying to teach evolution to children realizing that if they made clear that the theory is a purely naturalistic one they would have a battle with the parents that they weren’t sure they could win. As time goes by their chances look better in that regard but we may not be there yet.

      1. This discussion is an interesting demonstration of my point in that it does not distinguish theistic evolution from naturalistic evolution.

  3. A couple of points:
    1. If you look at the countries where evolution is very widely accepted today, most of them did so by going through a period in the late 19th or early 20th century when “theistic evolution” was the most widespread understanding of the idea. “Not frightening the horses”, “letting people down gently” etc. are phrases that encapsulate what’s going on in such situations. Naturalistic evolution eventually becomes commonplace, and while many individuals are able to make the leap directly from creationism to naturalistic evolution, societies as a whole probably aren’t (at least, not without force, as in the Soviet Union — something that simply backfires because persecution gives moral legitimacy to persecuted ideas even when they don’t deserve it).

    2. The graph shows, yet again, the crucial turning point in about 2006/7. Whenever people say that the books by the four horsemen didn’t do anything to change people’s minds, as they still often do, they should be shown this graph.

    1. Don’t know about the Soviet Union.
      I’m no communist but I think the one good thing about the USSR is it pretty much beat the Islam out of Central Asia for 70 years. I believe that without that everywhere ending in ‘stan would be indistinguishable from Pakistan and Afghanistan today.

      Since 1991 there’s been a comeback of religion of all types there (particularly woo in Russia) but I feel the Central Asian “stans” were saved from Allah.

  4. Hmmm…look at the dates in that graph of acceptance of evolution…now think to yourself, “When was Why Evolution is True published?” Ahaa!!!!

  5. Religion is such a crippling disease, now that we remain in a pandemic for so long it is a disease that kills.

  6. For atheist wonderlands rather than Iceland I often cite Japan* which is mercifully almost devoid of the toxic monotheisms (about 2% Christian, the other monotheisms furgettabaht it).

    They have Buddhism which, arguably, is more a philosophy, and Shintoism (an ancestor guided, almost animist/nature appreciation) – neither of which are taken very seriously by the population….although some hard rightists manage to twist Buddhism into something obnoxious. Their sway is minimal, however.

    NYC (formerly Tokyo)

    *Not Korea, however, where for historical reasons Christianity has infected about 1/3rd of the population.

  7. Theistic evolution isn’t a halfway point on a continuum toward rationalism. Theistic evolution is still an irrational belief (although I know that it gives many—from 1859 to today—both comfort and a way to claim continued allegiance with the rest of theistic community). Evolution has no “watchmaker,” so acceptance of an evolutionary watchmaker is not acceptance of evolution.

    1. Of course — in terms of intellectually coherent positions. But for societies as a whole (not individuals), it’s probably a necessary generational staging post. It’s third and fourth generations for whom naturalistic evolution is a commonplace, but only because a large portion of the first generation was able to find a theistic understanding they could live with.

  8. Dear Dr Coyne,
    Do you think the “battle lines” might have now be redrawn, in the sense that regardless of what religious conservatives actually believe, they have simply “moved on”? In the same sense that gay marriage is not the focus of their attention any more, not as it was less than a decade ago. Even former president Trump, who came to power with their votes, was gay-friendly, and that didn’t stop them from voting for them.
    Case in point: one person actually doing a lot of good work standing up against teaching of dogmatic and revisionist historical claims is Chris Rufo, who is also a member of (formerly?) poisonous Discovery Institute. I have never seen him talk about evolution.

    1. I’m not sure what you’re asking. Acceptance of evolution is important to me, but in the big scheme is small potatoes compared to the other harms that religion does. There may be religious people who do good things, but in general I still consider religion a relic of our species’ infancy and something that simply needs to go. Rufo may do good things, but that may be in spite of religion, not because of it. Remember Steve Weinberg’s famous statement.

      1. Of course all of that is true Dr C. My only point is, I hope they may not be as intent on undercutting the teaching of evolutionary science as they have “bigger fish to fry” and could even brin about something something positive, for a change. Or at least that is what I hope.

  9. No, it’s religion of all stripes in the U.S. that’s inimical to accepting evolution. I wish the authors would have mentioned these data as well.

    It’s strange that in their analysis of their own data they didn’t look at whether (or how much) the broader category of ‘religion’ was anti-correlated with evolution acceptance.

    I initially thought that maybe the technique they use (which I’m not familiar with) might have to exclude overlapping categories, but they do have “highest degree attained” and “at least one college course,” which are overlapping, so that can’t be it.

    Maybe the thing to do here is to write them, and either ask for their data or ask them to run the path analysis looking at religion as a factor and see what the results are? With everyone understanding that some of the ‘total effect’ of religion is due to the religious fundamentalism subgroup, but also with maybe an analysis of what the residual (total religion – religious fundamentalism) is.

    As to why they didn’t, I can think of an optimistic, a pessimistic, and a ‘Hanlon’s Razor’ explanation. The optimistic one is that they didn’t report on that analysis because the residual is too small to matter (though, IMO, that would itself be newsworthy). The pessimistic one is that they didn’t include it because they don’t want to highlight how much non fundamentalist religion is also correlated with rejection of evolution. And the Hanlon’s Razor explanation is that they didn’t do it simply because they did a lot of other analysis instead (i.e. it is easy for us to complain about some analysis they didn’t do, but they were resource constrained, so they couldn’t slice the data every way we might have wanted them to).

    In any event, I bet they might be interested in exploring that question further.

  10. Would very much appreciate a link to see which countries are represented by the dots in the Acceptance/Belief graph. Obviously that’s Turkey bottom right, but I’d like to identify the rest pls.

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