Americans who understand how evolution works are more likely to accept it

Even among religious or politically conservative people, new research links accurate knowledge of evolutionary theory to acceptance of it.

In 2005, a US federal court ruled that it was unconstitutional for a public school district to teach intelligent design as an alternative to evolutionary theory in science classes. Over a decade after the decision, evolution education remains a divisive topic in the United States. Now, new research underscores its potential impact, finding that people with a good understanding of evolution are more likely to accept it. This was true even for people who identify as conservative or religious, identities tied to rejection of evolution. We spoke with Deena Weisberg, one of the researchers behind the study, to learn more.

ResearchGate: What motivated this study?

Deena Weisberg: The issue of evolution acceptance in the US has been an interest ever since the Dover Case in 2005. It seems clear that there is more resistance to evolution here in the United States than in other countries. But it also seems clear that the existing public opinion polls didn't give a full picture of why people believe what they do. The most commonly cited polls, like Gallup, ask about human evolution, and none of these polls ask about people's knowledge of the theory itself. We designed the current study primarily to address those two issues.

RG: What did you find?

Weisberg: There are two main findings from this study. First, we found many fewer creationists and many more naturalistic evolutionists than standard opinion polls. This is probably because we asked about the evolution of plants and animals rather than humans, and because we included more options about God's possible involvement in evolution. Second, we found that people's level of knowledge about how evolution works does relate to their level of acceptance, even after taking into account their level of religiosity and their political views. One's religious or political identity does play a role, but so does one's knowledge of how evolution works.

RG: How is your study different from previous research investigating this question?

Weisberg: This study merges two different research traditions. Previous public opinion polls have been conducted on representative samples, so they can represent the country as a whole, but they tend to ask very few questions. On the other hand, work in cognitive and educational psychology asks deeper and more meaningful questions about participants' knowledge of evolutionary theory, but they tend to be conducted on highly restricted groups of subjects, like college students.

We wanted to use the tools of psychological research to probe knowledge in a representative sample and worked with a polling firm to find a group of participants whose demographic makeup would match that of the US population as a whole. To our knowledge, this study is the first attempt to measure knowledge of evolutionary theory in the general public.

RG: How widespread is understanding of evolution in the United States?

Weisberg: Unfortunately, we found that knowledge about evolutionary theory is rather low; about 68 percent of participants failed our knowledge test, scoring less than 60 percent. So there's definitely room for improvement there.

RG: How do you hope your results will be used by researchers, educators, and policymakers?

Weisberg: Our results show that there is a relationship between knowledge and acceptance of evolutionary theory. We haven't established a causal link, but we hope that these results will encourage educators and policymakers to place more emphasis on the teaching of evolution as a fundamental concept in biology.

RG: What are the next steps to this research?

Weisberg: We're working on analyzing the results of a second demographically representative survey that probes acceptance of evolution in more detail. We are investigating the hypothesis that one major variable that explains people's level of acceptance is their understanding of how science works and how science can create knowledge. We want to see whether and how people's understanding of the nature of scientific practice in general may interact with knowledge of evolution and demographic factors to explain one's level of acceptance of evolution.


Featured image courtesy of Paul Williams.