Sad news, the USA trails behind 32 other countries in its acceptance of evolution 1

We knew it was bad here, but not this bad. An international survey of adults’ acceptance of evolution places the US near the bottom of the barrel, just above Turkey and far, far below Japan and most of Western Europe. It’s yet more evidence that the US of A is a pretty benighted, or at least confused, nation.

The survey, conducted by two US and one Japanese researchers in 2005, asked adults in 34 countries their responses to this statement: “Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals.” The responders were asked to state whether the statement was true or false, or to state they were not sure.

The results for the US group: true, 40%, not sure, 21%, and false, 39%. Only Muslim Turkey, with an acceptance rate of about 23%, scored lower than the States. Meanwhile, more than 75% of the participants in Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, France, Japan and the UK judged the survey statement as being true, and relatively few were fencesitters. Most of the other Western European countries were not far behind.

The US shared the bottom rankings with Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Cyprus and Turkey. I leave the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about that group.

The researchers were Jon D. Miller, Hannah Professor of Integrative Studies at Michigan State University, Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, and Shinji Okamoto of Kobe University, Japan. They published their results in the Aug. 11 issue of Science. A summary of the article just came in today’s mail in my copy of NSTA Reports, a publication of the National Science Teachers Association.

Miller, Scott and Okamoto pinpointed three key differences between the USA and its Western European counterparts, all of which are pretty obvious to those of us in the science education trenches.

  1. Fundamentalist religions are much more influential in the USA than in most of the other countries, and these religions refuse to accept humans as just another animal and products of evolution. These religions teach that God created humans apart from the rest of life on Earth.

  2. In no other country is the rejection of evolution part of a stated, official political platform. [One might also extend this idea to the use/abuse of religious dogma in political discourse here generally.]

  3. Americans are generally ignorant of genetics, and are unaware, for example, that the DNA of humans overlaps significantly with chimpanzees and even mice.

The writers conclude, in part, with the following statement:

“These results should be troubling for science educators at all levels. Basic concepts of evolution should be taught in middle school, high school, and college life sciences courses and the growing number of adults who are uncertain about these ideas suggests that current science instruction is not effective.

— Science 11 August 2006: Vol. 313. no. 5788, pp. 765 – 766

Now that’s an understatement, given that there are significant fundie forces in several states trying to force Intelligent Design – creationism in sheep’s clothing – into the public school curricula, and given that our educational “system” permits home schoolers and church-run schools to teach just about anything to our kids. It’s not just that current science instruction is ineffective. It’s just not there at all in many parts of the country!

While informative, the article ignores one other key difference between the US and other countries represented in the study. Most other countries have centralized national curricula that permit little leeway in what teachers can teach. That kind of centralized educational system is anathema to most US citizens, who fervently believe in each community’s “right” to local control of the schools. The religious fundies would cry foul as well, declaring that secular, Godless forces would be trying to undermine our Christian nation. (Of course, they’d be more than happy to force creationism on the rest of us, given half the chance.) Thus, our national government can encourage the teaching of evolution in the schools, but has comparatively little authority – or political will – to enforce it.

So, short of a second American Revolution, what solutions to this dismal state of affairs exist? We can resist efforts by creationists and ID-ers to push these non-scientific “theories” into the public schools. We can support teachers and schools who consider teaching evolution as part of their jobs. We have to be willing to reason with those who refuse to accept evolution as valid, by showing them (as much as possible) the genetic evidence that humans are part of the animal kingdom and the fossil evidence that traces the evolution of humans from earlier hominids. [Such reasoning, I grant, will probably result in little change, since arguing against one person’s religious beliefs is generally doomed to fail, but one must try.] Finally, marshall any and all popular resources that discuss evolution dispassionately and be willing to talk about them; Time magazine – hardly a liberal firebrand — has run some pretty good cover stories on genetics and evolution recently.

We are at the bottom, but there is hope. Not all of America is in denial about evolution. As the authors of the article suggest, we need to work on that 21% that are undecided. The naysayers are probably past all hope of reform, but miracles can happen!

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