03 September 2011

Why some people don't accept evolution: a layperson's perspective

(Cross-posted to Skeptic Freethought)

I’ll come right out and say that I am not especially well-educated in science. I studied the liberal arts in college and never took a course beyond Intro to Biology. I do think that I gained a fundamental literacy of the science through my minimal classroom study (and copious independent reading as a child), to the point that I can understand what science journalists and bloggers are talking about even without being able to make sense of the raw data myself.

Image credit: Ethan Hein
I do understand, at the most basic level, how evolution works and why it works, even if I can’t wrap my head around the intricate processes that drive it. I’d be out of my league attempting to teach it to someone or to debate a creationist on it (a position in which we atheists too often find ourselves, as if we’re all PhD biologists in the minds of creationists).

Even as a layperson (especially as a layperson?) I feel that scientific literacy is a vital part of being an informed citizen. I’m troubled by the widening knowledge gap I see between scientists and everybody else, and particularly by the anti-intellectual sentiment that is rising alongside populism.

Denial in favor of design

To many atheists (and even theists who are skeptics about most everything but gods), it may seem shocking and frustrating that so many people in the United States dismiss evolution as wild conjecture.

When we see the notion of “intelligent design” being taught alongside actual science in biology class as if the two had equal weight, our first reaction may leave a palm-shaped depression in our foreheads (or a forehead-shaped indentation in our desks).

Sure, there are a number of people so hopelessly dedicated to ancient origin stories that they don’t want evolution to be true. It would turn their entire world upside down were they to accept that they are part of a 3 billion year old solar-powered chemical reaction rather than a unique, purposeful creation apart from nature. It would mean to them that they are no better than their animal kin and take away all incentive for civilized behavior in their minds.

The threat of such a crisis of conscience has been used as an argument against evolution since Darwin first proposed it. It was used by the prosecution in the infamous John Scopes trial, and even today is rehashed and regurgitated by creationist groups like Answers in Genesis.

I'm not so sure that there's a way around this roadblock. How does one persuade a person to step over a ledge if said person is utterly convinced that they'll tread onto a slippery slope?

Framing it like a religion instead of science

There are others still who are taken in by deceitful rhetoric like "evolution is just a theory", people who don't believe the science because they don't understand it.

I suspect that a major reason why people don’t “get” evolution is that they try to understand the theory as something that it’s not: an infallible history that’s conveniently spelled out for them. Unfortunately, science doesn’t offer the romance or clarity of religious mythology, no matter how badly our human minds want it to (not to say it can’t be exciting in its own right if you embrace your inner nerd, but most don’t).

The narrative of Darwin on his epic odyssey through the harsh environment of the Galapagos, suddenly experiencing a “eureka!” moment as the idea of natural selection dawns on him, is false. It is nevertheless taught that way to schoolchildren to make the subject more fun (the same goes for the myth of Newton and the falling apple revealing to him the concept of gravity).

On the Origin of Species was a breakthrough 150 years ago, but it isn’t a sacred text. A century and a half of new discoveries have rendered it obsolete, and the biologists of the 2160s will likely say the same about our most cutting-edge scientific literature today.

Unfortunately, people don't seem to want an amendable explanation that says "We can't know for sure, but this is what most probably happened based on what we've found so far." It doesn't satisfy that desire for certainty that nags at all of us. It leaves room for doubt, and makes many people uncomfortable. No, people want an ironclad explanation that says "We know that this is what happened, for these irrefutable reasons."

Science can’t offer that. It’s driven by uncertainty – that’s what leads to new discoveries and new questions to be answered. Until the American public learns to accept that, how can we expect them to accept evolution?

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