Despite an overwhelming amount of convergent empirical evidence across a number of scientific disciplines, many people, especially in North America, still refuse to accept the theory of evolution. If the evidence supporting evolution is overwhelming, why is this so?

There are, of course, a number of possible explanations. For example, many have argued that our education system has done a poor job properly teaching kids about evolution. As someone who teaches college courses, I know I have had discussions with students who clearly have false beliefs about the theory. Similarly, there are individuals and organizations (primarily religious in nature) that are misrepresenting evolution in a strategic effort to dissuade people from accepting it and teaching it in schools.

But why are we failing to properly teach the theory in schools and why are some people so invested in preventing our kids from being exposed to scientific evidence? In other words, what is so threatening about this particular theory? A recent series of studies examined this issue by considered existential anxiety about death as a reason people may resist evolution and favor intelligent design (the belief in a creator).

First, let me provide a little background on the topic of existential anxiety about death. I have discussed this issue in a number of previous posts. The basic idea is that humans are unique animals in that we have the intellectual horsepower to reflect on ourselves (self-awareness) and our existential predicament (we are mortal). From early childhood, we understand that we are physically vulnerable. We can suffer a random accident, be the victim of a violent crime, or be diagnosed with a fatal disease. At some point in our development, we also begin to fully grasp that though we can avoid some fatal risks through good behavior (e.g., eating well, wearing our seatbelts), many risks are out of our control.

Further, and critically, we begin to understand that death is inescapable. That is, we are the one species that can truly contemplate our date with death. A large body of research has shown that this awareness of death provokes a significant amount of anxiety and that as a result, humans go to great lengths to invest in belief systems that help us deny the severity of this fate. Specifically, humans turn to cultural worldviews (e.g., religion) that take the sting out of death by offering people the sense that our existence is meaningful and significant. In other words, sure we may be mortal, but we are here for a reason. We are meaningful beings in a purposeful universe. And in this way, we are more than mortal. Indeed, studies show that the more people believe that their lives are meaningful and purposeful, the less their awareness of death bothers them. In short, existential meaning protects people from death anxiety.

Ok, now back to how evolution relates to existential anxiety about death. According to Dr. Jessica Tracy, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, and colleagues, because people are aware of their mortality, they are often searching for a sense of existential meaning and the theory of evolution, or at least the way it is often taught, may not offer any help in this search. In fact, it may threaten a sense of meaning to the extent that people see an evolutionary approach as suggesting that life is ultimately meaningless (i.e., there is no grand design). However, theories that reject evolution, like the theory of intelligent design, may provide a sense of existential meaning because they suggest there is a reason for our existence. That is, our existence serves some greater purpose.

To test these ideas, in a series of studies, Dr. Tracy and colleagues randomly assigned people to one of two conditions. In one condition, people were asked to think about their own death, thus increasing their awareness of mortality. In the other condition, people were asked to think about dental pain. Dental pain is an unpleasant (anxiety-provoking) experience to think about, but it does not typically arouse thoughts of mortality. Next, they read articles in favor of intelligent design and evolution. Consistent with the idea that existential anxiety relates to attitudes about evolution, the researchers found that people in the death writing condition, compared to those in the dental pain writing condition, liked the intelligent design article more and the evolution article less. Said differently, thinking about death made people more sympathetic to the idea of intelligent design and less supportive of evolution.

Interestingly, in another study, the researchers were able to get people who had thought about death to favor evolution if these people were exposed to information suggesting that an evolutionary approach to studying the natural world can provide a sense of personal meaning.
According to the researchers, what this suggests is that if people do not perceive evolution as a threat to meaning in life, but instead see it as a way of finding personal meaning by understanding our world and where we come from, then people might be less resistant to science. In other words, being sensitive to people's existential needs for meaning and purpose may be critical to successfully educating people about scientific evidence that challenges long held assumptions about the world.

For further reading see:

Tracy JL, Hart J, Martens JP (2011) Death and Science: The Existential Underpinnings of Belief in Intelligent Design and Discomfort with Evolution. PLoS ONE 6(3): e17349. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017349

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