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Do You Wish Evolution Weren’t True?

Post #2 in a series for Darwin Day 2012

Caricature of Darwin examining skull

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In On the Origin of Species, Darwin waxed poetic about the worldview fostered by his evolutionary theory, writing that "there is grandeur in this view of life."

But not everyone shares Darwin's eloquence and upbeat attitude when it comes to evolution. In the preface to a 1998 book, Richard Dawkins reveals that his first book, The Selfish Gene, led some readers to question the meaning of life, generating tears and sleepless nights. In fact, many people find evolution existentially challenging and perceive it to have negative implications for individuals and for society. And many people reject evolution altogether, especially as an explanation for human origins. This prompts some provocative questions:

Do people reject evolution because they don't want it to be true? Do those who accept evolution do so reluctantly?

In a paper published in the journal Science Education, researchers Sarah Brem, Michael Ranney, and Jennifer Schindel investigated people's beliefs about the existential and moral consequences of evolution. They asked a sample of university students to consider whether belief in evolutionary theory makes it harder or easier to find purpose in life, to believe in God, spirituality, and free will, and to justify selfishness and racism. In other words, does belief in evolution have positive or negative implications for individuals and for society?

Those who rejected evolution echoed Dawkins' despairing readers, perhaps unsurprisingly. They believed that accepting evolution makes it harder to find purpose in life, harder to support spiritual beliefs, and harder to believe in something like free will, but easier to justify selfishness and racism. For these students, evolution was all around bad news. This is consistent with the idea that people reject evolution because they don't want it to be true, an instance of what psychologists call "motivated reasoning."

...but not so fast. Because it turns out that students who accepted evolution had almost exactly the same beliefs. Students who endorsed evolution were slightly more likely to think that belief in evolutionary theory had no bearing on these questions one way or the other, but the vast majority of students – whether or not they accepted evolution – did think that evolution has implications for existential and moral questions, and shared the view that evolution is a downer. In fact, participants who reported knowing more about evolution or having had more exposure to it were if anything more inclined to believe that it has negative consequences.

So do these findings reflect poorly on evolutionary theory or on people's understanding of its implications?

Many argue – and I'm inclined to agree – that scientific theories on their own can't answer questions about life's meaning or how to live a morally good life. But that doesn't mean that scientific claims are irrelevant to such questions, or that the implications of evolutionary theory tend towards the negative. In fact, taking our evolutionary origins seriously challenges the reality of discrete categories such as "race" and forces us to accept the continuity between humans and other animals. If anything, evolutionary theory challenges racism and points us towards a more compassionate attitude towards non-human animals. It seems to me that there is indeed grandeur in this view of life.

What do you think?

This is post #2 in a series celebrating Darwin Day, coming soon on February 12th! You can read my first Darwin Day post, "Embracing Darwin in an Uncertain World," here.