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Not Believing in Evolution Predicts Bigotry and Racism

Reluctance to accept human evolution is linked to prejudice and racism.

Key points

  • Personality traits that underlie widespread reluctance to accept fact over belief influences our behavior towards others.
  • People who think that they are not at all like other animals have a narrower categorization of their ingroup.
  • Americans who do not believe in human evolution were more likely to display higher levels of prejudice, express openly racist attitudes.
  • Acceptance of the principles of human evolution also vary by gender, age, education and political party.

Do you believe in human evolution? Scientists believe that human beings developed from other, now extinct, animals over very long periods of time. The fact that the scientific evidence in support of human evolution is overwhelming has had little impact on strongly held disbeliefs of a consistent percentage of the world's population. Psychologists would like to understand the personality traits that underlie such widespread reluctance to accept fact over belief and whether this reluctance influences our behavior towards others.

Since the mid-1800s, the concept of evolution has affected the way humans thought about themselves with respect to others. Unfortunately, the basic principles of evolution were quickly used to justify racism, prejudice, and homophobia. Some leaders morphed the concept of natural selection leading to the “survival of the fittest” into policies to justify discrimination, slavery, and genocide. This misinterpretation reinforced the arguments of eugenicists, White supremacists, and Nazi ideology.

A recent study of 62,000 people in 45 countries discovered that a reluctance to accept the reality of human evolution is linked to a tendency to demonize outsiders. People who think that they are not at all like other animals have a narrower categorization of their ingroup; this view appears to lead to less empathy and more animosity towards people from other socio-cultural backgrounds. The authors reported that disbelief in human evolution predicts displays of racial prejudice and hostility to others who are not part of one’s ingroup.

The study reported that people born in America who do not believe in human evolution were more likely to display higher levels of prejudice, express openly racist attitudes, and defend the use of discrimination against others who were Black, immigrants, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. Americans who reported doubts about evolution also displayed greater militaristic attitudes toward political and religious outgroups.

People living in 19 European countries, 25 Muslim countries, and Israel who expressed disbelief in human evolution also reported high ingroup biases (the tendency to favor their own group above that of others) and prejudicial attitudes toward others not part of their own group. These people also expressed less support for conflict resolution.

Previous studies have shown that acceptance of the principles of human evolution vary by gender, age, education, and political party. Men, on average, are more inclined than women to believe that humans evolved over time. Younger people are more likely than older adults to believe in human evolution. Finally, people who report more years of formal education, especially college, are more likely to believe in human evolution than those with less formal education. According to a recent Pew Study (adults sampled between 2005-2013), Republicans, regardless of religion or ethnicity, are less likely to believe in evolution than Democrats or Independents.

Overall, individuals who think that humans did not evolve from other animals often perceive themselves to be qualitatively better than animals and this translates to their attitudes about human outgroups. The results of this study offer insight into human behavior and identify belief in human evolution as a critical predictor of individual differences in racism and prejudice.

References

Syropoulos S, et al (2022) Bigotry and the human-animal divide: (dis)belief in human evolution and bigoted attitudes across different cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology http://dx.doi.org.proxy.ohiolink.edu:9099/10.1037/pspi0000391

Public’s Views on Human Evolution, Pew Research Center Reports, December 30, 2013.

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