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Disbelieving Darwin: the dangers of evolution opinion polls

Disbelieving Darwin: the dangers of evolution opinion polls

A Darwin Day poll suggests Britons are turning away from the theory of evolution. Nick Spencer advises caution. 12/02/2019

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This’ll disprove progress for you.

Ten years ago, Theos and the Faraday Institute conducted research into the level of belief in Darwinism and theism in the UK today. The results were complex – these things shouldn’t be reduced to a headline – but very broadly they showed that about one in four people rejected evolution (and a good deal more were inconsistent in their views).

According to new research commissioned by Puffin Books, nearly a third of Britons do not believe in evolution. The polling, of 1,500 UK adults to mark Darwin’s birthday (12 February), found that one in ten (12 per cent) of respondents believed in creationism, a figure that rose to 17 per cent for under 29s.

A word or two of caution is needed immediately. Measuring people’s attitudes to things like creationism and evolution is far from straightforward as the questions assume a level of understanding that isn’t always there. I have not been able to locate the data tables for the study and can’t verify how the questions were asked.

Moreover, polling in this area, and into science and religion generally, is notoriously suspect, as a Theos report later this year will show. There seem to be certain suppositions built into much public opinion work, which assume and then exaggerate division between ‘science’ (or ‘evolution’, or ‘reason’) and ‘religion’ (or ‘creation’ or ‘faith’). As the academic Fern Elsdon–Baker has observed, too much polling seems to be in the business of “creating creationists.”

All that, coupled with the fact that this polling is tied to the publication of a new book telling Darwin’s story – for which widespread public ignorance is presumably not bad publicity – should leave us with a pinch of salt in hand.

All that noted, however, the results are all too believable, and are not wildly different from other surveys.

Much of the public disbelief/ antipathy to evolution may be down to ignorance. Thus, two–thirds of 16 to 29 year–olds were aware of Darwin’s theory compared to 84 percent of those over 60. Similarly, 59 percent of 16 to 29 year olds correctly identified The Origin of Species as Darwin’s, compared to 93 per cent of over 60s.

Ignorance will only get you so far though. It is perfectly possible to be ignorant about something without rejecting it. Odds are that most people can’t prove Newton’s Principia but don’t disbelieve in heliocentrism.

There are no doubt many reasons for this evolution scepticism. Here is one suggestion. Evolution (by natural selection) is a very well attested scientific theory for explaining the origin and development of species, including ourselves. It is not an authoritative metaphysical statement about the meaning and purpose of life, the universe and everything – or rather about their lack of meaning and purpose.

The manner in which the former has been treated like the latter over recent decades has not done Darwin or his theory any favours. If you want people to recognise belief in a theory, it’s probably best not to present that theory as undermining everything they believe about themselves (including their ability to hold true beliefs!)

As the figures in this survey and in Rescuing Darwin indicated, this is not a religious issue. Far more people are evolution sceptics than ever darken the doors of church (and that notwithstanding the very large number of ‘religious Darwinians’ who do). The problem is bigger than Genesis or the Qur’an.

A first step towards addressing the seemingly lamentable public knowledge, understanding and belief in evolution is surely to stop pretending that Darwin dethroned God, human uniqueness and any talk of our purpose on earth.

Image by Uncle Leo under a Shutterstock licence.

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, including Magisteria: the entangled histories of science and religion (Oneworld, 2023), The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). He is host of the podcast Reading Our Times.

Watch, listen to or read more from Nick Spencer

Posted 12 February 2019

Creationism, Darwin, Evolution, Polling


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