Despite the overwhelming evidence, public acceptance of the theory of evolution in the United States has remained low. Now, a new study spanning the last 35 years has found that more than half of Americans finally accept the theory.
Based on national public opinion surveys conducted since 1985, the study from the University of Michigan also identified factors that may contribute to an individual’s opinion on the subject, including level of education and religious beliefs.
The surveys – biennial surveys from the National Science Board, national surveys funded by units of the National Science Foundations, and a series focused on adult civic literacy funded by NASA – asked individuals to agree or disagree with the statement: “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.”
According to lead researcher Jon D. Miller, the responses were a “statistical dead heat” for more than two decades – between 1985 and 2010 acceptance and rejection of evolution were neck and neck. Until 2016 when, Miller says, “acceptance … surged, becoming the majority position”.
Over the last decade, the percentage of American adults who believe in evolution has risen from 40 percent to 54 percent in 2019. This newfound acceptance, the authors suggest, is due to an increase in education.
“Almost twice as many Americans held a college degree in 2018 as in 1988,” said co-author Mark Ackerman. “It’s hard to earn a college degree without acquiring at least a little respect for the success of science.”
The study identified civic science literacy, taking college courses in science, and having a college degree as the leading factors in an individual’s acceptance of evolution.
On the other hand, the strongest factor leading to the rejection of evolution was found to be religious fundamentalism. According to the study, 30 percent of Americans are religious fundamentalists, a number that has declined slightly in the last decade. Interestingly, among those who scored highest on the scale of religious fundamentalism, acceptance of evolution has risen from 8 percent in 1988 to 32 percent in 2019, perhaps explaining why acceptance of evolution is now in the majority.
However, Miller believes that religious fundamentalism will continue to hinder public acceptance of evolution, as will political persuasion – “[s]uch beliefs are not only tenacious but also, increasingly, politicized,” he said.
In 2019, just 34 percent of conservative Republicans said they accepted evolution, compared to 83 percent of liberal Democrats.
The gulf in ideologies of the two parties may be wide as ever, but America on the whole, it seems, is less divided – evolution has the majority, albeit by a pretty tight margin.
Nevertheless, the study represents a small win for evolution. And for science.