Descent with modification

I suspect most of our readers would agree with the statement, ’human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals’. But a survey of attitudes to evolution has found that only a third of people in the US believe those words to be true, a substantially lower proportion than in Japan or most European countries. Attitudes appear largely unchanged over the past 20 years.

Jon Miller of Michigan State University, East Lansing, and colleagues, whose analysis was published in the journal Science on 11 August, highlight three causal factors. They argue that American religious beliefs tend to take a far more literalist approach to creation stories, with many people regarding Genesis as an accurate account of the origin of human life. Strike one against evolution.

They also note that ’no European country has experienced the politicisation of evolution that has occurred in the United States in recent decades’. This has seen Republican politicians calling for ’creation science’ to be taught alongside evolution in schools. Strike two.

Finally, Miller’s team says that poor genetic literacy can increase people’s likelihood of rejecting evolution. They cite a 2005 study showing that 78 per cent of US adults agreed with a description of natural selection in plants and animals, as long as the word ’evolution’ itself was omitted.

It would be too easy, as the editor of a UK-based publication, to reflect smugly on the parlous state of US education. But Miller’s survey also shows that about a quarter of UK citizens remain unconvinced by evolution, conclusions that were broadly confirmed by a separate survey of undergraduates by Opinionpanel Research in July. Earlier this year, the Royal Society lamented the teaching of ’intelligent design’ in the classroom, and described evolution as ’the best explanation for the development of life on Earth from its beginnings and for the diversity of species’. Of course, science should not be taught as a series of decrees to be absorbed unquestioningly. That breeds resentment or, even worse, produces drones unprepared to question scientific paradigms. But an open-minded approach to scientific knowledge must not undermine the value of scientific evidence. And the evidence for evolution is everywhere, from the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria to the latest discoveries of hominid fossils.

This is not just an issue for biologists. If a scientific concept as well supported as evolution can be widely regarded as false, what hope for the greenhouse effect, radiocarbon dating, or the second law of thermodynamics? Chemists have as much responsibility as other scientists to uphold the value of hard evidence.

Crucially, this does not mean that mainstream science and religion cannot coexist, since their respective empirical or faith-based approaches to acquiring knowledge largely occupy different territories. Thriving religious belief should not worry us: a rejection of scientific evidence should.

As Lawrence Krauss, an astrophysicist and public outreach advocate based at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, pointed out in the New York Times on 15 August: ’the battle is not against faith, but against ignorance’.

Mark Peplow, editor