Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Let Freedumb Ring

Darwin Day is a day of celebration, but here in the U.S. it's also a day of national shame. PZ Myers disparaged this graphic from The Economist as being plagiarized, but regardless, it tells the story: "In 2008 14% of people [Americans] polled by Gallup agreed that “man evolved over millions of years”, up from 9% in 1982." The graphic actually shows more like 35% of Americans agreeing that the theory of evolution is "true," but it evidently reflects a different wording of the question.

In any event, either way we're barely ahead of Turkey and absolutely last among the wealthy and well-educated countries in the percentage of people who accept the theory of evolution -- and not just by a little bit, either. The country just ahead of us is Greece, and there a majority believe in the obvious truth. From there the majorities become overwhelming.

We're fortunate to have people like PZ who are willing to spend a good part of their days arguing with idiots, but it doesn't do much good. This is clearly not a matter of evidence and logic, or it would be long over. So we need to ask why, in the United States of all places, so many people cling so fiercely to long discredited myths and fables. I have mentioned some possible psychological reasons -- that the idea that we just sort of happened, and there isn't any higher purpose to it all, is somehow unsatisfying to people. But of course people's psychology is the same everywhere, so the discrepancy has to do with our culture.

And that seems paradoxical since we're famous for inventiveness, figuring stuff out, exploration and discovery. For that matter we have the world's largest and most fruitful scientific enterprise, universal literacy and a high level of formal education. Just what is going on here?

Of course the earliest European settlers included a large percentage of religious fanatics, but they were not a dominant influence by the time of the founding of the U.S. The important political leaders in the late 18th Century, those known as the Founding Father, were, in fact, strongly influenced by the Enlightenment and were probably too secular in their outlook to successfully run for high office today. In other words we somehow regressed.

I think the main issue is one of identity. Christian fundamentalism and rejection of science are a way for people to assert a regional and cultural identity -- and indeed this does correlate with the Confederacy, and former frontier states where people may have felt that people in the more developed northeast looked down on them. Secularism and humanism are a threat, not so much to people's existential equanimity, as to their pride of heritage. The divide almost rises to the level of separate ethnicity, we can almost be seen as two nations.

So the coincidence that today is the bicentennial of both Darwin and Lincoln has got to be particularly galling to the losers of the War of Northern Aggression. If my analysis is correct, then we need to try a different approach. Not that I'm entirely sure what that might be.


kathy a. said...

i disagree with your assertions that we have universal literacy and a high level of formal education.

sure, nearly everyone can sign their name and nod "yes" when asked if they understand what they are reading. but a great many of our citizens are functionally illiterate or borderline; we have huge rates of folks who dropped out of formal schooling; and quality basic science education is not a priority in a culture that often has emphasized education merely as a means of getting a job.

the very vocal attacks on science, and especially evolution, may leave some people who do not understand *all* the science saying they just aren't sure; it is prudent in our culture to not commit when one might be punished for that commitment. just a hypothesis.

kathy a. said...

or to put it another way, defending evolution is not going to lead directly to jobs for most of us, and it may lead to being disinvited to the neighborhood potluck or other social support on the ground.

there is not enough recognition that evolution affects people in their daily lives. MRSA and flu are some examples, but they still don't affect everyone.

i think one answer is in stressing nature and science much more strongly in earlier years, to spark interests -- and making science more accessible to older kids and adults generally. just recognizing the diversity and wonders of nature is a step. it probably even sounds stupid, but finding an interest and following it is a way of fostering critical thinking.

Mr. Gunn said...

Long time no comment, Cervantes! I like the blog redesign. As a former and long-time dweller in the South, I just have to take exception to this characterization. I think you're right that things break down along educational lines, and the results of the Pew study confirm this( ) but there's just as much religious fervor and fundamentalism in the Midwest as there is in the South, perhaps more, because we at least have good weather and good food.