East Lansing, Mich. -- Surveys by a Michigan State University researcher find that about one-third of the American population does not believe in evolution, a figure which is much higher than those found in similar surveys in European nations and Japan.
The research of Jon D. Miller, MSU Hannah Professor of Integrative Studies, is published in the Aug. 11 issue of the journal Science.
"One in three American adults firmly rejects the concept of evolution, a significantly higher proportion than found in any western European country," Miller said.
For example, in Iceland, Denmark, Sweden and France, 80 percent or more of adults accepted the concept of evolution, as did 78 percent of Japanese adults.
Only adults in Turkey, a predominantly Muslim nation, were less likely to accept the concept of evolution than American adults.
The data for the 32 European countries were collected by the European Commission using primarily personal interviews. The Japan data were collected in 2001 by personal interview. The U.S. data were collected by Miller using Knowledge Networks, an online national sample of households selected on a probability basis. All of the interview and online data in the 34 countries were weighted to reflect actual population distributions and are comparable across countries.
There were several reasons for these inflated U.S. numbers. Miller said the most significant factor was the influence of fundamentalist religions.
"The total effect of fundamentalist religious beliefs on attitude toward evolution was nearly twice as much in the United States," he said, "which indicates that individuals who hold a strong belief in a personal God – and who pray frequently – were significantly less likely to view evolution as probably or definitely true than adults with less conservative religious views."
In addition, the issue of evolution has become highly politicized in the United States, with the Republican Party in particular often using it as a litmus test for possible candidates for office, according to Miller.
"There is no major political party in Europe and Japan that uses opposition to evolution as a part of its political platform," Miller said. "In the United States, there are people who think it is a political advantage to discount evolution."
Not surprisingly, Miller and colleagues also found that persons with strong pro-life beliefs were significantly more likely to reject evolution than those with pro-choice views.
"The total effect of pro-life attitudes on the acceptance of evolution was much greater in the United States than in the nine European countries surveyed," he said.
Miller said a lack of genetic literacy on the part of many American adults also plays a role. For example, only a third of American adults agree that more than half of human genes are identical to those of mice, and only 38 percent of adult recognize that humans have more than half of their genes in common with chimpanzees.
"These results should be troubling for science educators at all levels," he said. "The growing number of adults who are uncertain about these ideas suggests that current science instruction is not effective."
Miller is the recently appointed Hannah Professor of Integrative Studies at MSU. He has appointments in the Division of Mathematics and Science Education and the Department of Political Science.
He comes to MSU from Northwestern University where he was director of the Center for Biomedical Communications. He also was a professor in the NU Medical School and the Medill School of Journalism.
His co-writers on the paper are Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education and Shinji Okamoto of Kobe University, Japan.
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