Public Perception of Evolution

We spent about half this semester talking about evolution in theory and in how it pertains to human origins. I feel the case for evolution is compelling, but among the general public evolution is not as popular as it could be. A September 2011 CNN poll asked “Do you believe that the theory of evolution is definitely true, probably true, probably, false, or definitely false?” (via NCSE) The results only slightly favor (57%) a positive view of evolution:

Definitely true: 21%
Probably true: 36%
Probably false: 16%
Definitely false: 25%
No opinion: 3%

Perhaps as a consequence of it unpopularity evolution is one of the most misunderstood scientific topics. Admittedly, some parts of it certainly are counter-intuitive. One of my CNU students brought to my attention a particularly interesting Wikipedia page titled “List of Common Misconceptions,” which is a cursory inventory of inaccurate or incorrect, yet popular, beliefs that people hold in a wide variety of subjects.

Although some professors won’t admit to it, I’m a big fan of Wikipedia because it (and other websites like it) are important ways for experts to interact with people looking for information. Yes, there are many shortcomings to Wikipedia and there’s something of a utopian bent to my fascination with it. It is not a perfect system of communication by any means.

The whole “Common Misconceptions” page is a hoot! I found myself corrected on a number of fronts. If you’re the type to just kick back and read some encyclopedia entries you should take a look. Of course there is an entire subsection concerning evolution.

From the subsection on evolution:

The word “theory” in the theory of evolution does not imply mainstream scientific doubt regarding its validity… While theory in colloquial usage may denote a hunch or conjecture, a scientific theory is a set of principles that explains observable phenomena in natural terms. “Scientific fact and theory are not categorically separable”, and evolution is a theory in the same sense as germ theory, gravitation, or plate tectonics.

Evolution does not attempt to explain the origin of life or the origin of the universe. While biological evolution describes the process by which species and other levels of biological organisation originate, and ultimately leads all life forms back to a universal common ancestor, it is not primarily concerned with the origin of life itself, and does not pertain at all to the origin and evolution of the universe and its components. The scientific theory deals primarily with changes in successive generations over time after life has already originated.

Humans did not evolve from chimpanzees, monkeys, or any other modern-day primates. Humans and monkeys share a common ancestor that lived about 40 million years ago… Humans are part of the Hominidae (great ape) family, which also includes chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. Similarly, the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, which lived between 5 and 8 million years ago, evolved into two lineages, one eventually becoming modern humans and the other the two extant chimpanzee species.

Evolution is not a progression from inferior to superior organisms, and it also does not necessarily result in an increase in complexity.

According to the California Academy of Sciences, only 59% of U.S. adults know humans and dinosaurs did not coexist. However, the last of the non-avian dinosaurs died 65.5 million years ago… whereas the earliest Homo genus (humans) evolved between 2.3 and 2.4 million years ago. This places a 63 million year expanse of time between the last dinosaurs and the earliest humans.

Evolution does not violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics. A common argument against evolution is that entropy, according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, increases over time, and thus evolution could not produce increased complexity. However, the law does not refer to complexity and only applies to closed systems, which the Earth is not, as it absorbs and radiates the Sun’s energy.

Evolution does not “plan” to improve an organism’s fitness to survive. For example, an incorrect way to describe giraffe evolution is to say that giraffe necks grew longer over time because they needed to reach tall trees. Evolution doesn’t see a need and respond to it. A mutation resulting in longer necks would be more likely to benefit an animal in an area with tall trees than an area with short trees, and thus enhance the chance of the animal surviving to pass on its longer-necked genes.

Dinosaurs did not go extinct due to being maladapted or unable to cope with change, a view found in many older textbooks. In fact, dinosaurs comprised an extremely adaptive and successful group, whose demise was brought about by an extraordinary event that also extinguished many groups of plants, mammals and marine life.

Mammals did not evolve from any modern group of reptiles, just like humans have not evolved from chimpanzees. Very soon after the first reptiles appeared, they split into two branches. The line leading to mammals diverged from the line leading to modern reptilian lines about 320 million years ago… The mammals themselves being the only survivors of the synapsid line make them the “cousins” rather than “siblings” of modern reptiles… An example is Dimetrodon, which is often thought of as a dinosaur, but is in fact neither a dinosaur nor closely related to modern reptiles.

Many of these were already incorporated into our lessons. Others are more bizarre. I had never heard of people objecting to evolution based on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Maybe future classes should incorporate more about dinosaurs?

In the comments section below, take a moment to reflect on what you’ve learned about evolution in this class. What was your opinion of evolution before and what is it now? Is there anything about evolution that makes it particularly difficult to understand? What, if anything, should scientists be doing in order get their message to the public more clearly?

And, frankly, does the average individual really need to comprehend evolution in order to go about their daily business? Sure it matters to specialists and educators, but for the man or woman on the street does it really make a difference?


About Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is a project cataloger at The Mariners' Museum library. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and was formerly a professor at ODU. You can find him on Twitter @m4ttTh0mps0n.
This entry was posted in Evolution, Representations of evolution. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Public Perception of Evolution

  1. Here’s more on the CNN poll on evolution’s popularity crossed with demographic data. Evolution is more popular (definitely or probably true) among:

    Democrats 67% / Republicans 35%
    College-educated 64% / Non-college-educated 46%
    Those under 50 60% / Those 50 and older 52%

    The poll was conducted by telephone among 1038 adult Americans from September 9 to September 11, 2011; the margin of sampling error for results based on the total sample is +/- 3%.

  2. considering this poll was conducted by telephone gives me reason enough not to really trust it. I know when random people call me asking me to sign up for something or take a survey I really jut give them the answer they want to hear or hang up. So the people surveyed might have compromised it by just giving a random answer so they will leave them alone.

  3. Richard C says:

    The views on evolution correspond to religious views. The Gallup poll found that 42% of Republicans, compared with 23% of independents and 27% of Democrats, say the Bible is literally true.

  4. I agree with Richard. The views and feelings toward evolution most definitely are in relation to religious practices. Fundamentalists and others stress that evolution does not exist and the world was made less than 10,000 years ago. No matter how much evidence is given, these people will likely never change their feelings. The common man walking down the street does not need to know about evolution. My feelings about evolution have not changed. I still believe it is a plausible idea that likely occurred. There is not much scientists can do to further make it public. I think a majority of Americans are at least familiar with the idea. The ones that reject it probably reject it because of their religious teachings which are how they live their life.

  5. Aaron V. says:

    I agree that the Theory of Evolution does tie into Religious views, and shouldn’t be pushed upon people just as religious views themselves shouldn’t be

  6. James Lee says:

    I feel like evolution before was human revolution. How Human had evolved, physically, and mentality. I mean there is little evolution of Technology, but these days prior evolution is based on Technology and how the country should be get rich, evolved; meaning technologically evolved. In My opinion, Progress and evolution of Humanism is stopped. Now, it’s more of Technology and mechanism how to live life better, boost up name or power of the country and showing power to the world.

  7. Lauren Reynolds says:

    I believe that religion plays a large role in the united states. Religious views influence the theory of evolution. Depending on your religion can change your thoughts on religion greatly.

  8. Julian Moradian says:

    I feel as if evolution and religion are often times unrightfully tied together. That is the basis as to why many people don’t believe in evolution. To them, evolution is pretty much calling their beliefs false, and in turn they tune it out completely. In reality though, evolution is pretty much just the continuing existence of life through means of genetic mutations and survival of the fittest. Before I came to class, I just had the idea that evolution was real but with no evidence as to where or how it progressed. At this point in time, I know the beginnings of early humans and how they managed to survive through life without the tools and knowledge that we possess today. I also now understand that humans didn’t originate from monkeys, as was the false impression given off by the common monkey to human transformation time picture. Evolution truly is an extraordinary and random phenomenon, and I honestly can’t say how it will look like in the next 500 years.

  9. Ivana Guayurpa says:

    I think there is enough evidence to prove that evolution has occurred and those who deny probably need to be exposed to the various academic and scientific findings. The thing I find difficult to understand about evolution is how often does it occur. That is, how often do certain species evolve into a stronger ones. I think scientists should conduct more research to prove that the theory of evolution is valid. They could then report these findings to the educational systems so young minds can learn and/or fully comprehend evolution. I think it is important that the average joe knows what the theory of evolution is about since only 41% of Americans know that dinosaurs and humans did not co-exist.

  10. Allison Barber says:

    I feel like the older peoples in the United States have different ideas on evolution because some didn’t finish school and may have been strict in their religion. Plus, most of the evidence has just been found relatively recently. It is hard to change a person’s idea of how things came to be when it goes against what they were taught.

    I think if a person was educated on what the Evolutionary Theory really is than they may start to understand and start agreeing with some of the information.

  11. Mercedes Chapa says:

    I agree I feel that evolution and religion coincide greatly. Many people have serious doubts and disconseptions which were shown by the poll conducted. Religion has an immense influence on whether an individual believes in evolution because many religions disregard the theory completely. There are hundreds of religions with their own theories of how the world and human beings were created. Even though there is vast data supporting evidance of evolution there will always be conflict from skeptics whom oppose the idea. Charles Darwin was a leading naturalist who gathered data by research, and supported the theory of evolution through natural selection. Yet even with evidance there were many people that disregarded his studies, and continued to believe what they learned from their religious values.

  12. azucena says:

    I feel as if religion is the main basis as to how they perceive evolution and the creation of man-kind. Although a person should not believe everything they are taught sometimes it is hard to since there is no way of proving them wrong (when it comes to things of the past). As a person grows older and learns about evolution in school or elsewhere it is going to be hard for them to change their beliefs when they have already been taught to believe in something else. I think education has nothing to do with what people think about evolution, it all has to do with religion and parents. Whether they are wrong or right beliefs.

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