The Unz Review • An Alternative Media Selection
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
Email This Page to Someone

 Remember My Information

 TeasersGene Expression Blog

Bookmark Toggle AllToCAdd to LibraryRemove from Library • BShow CommentNext New CommentNext New ReplyRead More
ReplyAgree/Disagree/Etc. More... This Commenter This Thread Hide Thread Display All Comments
These buttons register your public Agreement, Disagreement, Thanks, LOL, or Troll with the selected comment. They are ONLY available to recent, frequent commenters who have saved their Name+Email using the 'Remember My Information' checkbox, and may also ONLY be used three times during any eight hour period.
Ignore Commenter Follow Commenter

Being public on the internet means having to interact with many different sorts. Recently I’ve been having to deal with a heckler on Facebook. The heckler is actually of a particular type. I’m still trying to learn genetics at this point in my life, so I don’t propose to assert that my opinions are beyond dispute. But there is a variety of discussion which is not fruitful.

An interesting aspect of talking to people about genetics is that totally novice intelligent lay people are often very easy to communicate with. Genetics isn’t that hard, and when people want to learn new concepts and have the ability to it can be a great joy. Similarly, the numerous people who know much more genetics are easy to talk to, because they operate on a domain of fluency which makes conversation effortless (obviously this may not be reciprocated on their part in terms of their perception of your lack of knowledge!).

But there is a third sort of person, one who believes they know much more than a lay person, but does not know that they don’t know enough to really be able to talk about what they think they can talk about. Michael Scroggins, who has the temerity to assert that “a gene is more rhetorical topic than scientific fact”, is certainly in this category. But he is one of many. The standard way to identify this sort of person is that they often appeal to a particular touchstone or keyword, and then deploy them as if it were a sort of abracadabra magic. This generally works as a bluff among the ignorant, but it simply produces incredulous confusion when targeted against individuals who are moderately familiar with a particular discipline. For these people ideas like “evo-devo,” “epigenetics,” “development,” and “interaction” are positive buzzwords. “Reductionism” is a negative one. On occasion they are sophisticated Creationists, but much more often they’re Left-liberals from humanistic backgrounds angered by my “gene promotion” (frankly, I can often only get a flavor of their distaste, as I have a difficult time of parsing their gibberish in anything more than a superficial sense).

Below, submitted for your edification, are two screenshots which illustrate recent volley’s I’ve had to deal with. I have a difficult time parsing out the second comment as anything more than buzzwords meant to intimidate (yes, I am the person who “liked” the first comment).

To be clear, the comment below is responding to Human mutation unveiled (yes, I’m mystified by the causality in this case).

Readers should probably know that I regularly receive these sorts of comments, but never publish them (in fact, those individuals are always immediately banned). The reality of the uncanny valley of knowledgeable ignorance is particularly bittersweet for me, as I’m an dilettante. I always struggle with the possibility that I’m actually one of these people in the various fields in which I take an interest. A mode of operation that helps I suspect is that I try and not to leverage my thin knowledge set to any prior outside (e.g., political, social) commitments I might have in a vocal manner. Otherwise I might look the fool….

• Category: Science • Tags: Creationism, Culture 

Update: Just to be clear, I think the variation across cultures is probably explained in large part by confusion as to what is being asked, and differential sampling. In particular, I suspect that the ‘Turkey” sample is more representative than the “Bangladesh” sample, because Turkey is a more developed society.


I’ve mentioned before that many (most?) Muslims are Creationists, broadly understood. According to Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey 42 percent of American Muslims accept that evolution is the best explanation for the origin of human life on earth. This is roughly in line with the American public, if a touch on the Creationist side. The numbers are similar in Turkey. Also, it must be mentioned that unlike most I have some experience with educated (and scientifically trained) Muslims, and can attest to the fact that many are Creationists (my family).

So the results of a new survey of the world’s Muslims by Pew took me aback a bit, in that it reports widespread acceptance of evolution among Muslims. To add to the plausibility the results for Turkey are in line with previous findings: a bit more of Turkey’s population are Creationist than not. The results for highly secularized European Muslim populations are plausible, though the gap between Albania and Kosovo is somewhat strange. But look at the results for Bangladesh and Lebanon!

I have to admit some skepticism. My concerns are twofold: first, many of these questions may be interpreted differently from society to society, so that comparison may be difficult. This is why I tended to focus on within-region comparisons when ingesting the other survey responses (Pakistan vs. Bangladesh, Lebanon vs. Palestinian territories). Second, I am not sure as to the representativeness of the sample. Do the opinions surveyed actually reflect the broader society? In extremely poor nations like Bangladesh I have difficulty even comprehending how illiterate subsistence farmers would interpret some of these questions, their perceptions of modern abstractions of nationality and identity are generally so inchoate.

There’s also a broader dynamic which needs to be addressed: modernization in many cases leads to greater ‘conservatism’ of belief and practice. Older subsistence farming societies are often tolerant and accepting of diversity of opinion on a macro-social scale because they are fragmented enough that such variation can be accommodated without too much controversy. In contrast, urbanizing societies characterized by upwardly mobile middle classes living cheek by jowl often exhibit simultaneous patterns of secularization and radicalization, with the latter often defined by appeals to a reversion to tradition and proper adherence to formality and ritual (often these are novel constructions and modern interpretations of ancient motifs). Turkey’s Creationism in relation to Bangladesh may simply be due to the relative social advancement of the former in relation to the latter, where broad based mass popular culture has attained a level of power and self-determination to challenge elite narratives. Ultimately the terminal state of this challenge seems to be capitulation and co-option by the elites, but until that moment one is confronted by the reality of dramatic ideological tensions between the elite and aspirant elite factions.

• Category: Science • Tags: Creationism, Religion 

Jump to 9:00.

• Category: Science • Tags: Creationism 

Earlier today Erick Erickson of RedState put up a long and meandering post titled “I Believe and Am Thankful”. As you might infer from the title it elaborates Erickson’s own theological position, and his stance toward the expression of faith in the public square. Because I am an atheist I disagree with many aspects of his position, and because I am not a liberal I agree with other elements of his argument. But there was one portion of which alarmed me a great deal, because I believe it displays an epistemological superificiality which is all too common. Erickson’s first paragraph is:

Marco Rubio is getting beaten up by the press for not decisively and convincingly saying he thinks the world is billions of years old. It has become the new litmus test in the media. Believing what was believed to be literally true for a few thousand years is now nutty. Christian homeschool kids, often taught that the world is not as old as some believe and who routinely kick the rear ends of the ivy prep kids in academics, are considered stupid.

There are two components to my reaction. One is rather general and abstract, while the other is specific. I will begin with the abstract. The fact is that you would be foolish to accept what people believed for “thousands of years” in many domains of natural science. When it comes to the ancients or the moderns in science always listen to the moderns. They are not always right, but overall they are surely more right, and less prone to miss the mark. In fact, you may have to be careful about paying too much attention to science which is a generation old, so fast does the “state of the art” in terms of knowledge shift. That was part of my critique of Richard Lewontin. A great evolutionary biologist of the 1960s, today Lewontin seems far behind the times, tackling issues near and dear to the 1970s, when we live in the post-genomic era.

Science is iterative. It is sloppy, but it does progress. We know so because it is through science we send men to the moon, and it is upon science that the material foundations of our civilization rest. You shall know it by its fruits, as science becomes engineering it moves from the abstract to the concrete, from the plausible and possible to the certain. It is a vast and abstruse contingent system of models, hypotheses, theories, laws, and data strewn about. But, it is arguably the greatest intellectual achievement of modern civilization. We may see through the glass darkly, but science is the bright flare in the night, illuminating a portion of existence, making it clear, precise, and crisp.

A generation ago there arose a movement within the scholarly community of anti-science obscurantists. The phenomenon was documented in works such as Higher Superstition. Though an innovation of the Post Modern cultural Left, this skepticism of scientific positivism, the progression of knowledge, has bled over to the cultural Right. In particular, through Phillip E. Johnson a critical theory inspired movement to ‘teach the controversy‘ arose. Modern Intelligent Design is clearly genetically descended from Young Earth Creationism, but has accrued to itself traits which arose in the milieu of the anti-science Left. In particular, a focus on skeptical critique, rejection of a modernist positive view of the universe, as well explicitly political attacks on science (See Alister McGrath’s Twilight of Atheism for an elaborated argument for why the death of modernism implies the revival of religion).

Science is special because there is no ancient wisdom. The ancients were fools, by and large. I mean no disrespect, but if you wish to design a rifle by Aristotelian principles, or treat an illness via the Galenic system, you are a fool, following foolishness. Science is the true ladder to heaven, anyone who has practiced it can not be help be amazed by its miraculous powers of prediction.

Non-scientific domains are not like this. A lawyer sees in the Corpus Juris Civilis a document which is different in degree, not kind. It is not obvious to me that modern ethics has progressed appreciably in substance as opposed to taste beyond Aristotle. The Iliad is still poetic greatness, in whose shadow moderns dwell. New Age reflections generally pale in comparison to the Bhagavad Gita. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations can speak still to us down the ages.

There are many domains of knowledge which are permanent things, but science is not one of those. Rather, science is defined by the permanence of its object of study, the external world all around us. History shifts as history accrues. And the truisms of one age of economic history are not those of the subsequent.

The fool hath said in his heart, science is an idol. And yet it is not! For true men do suborn science for their own ends, making it subservient to their perversions. But that is no reflection on science, it is a reflection on men. And that is the important insight that American conservatives need to internalize.

It is entirely true that secular liberal journalists will attempt to goad conservative politicians into expressing opinions which reveal themselves to be in thrall to rubes. But there is no evading the fact that there is a simple response: accept that science says what it says, and move on. Equivocation and evasion do no good, and the reality is that if you fight science, you will lose. Science at any given moment is wrong, but this is a game that the house always wins, and history will not be on your side. The tide rises with science, and you will not hold it back by force of will.

When it comes to many aspects of heredity and behavior I’m confident that the modern cultural Left which still pines for the “blank slate” will have their reckoning. You can put off reality only so long, and the long war against the world as it is is always one of strategic retreat. Evolutionary biology is not novel or new science, it is old as biology goes, having come into form in the 19th century. It predates genetics, and certainly predates molecular biology. It is like a theoretical scaffold on other disciplines, it may not impinge on a day to day scale, but it illuminates quirks of function or structural features which would otherwise seem capricious.

All political persuasions are a mix of norms and assumptions about the way the world is arranged. When you make false assertion about the nature of things, you will make worthless inferences. The cultural Left which denies non-trivial differences between the sexes engages in faulty social engineering, because the science is not robust. Similarly, the cultural Right which denies the biological nature of much homosexuality does a disservice to its ultimate project of fostering virtue. Note that any assumption of what is does not here necessarily entail what ought to be. But it is much easier to achieve an ought if you accurately characterize the is.

Erick Erickson in this post makes much of the fact that secular liberals are relativists, and inconsistent hypocrites. Without disputing these assertions I would suggest that Erickson’s attitude toward Young Earth Creationists, indulgent, even respectful, falls into the same trap. He pulls his punches as to whether they are wrong, shifting into the shades of gray. But the objective reality is that Young Earth Creationists are wrong, and this is science known to a high degree of certitude. Erickson and his fellow travelers have no problem asserting the rightness of their religion, and the falseness of the atheists, but when it comes to established science they become as slippery as a doyen of Science Studies. Truth becomes subjective, malleable, a casual instrument in the culture wars. Science, another superstition of old white men? Perhaps, but a true one!

Knowledge is hard. We, as individual humans are stupid. Science is sloppy and noisy. But science got us to the moon, and science gave is antibiotics. Erick Erickson can talk about the miracles of his God made flesh, but we live in the age of miracles. What tech savvy conservatives who do not speak truth to Creationism are doing is analogous to the behavior of affluent upper middle Marxist academics, who enjoy the accoutrements of bourgeoise life, while giving lip service to the revolution. By their actions you shall know what lurks in their hearts! Their mouths speak lies for the convenience of the moment.

Finally, I want to take a step back and also observe that this whole argument rests on a false historical premise: that modern conservative Protestant fundamentalism was the Christian orthodoxy for the past 2,000 years. It is not. It was not. True, there has always been a strain of Christianity which was naively literalist, but for most of the history of the religion the fixation on the Bible as science manual would have seemed somewhat strange, in part because science did not truly exist. Modern Protestant fundamentalism is intuitively coherent, and we see its forebears during the Reformation. Interestingly, Catholic apologists immediately pointed to the inconsistent nature of portions of the Bible as one argument against the Protestant claim for sola scriptura.* But this is a new argument, not an old one, and the battle between science and religion in this case is a clash of two moderns, not a modern an ancient.

So here we are. Modern American conservatism must bend a knee to a manifestly false model of the world, because of a manifestly false perception of the history of the Western tradition. Where can it lead us? One thing that it leads us to is that we have to have this discussion every four years, as secular liberal journalists know very well that many elite conservatives do not agree with the grassroots on matters of fact when it comes to evolution. It is a useful wedge. There is a simple way to put this to bed: be unapologetic about what the facts of science are, and do not equivocate to the base. They have nowhere else to go, and the reality is that evolution is a far less pressing matter than tax rates or abortion in any case. Many elements of the Democratic base accept without too much grumbling the social liberalism of the party’s political elite. Could it be that much more difficult for conservative grassroots to accept that the conservative elite accepts modern science?

* I do not mean to imply here that pre-modern Christians were all believers in the old earth. Rather, I mean to suggest that the modern discussion about Biblical conflicts with science makes little sense before 1800, because serious Christians thinkers did not imagine the debate in these terms at all.

• Category: Science • Tags: Creationism 

If you have a pulse and follow “science news” you are aware that Marco Rubio gave a very equivocal answer to a very simple question about the age of the earth. As many have noted this is basically a way to call out Republican politicians for the fact that they have to satisfy the cultural signals of a segment of the American population which has a deep hostility to science which undercuts their naive reading of the Bible. To Mitt Romney’s credit he did not evade on this question, but gave a mainstream answer among the well educated. This sort of political pandering isn’t too surprising. Remember Hillary Clinton dismissing ‘elite economists’ when it came to her silly gas tax suspension idea? It’s a democracy, and that means you can get very far appealing to the populist sentiment.

More concretely, I want to address something Rod Dreher asserted at The American Conservative:

I wish one of these liberal journalists would go into a black or Latino church supper and ask people their thoughts about how the universe began. I’d bet that 99 percent of the people there would agree with Marco Rubio, even if most of them would vote for his opponent. People just don’t care about this stuff at the national political level. You’d better believe I’d fight over this issue if it came down to a matter of what was going to be taught in my local school. But I couldn’t possibly care less what the guy who lives in the White House thinks, unless he tries to impose it on the country.

When I hear the word “bet” I start thinking of laying down odds and stealing someone’s cash! But in this case I’ll assume Rod was being rhetorical. But let’s review the numbers, shall we?

The General Social Survey has a variable, EVOLVED, which records the response to the question “Human beings developed from animals,” with a true vs. false outcome. It was asked between 2006 and 2010. You can see the results for numerous demographics below.

Demographic Agree that human beings developed from animals
Democrat 59
Independent 53
Republican 42
White Non-Hispanic Democrat 66
White Non-Hispanic Independent 55
White Non-Hispanic Republican 41
No College Democrat 50
No College Independent 50
No College Republican 37
College Educated Democrat 78
College Educated Independent 67
College Educated Republican 52
Liberal 69
Moderate 52
Conservative 39
White non-Hispanic Liberal 77
White non-Hispanic Moderate 55
White non-Hispanic Conservative 38
No College Liberal 58
No College Moderate 49
No College Conservative 36
College Educated Liberal 86
College Educated Moderate 66
College Educated Conservative 47
White Non-Hispanic 53
Black Non-Hispanic 35
Hispanic 52
Protestant 35
Catholic 65
Jewish 79
No Religion 79
Bible is Word of God 28
Bible is Inspired Word of God 58
Bible is Book of Fables 87
Southern Baptist 27
United Method 51
Presbyterian 64
Episcopalian 91
Scandinavian 59
German 51
British 50
Irish 54
Italian 66



• Category: Science • Tags: Creationism 

In the comments below I expressed anger when I realized one of the readers who I had hoped was not stupid was really rather stupid. I don’t have a high toleration for this sort of stuff, which has supposedly become somewhat well known in the blogosphere (judging from comments about me on other weblogs). When I was younger I suspect I had more toleration for this sort of thing, and engaging with the dull is something that needs to be done, just like you need to change a baby’s diaper because you know they’ll soil themselves, and they can’t be left that way. Perhaps there’s a fixed amount of sympathy for people who shit themselves because they don’t know any better, literally or metaphorically. I’ve got to deal with the former right now, so maybe I’m not having any of the latter anymore.

Sometimes I wonder what world I’m living in, where rank stupidity can get passed along by newspapers as “letters to the editor.” For example, you have to read this whole piece from Stephen Chauvin, State Board of Education is correct on evolution:

About once every six months or so, either Bill Barnes or Karyl Paige fire a shot across the bow of the Texas State Board of Education’s standard of teaching both strengths AND weaknesses of scientific theories, specifically, the “theory of evolution.” This time it is Ms. Paige in her July 7th letter where she implores us to be honest.

In her letter she asks, “Let’s be honest about the theory of gravity … ” What Ms. Paige may not realize is that the effects of gravity are not “theory,” but “law.” It differs from theory in that its effects can be observed, calculated and repeated over and over. Similarly, she asks, “Let’s be honest about the theory of the solar system … ” Again, our solar system is not “theory” because we are able to observe, calculate the positions of the planets and verify these calculations over and over again.

Then she tries to apply the same value to something that is indeed a theory, Darwinian evolution or change over time due to survival of the fittest. Unlike gravity or the solar systems, although we may SUPPOSE that it may have happened in the distant past, we are unable to see such evolution occur, as in, one species changing into another and particularly in additional genetic information being added to an existing structure. Rather, we see exactly the opposite. Rather than new species springing up left and right, we repeatedly observe species dying off or becoming extinct, thereby LOSING genetic information over time.

I would agree that we can observe “micro-evolution,” which is change within a species. However, those changes are primarily the switching of genetic pairs and not the creation of something entirely new, as demonstrated in Darwin’s own observations of his finches, which returned to their original characteristics depending on the availability of water and food. Even in the example that she provides, viruses, some of the simplest organisms, while they are changed by absorbing and integrating the DNA of their host, they remain merely a “virus.” Unfortunately, our human attempts to destroy them through antibiotics, etc. means that those that are not killed, which are not susceptible, survive, creating what may be “super” viruses and bacteria. This again is not a gain of genetic information, but a loss of information.

Ms. Paige and Mr. Barnes are disgruntled that Texas requires the examination of the weaknesses of the theory of evolution at all. They would much prefer that Darwinian evolution be exclusively taught in schools as if it were scientific law rather than a mere theory. Ms. Paige says that, ”If Texas does not educate its children according to the scientific knowledge of this century, we might well forget competing in a world economy.”

I believe that Texas schools are doing EXACTLY that, teaching our children how to PROPERLY examine theories by investigating BOTH strengths and weaknesses. We are teaching them HOW to think and reason, not WHAT to think. This puts our children far above states and countries that merely teach dogmatic assertions without evidence. In fact, I think we should teach MORE weaknesses than we currently do, and believe me, there are many, many more than what are showing up in our text books.

First, it would be funny if it wasn’t sad how often Creationists turn into street-corner philosophers of science and epistemologists. I’ve heard of the distinction between scientific laws and theories before, mostly with the former being something like thermodynamics, repeated observations, and the latter more a systematic body of knowledge which frames the data and generates inferences. But these terms are in my experience in science not like the difference between baryons and leptons; they’re not clear and distinct. Second, I emphasized sections where I basically didn’t know what he was talking about. That’s one of the maddening things about Creationists, they’ve created their whole internal language, which actually does a decent job seeming plausibly coherent to the non-scientifically trained. I think the emphasis on thinking for oneself is funny, because I’m 99% sure that this individual is rewarming talking points that he received in church. I suspect that the original points are often more scientifically coherent, if still false, but as they get passed around by people who don’t know what they’re saying they get more and more garbled. One of the main reasons I avoid talking to blank slate Leftists and Creationists is that often I notice I spend a lot of time refashioning the arguments they want to make for them, because they don’t even know what they are trying to say (if you want the Lefty equivalents, I almost always have to elaborate the exact nature of Lewontin’s Fallacy, because my interlocutors often garble it).

Anyway, I thought this letter was repeating because of the weird portion about antibiotics and viruses. They don’t really work on viruses, though most of the public seems to think they do. Why did this obvious show of ignorance go through? Did the people working at the paper not know? Or did they want to make Stephen Chauvin seem stupid?

• Category: Science • Tags: Creationism 

Chatting with Dan MacArthur on twitter about the old days of Usenet, and arguing with Creationists in the days of yore (MacArthur actually flipped a Creationist!). Here’s a toast to the innocence of that bygone age around the turn-of-the-century….

(separate “shout out” to those who remember me from soc.history.what-if)

• Category: Science • Tags: Creationism 

Recently over at Matt Lewis broached the issue of science, religion, and politics. Being outside of his bailiwick Lewis seemed to be under some misimpressions. First, he seemed to think that most political liberals were not theists. This is false. In the General Social Survey the GOD variable asks respondents about their confidence in the exist of God. Below are the proportions by ideology for the year 2000 and later who espouse the atheist or agnostic position on the existence of God:

Atheist or agnostic
Liberals 14
Moderates 6
Conservatives 4
Democrat 9
Independent 9
Republican 5

About 1 out of 7 of liberals are an atheist or agnostic. 1 out of 25 conservatives. In contrast, 50 percent of atheists or agnostics are liberal, while only 20 percent are conservatives. Among militant atheists are the proportions are probably even more skewed.

With that out of the way, what about attitudes toward evolution? The GSS asked the EVOLVED question in the year 2006, 2008, and 2010. It asks: “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” The responses are coded as true or false. Below are those who accepted this proposition for various classes of individuals (all political classes are for the year 2000 and later).

Humans beings developed from animals: Yes
Bible is…
Christians Protestants Catholics Word of God Inspired Book of Fables
Before 1946 42 33 47 20 48 91
1946-1960 48 35 68 18 58 83
1961-1980 51 36 64 24 59 85
After 1980 58 34 83 30 65 93
Liberal 66 53 71 33 70 92
Moderate 50 36 69 29 57 80
Conservative 38 26 58 14 52 87

A word on the variables. The proportion of Christians who acceded to acceptance of evolution was queried with REIGION, while Protestants and Catholics with RELIG. In regards to the Bible I used BIBLE. Finally, I also used FUND in a follow up analysis.

What you see is that rejection of evolution is strongly conditional on religion. Roman Catholic conservatives are more liable to accept evolution than politically liberal Protestants. The main caveat on these results is that many theological conservative black Protestants identify as political liberals. Limiting the sample to non-Hispanic whites changes the picture. The proportion of Catholic conservatives who accept evolution does not change. But 65 percent of liberal non-Hispanic white Protestants now accept evolution.

The pattern in relation to age is intriguing. As I have noted before, the trend for the young to accept evolution at higher rates is not just a function of the fact that the young are more secular. But, it does seem that this is driven almost totally by Roman Catholics. Young Roman Catholics are only marginally more likely to be Creationist than young Jews or the non-religious. What’s going on with Protestants? The Biblical literalism question points to the answer: non-fundamentalist Christians have shifted toward evolution over the years. In contrast, the pattern for fundamentalists is more confused (the change from 20 to 30 is made ambiguous by noise). But, using the FUND variable and limiting to Protestants I have confirmed that there is a significant (outside 95 percent confidence intervals) trend for younger cohorts among Protestants to have a higher proportion of fundamentalists. The total number of Protestants is declining, but within Protestantism theological conservatism is getting relatively stronger.

• Category: Science • Tags: Creationism 

Ruchira Paul points me to this peculiar article, Muslim medical students boycotting lectures on evolution… because it ‘clashes with the Koran’:

Muslim students, including trainee doctors on one of Britain’s leading medical courses, are walking out of lectures on evolution claiming it conflicts with creationist ideas established in the Koran.

Professors at University College London have expressed concern over the increasing number of biology students boycotting lectures on Darwinist theory, which form an important part of the syllabus, citing their religion.

That Muslim students have Creationist beliefs isn’t too surprising. There’s plenty of evidence of robust Creationist belief as being the Muslim mainstream. Though a minority of Muslims accept evolution in a manner conventional among theistic evolutionists, the majority seem to reject this interpretation. I recently had an interaction over Facebook with a Bangladeshi cousin who queried me whether I accepted “Darwinism,” a theory for which he contended “there was no proof.” I responded that that was one of the most “retarded questions I’d encountered of late,” and that the only reason I continued to talk to him was that he was my relative and it seemed a minimal level of courtesy (I generally “avoid boring people”). The background here is that my cousin comes from a very affluent secular background. My uncle doesn’t pray. This was an issue for my late grandmother, but his sojourn in the Persian Gulf turned him off to organized religion. Also, my uncle’s wife does not cover her hair. Finally, my cousin is sent to a private school where all instruction is in English, and he is very fluent in the superficial aspects of American pop culture. One can extrapolate from that the potential attitude of more genuinely religious Muslims when it comes to evolution.

But the bigger concern here is the walkout. It’s one thing to disagree with a perspective, but a disturbing aspect of some corners of modern academic discourse is the acceptability of shielding oneself from offensive or contradictory opinions. Most of the kids in my high school came from conservative Protestant or Mormon backgrounds and were skeptical of evolution, but they didn’t boycott the class when my biology teacher cursorily touched upon the topic. The fact that university students would behave in such a manner strikes me as particularly disturbing, because they should be held to a higher standard. Secondary education is about learning the basics, but higher education should be about learning to think, and taking in differing perspectives is an essential aspect of that process.

All that being said, it shouldn’t be surprising that British Muslims in particular behave so bizarrely. They’re pretty out of step with the norms of the British public on some “hot button” cultural issues. A few years ago Gallup asked Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain, Germany, and France, a variety of questions. Out of 500 Muslim Britons surveyed exactly 0 accepted the proposition that homosexuality was morally acceptable. This does not mean that no Muslims in Briton accept a tolerant attitude toward homosexuality. Rather, they’re such a small minority than even an N = 500 could miss them! In that context a walkout due to the offensiveness of evolution in the nation which proudly claims Charles Darwin seems less surprising. Cultural diversity is great!

Addendum: The link is from a British publication. Therefore, I’m open to the possibility that aspects were exaggerated or fabricated. On the other hand, evolution skepticism from British Muslims has been widely reported in other sources, so I think it is plausible overall.

• Category: Science • Tags: Creationism, Evolution 


In the comments below Christopher Mims states:

But evolution? It seems as if denial of evolution comes from a place so basic — religious fundamentalism — that I wonder whether something like this could ever have even the slightest impact.

It’s hard to deny the relationship of religious fundamentalism and evolution denial and skepticism. But, I think it’s important to remember that in the United States the large critical mass of evolution-denying religious fundamentalists has resulted in a “bleed over” of the stance to people who aren’t religious fundamentalists. I know this anecdotally from friends who were of Roman Catholic and Mormon backgrounds who presumed that their religious orientation precluded an acceptance of evolution. In fact, my own first awareness that people might actually not believe in evolution came via a conversation with an evolution skeptic friend who was a nominal Roman Catholic. Nominal in that his family actually never went to church.

What Paul Bloom’s research suggests is that humans find the Creationist narrative intuitively plausible. But, the critical issue is that those who aren’t indoctrinated against the idea of evolution can be convinced of its plausibility.

Let’s look at how this distributes across society using the General Social Survey. The variable BIBLE asks if people think that the Bible is the actually word of god, the inspired word of god, or a book of fables, etc. This seems to be a reasonable approximation of whether one is a fundamentalist, a non-fundamentalist who still accepts the revealed nature of the Bible, or someone who denies the supernatural grounding of the Bible in totality. There are two evolution related questions I can cross with BIBLE. EVOLVED, which asks if humans developed from an earlier species of animal with a true/false response, and SCITEST4, which asks the same question but has a more graded set of responses. Please note that EVOLVED was asked in the mid-to-late 2000s, while SCITEST4 was asked in the 1990s.

Bible is…. (BIBLE)
Evolution is…
(EVOLVED) Word of God Inspired Word of God Book of Fables
True 23 58 87
False 77 42 13
Definitely True 6 13 36
Probably True 21 37 44
Probably Not True 17 19 13
Definitely Not True 56 30 7
Evolution is…. (EVOLVED)
Bible is….
(BIBLE) True False
Word of God 15 54
Inspire Word 54 41
Book of Fables 31 5
Evolution is…. (SCITEST4)
(BIBLE) Definitely True Probably True Probably Not True Definitely Not True
Word of God 14 22 33 54
Inspire Word 47 57 55 43
Book of Fables 39 21 12 3

The columns above add up to 100%. So you see that of those who believe that evolution is “Definitely Not True,” 43% are people who think that the Bible is the revealed, but not literal, word of god. I highlighted in red what I think are the “low hanging fruit” when it comes to evolution acceptance. Nearly 50% of Americans doubtful of evolution are not religious fundamentalists! Any sort of outreach is probably optimally aimed at these people. Consider for example that in the 2000s ~80% of Roman Catholics ages 18-35 accepted evolution, while only 50% of those age 65 and over did.

Now, as for the appropriate strategy to push the issue on the margins, that’s a different issue altogether….

• Category: Science • Tags: Creationism, Evolution 

One of the most interesting things to me is the nature of Creationism as an idea which evolves in a rather protean fashion in reaction to the broader cultural selection pressures. For me the weirdest example of this was an interlocutor who kept bringing up Fisher’s fundamental theorem of natural selection. This sort of argument is well above the standard set of talking points which are easily rebutted with Talk Origins. But to some extent it isn’t what people say, but how they say them. One reason that Creationism seems to be a position of the dull is that it is a position of the dull, and the dull are not as eloquent as the smart.

So I invite you to watch a clip of Richard Land defending Creationism (Intelligent Design) below:

First, some of Land’s assertions are not really true. In relation to evolution Americans seem to be split down the middle. On the specific points many of the positions he outlines are total nonsense. But he’s very fluid and confident, as would befits a man with a Princeton and Oxford education. His utilization of terms like irreducible complexity is about as substantive as chanting abracadabra, but probably just as effective in convincing fellow travelers already sympathetic to his position as shamans were in the days of yore. If you came back at Land with the full armament of modern evolutionary biology, you’d be accused of wielding black magic!

• Category: Science • Tags: Creationism 

Mike the Mad Biologist asks:

If we look at each wordsum category separately, which ones are significantly different? I ask because the trend seems to reflect the liberal-conservative split (low and high lean left; middle leans conservative). It also seems to mirror educational attainment–moderately educated people (some/completed college) are more likely to be conservative.

Hard to suss out causal factors here.

Well, here’s a logistic regression from the GSS:

Don’t take it too seriously. A lot of these are categorical variables which happen to be rank ordered (e.g., most liberal = 1 and most conservative = 7). But as you can see the WORDSUM correlation disappears when you throw in other variables. In fact, even education isn’t statistically significant anymore. That seems ludicrous, but remember that Biblical literalism is strongly correlated with lower levels of education and intelligence. Once you throw that in there as an explanatory variable it sucks up all the oxygen.

• Category: Science • Tags: Creationism, Evolution 

At Culture of Science there’s a little discussion about whether acceptance of evolution indicates intelligence. Looking at the GSS data there doesn’t seem to be a strong causal relationship when you control for other variables. But there is a correlation. That correlation can be explained by the fact that, for example, people who are Biblical literalists tend to be duller than those who are not, and Biblical literalists don’t accept evolution (in fact, I’ve seen evidence that very intelligence Biblical literalists are more Creationist than their duller co-religionists, probably because they’re more coherent in their beliefs).

With that, I’ll leave you with a screenshot of the results for WORDSUM, a 10 word vocabulary test, against acceptance or rejection of human evolution from other organisms (note that the numbers below the proportions are weighted sample sizes):

The real divergence is at the super high end of intelligence.

• Category: Science • Tags: Creationism, Data Analysis, Evolution, GSS 

I don’t post Creationist related stuff often, but Harun Yahya always brings out the funny in people. So check this out, In France, a Muslim offensive against evolution. First, some standard dullness:

Dressed in a traditional black robe decorated with rhinestones and a white veil that she wears “only” when she comes to the mosque, Maroua admits that she has always wondered about “the dinosaurs and the origin of man…but at school, it cannot be refuted: we’re taught that man descended from monkeys. At home and in the Koran, [we’re taught] that we descended from Adam and Eve, and that God created all living beings.”

Ali Sadun Engin, Yahya’s representative in the current tour of French mosques, seems to have convinced the young girl. “I find his explanations logical,” she says. The proof for creationism is demonstrated with some perfunctory presentations of fossils, including bear, crocodile, and tortoise skulls, and can be summarized in a few brief sentences: “If fish left the water to walk, if dinosaurs were transformed into birds, then we should discover fossils of these beings in transition. However this is not the case. Science thus shows one sole truth: creation as we know it from the Koran.”….

But it starts to get really weird:

The discussion on the origins of life appears to hit its target in the audience, a mixture of “mainline” believers and devout fundamentalists. Amadou Bah, a 26-year-old student of finance, is happy to have these “clarifications.” “Like all Muslims, I am a believer in the theory of creation, but I didn’t have arguments to defend it,” she says.

“At school, we believed the teachers, but here their theses are disproved: they don’t have the truth,” adds Yanina Gelassi, a 19-year-old student veiled in black. Nouri Hamid, 28, a doctoral student in genetics, is not “totally in agreement that there is a complete lack [of evidence] for the evolution of species,” but he also declares that “science has never demonstrated the connection between homo sapiens and man.”

Similarly, the “concordist” approach to the Koran, defended by the conference speakers, is popular among young Muslims. This concept states that the recent scientific discoveries only confirm the scientific content of the sacred book. “This proves to us that, despite all of the research, God has said and written everything down in the Koran nearly 1,400 years ago,” says Najoua Oubaya, a 21-year-old saleswoman.

“These discussions are good for the people because they prove that the West has discovered nothing, and that Islam is superior, even scientifically,” explained Nidhal Guessoum, a Muslim astrophysicist, in Le Monde in 2009. The author of Réconcilier l’Islam et la science moderne: l’esprit d’Averroès (Reconciling Islam and Modern Science: The Spirit of Averroes)….

I assume that the original was in French. There really is a Nouri Hamid who is a doctoral candidate at a French University. Either the translation is really really bad, or Nouri Hamid is really not well educated in biology if he doesn’t understand the connection between “homo sapiens” and man (if people who know French are inclined to ask Nouri if he was misquoted/mistranslated, his email is [email protected]).

And of course Islam discovered all of science before the West. That’s why Muslims societies are so technologically and intellectually advanced, and Westerners clamor to migrate to the Muslim world to avail themselves of all its brilliant glamor. Everyone knows that the greatest scientist of all, Ishaq ibn Newton, accepted tawhid, and rejected the worship of Isa as God.

• Category: Science • Tags: Creationism 

At The Intersection Sheril Kirshenbaum posts some rather stark data from Gallup and a Canadian outfit on the differences in attitudes toward evolution between Americans and Canadians. Those Tories are different! The answers seem very similar to those on offer for the General Social Survey’s “CREATION” question. I thought I’d compare Canadians to various American demographics. The question was asked in 2004 of over 1,400 Americans. I find it somewhat ironic in that I think there has been some question as to the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, and his attitude toward evolution. Harper is a member of the Evangelical Protestant Christian and Missionary Alliance (and apparently has appointed known Creationists to various government positions, something controversial or notable in Canada). In contrast, Barack Hussein Obama is famously more grounded in evolution than angels.

Were created by God in the last 10,000 years Evolved through natural selection Evolved over time through divine guidance DK/NR
Canada, 2011 14 58 19 8
USA, 2010 40 16 38 6
God created man Man has evolved Man has evolved, but god guided Other
USA, 2004 43 12 42 4
Male 38 14 44 4
Female 47 11 40 3
Age 18-34 38 11 48 3
Age 35-64 43 13 40 4
Age 64- 49 13 37 2
No diploma 47 13 36 4
HS diploma 49 10 38 3
College degree 32 15 50 4
Graduate degree 21 26 49 4
Protestant 55 6 37 3
Catholic 37 8 52 3
No Religion 20 32 43 6
Democrat 37 17 44 2
Independent 44 11 41 5
Republican 48 7 40 5
White 41 14 42 3
Black 57 6 34 4
New England 25 15 51 10
Mid-Atlantic 32 15 50 3
E. North Central 42 10 46 2
W. North Central 37 15 46 2
South Atlantic 55 12 28 5
E. South Central 52 6 41 2
W. South Central 53 6 38 3
Mountain 43 13 42 2
Pacific 30 18 46 6

Image Credit: Yosemite

• Category: Science • Tags: Canada, Creationism, Evolution 

The other day I was listening to NPR and they were discussing at length the upheavals in the Arab world. Offhand I noted how the discussants would occasionally shift between “the Arab world” and “the Muslim world,” and naturally they all took for granted the central role that Islam would play in the Egyptian polity (and likely the Libyan one). There was nothing shocking about any of this, but imagine you engaged in some substitution. Switching from “Western world” to “Christian world” would sound old-fashioned and anachronistic. The European Union famously omitted mention of Christianity in its constitution several years back, from which erupted a controversy between its more religious and secular member nations (e.g., Poland vs. France). Western societies may still have Christianity as the dominant religion, but in most cultures it does not have the same relationship to the broader culture that it once did.

This is in part due to some radicals on this continent. As outlined in The Godless Constitution the United States of America was founded with a federal government which did not operate under the explicit umbrella of a religious institution. Nor did that federal government engage in any subsidy toward religion. This was a shocking act in its age, as Western civilization had long been predicated on the favor of the gods, and later the Christian God. Not just Western civilization. Even religiously pluralistic and diverse societies, such as that of Imperial Rome or Imperial China, freely mixed the sacred and the secular, under the presumption that the polity would benefit from heavenly favor. This was not exceptional, it was universal. Church and state have been united for all of human history, and only in the past few centuries has the idea of an explicitly secular political system taken hold.

America’s peculiar system derived from some structural constraints. Because of the religious diversity of the colonies the convention of having one established church would simply not do. Patrick Henry proposed, and campaigned in favor of, a more modest endorsement of a general Christian religion. Even this was rejected. I don’t need to go into the history of this. Though some of the Founders were orthodox Christians, most were not, and some, such as Thomas Jefferson, were only cultural Christians at best and rejected most of the tenets of the faith (at least during this period, there is evidence from correspondence that Jefferson mellowed into a more conventional liberal Episcopalianism in his old age).

The American experiment worked. France followed in its wake, though more unevenly, as the forces of organized Catholicism did not reach a modus vivendi with the secular state until the 20th century. In many Western societies where religious establishment remains in place, such as in Denmark or England, it is more a matter of custom and tradition than deep sentiment that God must bless the political nation. Granted, there is diversity in practice when it comes to the relationship of religion and state. Nations such as England and the Netherlands subsidize sectarian schools. Such a possibility is not on the table in the United States because of sanction imposed upon the practice by the legal framework by which the nation is bound.

I’m generally somewhat averse to simple ‘Whig histories’ which posit all societies as ascending up the scales of development to liberal democracy in the Western mold. I don’t think that all societies need to have the same set of values, with cultural “differences” being reduced to food, dress, music, and language. But I do think there are some cross-cultural universals which seem to bubble up out of the Zeitgeist. After the end of the Bronze Age all the cultures of the Ecumene rejected the practice of human sacrifice, which was relatively widespread before that period. Similarly, in the 20th century all societies accepted that chattel slavery was a violation of fundamental human rights. This is an attitude which contravenes the consensus of almost all societies before the 20th century. Even if there were societies where chattel slavery was not common, it generally did exist on the margins for selected individuals (e.g., prisoners of war).

With that in mind, oftentimes I can’t but help think that an 18th century Western analogy is appropriate for the Islamic world, in particular the Arab world + Iran + Afghanistan + Pakistan. There are no trenchant radicals in much of the Islamic world who revolt against the presuppositions at the heart of the civilization. Rather, radicals must remain within the broader framework, which takes Islamic truths as presuppositions. This was brought to mind when reading this editorial by a Pakistani liberal:

At a time when enlightenment is seeping through the Islamic heartland in the Middle East, jahiliyah (stubborn arrogance) is taking Pakistan by the throat. If the founder of the country, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, were alive today, he would live in fear, like the millions of others who share his secular ideology.

As Omar at Brown Pundits notes “a period of extreme ignorance and evil called “Jahiliyah” is itself a fantasy created by later Islamic writers to make the advent of Islam look even more impressive.” More recently in the West we’ve become familiar with the term from the writings of Sayyid Qutb, in some ways the intellectual forefather of Al-Qaeda. It is popular in particular with Salafists and their ilk, who idealize the first years of Islam, and denigrate what came before as darkness. An analogy might be the more extreme Christian apologists who deny the need for any integration of the thought of the pre-Christian world, consigning it to “pagan darkness” (this has generally been a minority position among the majority of the world’s Christians, though it has deep roots, going back at least to Tertullian).

What is notable is that a liberal Pakistani who was pleading for tolerance, pluralism, and rejection of fundamentalism, still had to operate within the verbal parameters set by the fundamentalists! This is probably function of the fact that these ideas are so ingrained in the audience, their truths are taken so much for granted, that the only leverage one has is to turn them against one’s antagonists. But it does say something about a society that a naked rejection of such exclusive axioms is not possible.

This is all a preamble to the recent controversy over a Muslim imam in London:

Dr Usama Hasan, vice-chairman at Leyton mosque and a senior lecturer in engineering at Middlesex University, ceased delivering Friday prayers after 25 years of service when 50 Muslim protesters disrupted his lecture by handing out leaflets against him and shouting in the mosque for his execution.

A statement from the secretary of the mosque, Mohammad Sethi, that was leaked to extremist websites, said Hasan had been suspended after his lecture resulted in “considerable antagonism” from the community and for his “belief that Muslim women are allowed to uncover their hair in public”.

“I’ve stopped giving prayers because they were interrupted by outsiders who were making some women members feel intimidated. Most people come to the mosque once a week for a quiet space to pray and find peace and inspiration and I want to respect that.”

However, he did issue a statement apologising for some of his “inflammatory” statements about evolution and retracted them.

My friend Josh Rosenau already addressed the issue at length over at Thoughts from Kansas. He concludes:

Excluding self-identified born-again, even Protestants are above the national average acceptance of evolution, on par with Catholics. Identifying as “born again” is a common way to identify evangelical Christians, and there is a growing pro-evolution movement within even evangelical Christianity. The major stronghold of anti-evolutionism in the US is not born again Christians, but fundamentalists – a much harder group to tease out in national surveys. I point this out only to emphasize that, just as fundamentalists or even evangelicals do not represent all of American Christianity, the few voices forcing Hasan to back down from his pro-evolution commentary do not represent all of Islam. There are other voices within Islam, and the key to promoting evolution in Muslim communities is elevating those calmer voices against the authoritarians seeking to enforce their fundamentalist ideology on Muslim communities in the West.

Josh offered some data on Creationism among Muslims. It was I believe from the Pew Religious Landscape Survey, and the sample size was a pathetic N = 8. But here is a survey of religious (and irreligious) American physicians from the mid-2000s.

Q: Do you agree more with evolution or more with intelligent design?
Jewish, N = 346 Protestant, N = 417 Catholic, N = 304 Hindu, N = 63 Muslim, N = 40 Atheist, N = 65 No Religion, N = 98
More with evolution 86% 43% 61% 68% 20% 95% 86%
More with ID 12% 55% 36% 24% 73% 3% 12%
No Opinion 2% 20% 4% 8% 8% 2% 2%

The sample size is still small, but note that American M.D.s who are Muslim tend to be “more with Intelligent Design.” The contrast with Hindus is illustrative, because Hindus are likely to be Indian American immigrants, and so at least as “foreign” as Muslim doctors. Why the difference? The most plausible explanation is that there’s something within the culture of the Islamic religion which makes people averse to evolutionary theory.

My own childhood milieu was among mathematical and physical scientists from South Asia, a disproportionate number of whom were Muslim. From what I could tell most of these individuals were what we would term Creationists. I know this because several of them found my interest in paleontology amusing, as they “knew” that evolution was silly bunk. My father, a physical chemist, is of that mindset. Since I’ve never been religious, and have found anti-evolutionist sentiment bizarre and repulsive from even a very young age, I never followed up the initial expressions of Creationist belief with further questions or discussion (also, these men were from cultures where having a deep religious discussion with a seven year old when you were finishing up a post-doc in statistics would seem pretty peculiar).

But the American Muslim community is not where the focus is on here. Rather, we’re talking about a Muslim community in England where a religious professional has to recant his beliefs in public for fear of his personal safety! Now this is rather barbaric, and more 17th century than 18th. And yet it’s not surprising. The Muslim community of Britain is among the most regressive and backward of all the Western nations. This is not necessarily because they are new; much of the community now consists of men and women born in England. The well known reactionary tendencies of the British Muslim community stick out in the survey literature like a sore thumb. For example, from Gallup Coexist Index 2009: A Global Study of Interfaith Relations. Below are two figures which show the chasm between European Muslims in Britain, Germany, and France, as well as the specialness of the British Muslim community:

As The Guardian (not The Daily Telegraph) noted:

The most dramatic contrast was found in attitudes towards homosexuality. None of the 500 British Muslims interviewed believed that homosexual acts were morally acceptable. 1,001 non-Muslim Britons were interviewed.

And just so you know, according to the 2001 Census ~70% of Muslims were born in the United Kingdom. The Guardian also reported on a poll which indicated that “36 per cent of Muslims aged between 16 and 24 believe those who convert to another faith should be punished by death.” Young people are stupid and don’t always consider the implications of their belief, but the fact that a bit over 1/3 of Young British Muslims would even accede to such a position (which, granted, has historically been the dominant one in Islam) is a measure of the temperature within the community.

Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True reviews a lot of the other data on Islam and evolution. Coyne is trenchant in his hostility to religion generally and Islam specifically, to put it mildly. I don’t identify as a New Atheist, and I don’t agree with the overall model with which Coyne is operating. That is, that there’s a necessary connection between anti-evolutionism and Islam. Many of the Muslims who I have known personally do think there is such a connection (and please, I’m not going to be too excited if someone in the comments demands that I go meet some Muslims and reeducate myself. I got off the phone with my mom, a Muslim, a few hours ago). But there are other Muslims who reject this view. But we need to be frank about the real distribution of beliefs and attitudes.

A particular set of “anti-modernist” stances go together, for whatever reason. British Muslims, and the Pakistani Muslim community of northern England in particular, tend to be anti-modernist in their deepest commitments. I have relatives in northern England who are immigrants from Bangladeshi Muslim backgrounds. Even they are somewhat taken aback by the aggressive anti-modernism of native born Pakistani British Muslims of that region.

Let’s get real, evolution is the least of the worries when it comes to the British Muslim community. It’s absolutely no surprise that a heterodox imam was brought to heel by his reactionary flock and well placed activists in the broader community. I am rather confident that more than 0 out of 500 British Muslims would accept evolution, but it is a small enough minority that there simply isn’t any possibility that they can effect the overall direction of the debate. Britain is stuck with this community and its values for the indefinite future. There’s no need to be nuanced about that truth.

• Category: Science • Tags: Creationism, Culture, Religion 

Glenn Beck said some dumb, but unsurprising, things about evolution:

How many people believe in evolution in this country? I’d like to see. I mean, I don’t know why it’s unreasonable to say this. I’m not God so I don’t know how God creates. I don’t think we came from monkeys. I think that’s ridiculous. I haven’t seen a half-monkey, half-person yet. Did evolution just stop? Did we all of sudden — there’s no other species that’s developing into half-human?

It’s like global warming. So I don’t know why it is so problematic for people to just so, I don’t know how God creates. I don’t know how we got here. If I get to the other side and God’s like, “You know what, you were a monkey once,” I’ll be shocked, but I’ll be like, “Whatever.”

First, Glenn Beck is an adult convert to the Mormon religion. Therefore if he is exalted to godhood he could create a universe of half-monkeys/half-men for kicks. Second, note the details of Beck’s background. He was raised Roman Catholic, and secular for most of his adulthood, before coming to the Mormon church. None of these affinities entails a rejection of evolution. You are probably well aware that the Roman Catholic church has made its peace, broadly speaking, with evolution. And there’s nothing about secularism which necessitates a rejection of evolution. But what about Mormonism? This is the peculiarity. Mormons are broadly sympathetic to Creationism, but there’s nothing in the religion’s teachings which imply this as being the orthodox position. This is why Mitt Romney can robustly support the teaching of evolution. So what’s going in?

In The Creationists Ronald L. Numbers reports survey data from BYU students which shows a radical drop in acceptance of evolution over 50 years. I think what you are seeing is the mainstreaming of Mormons culturally, and, their identification with conservative Protestants for whom rejection of evolution is a significant aspect of their rejection of modernism. Still, I don’t think that this cultural dynamic can explain all of this shift among Mormons, or Glenn Beck’s specific view. Nor do I think it can explain the robust resistance which conservative Protestants exhibit toward integration of the fact of evolution into their model of reality .

As a younger man I encountered individuals who expressed nearly the exact same views as Glenn Beck. When I was a thirteen my closest friend at the time expressed skepticism of evolution couched in Beckian terms; i.e., it was ridiculous on the face of it that man derived from monkeys. My friend was from a moderately liberal family politically who were nominal Roman Catholics (his stepmother was a self-identified feminist). He was above grade level in math, though not exceedingly so (there were three levels, he was in the second-tier). When my friend expressed his skepticism I was totally shocked, as I’d never considered that anyone would reject evolution. I was familiar with the idea from my early elementary years because of my fascination with dinosaurs, and I took it as a given as a background fact of the universe. This being in the pre-internet age I looked up the survey data in The World Almanac and was surprised to find that the public was split down the middle when it came to acceptance of evolution!

I think the root of my friend’s skepticism, and that of Glenn Beck, has to do with our psychology and the intuitions which we bring to the table. This thesis is articulated well in Paul Bloom’s argument that we’re wired for Creationism. Humans have an intuition about essences, and the idea of evolution contravenes our expectation of invariant essences. The image of the grotesque chimera which Beck brandishes is a pointer to this reality, and Beck isn’t alone in his incredulity.

So how does it come to be that half the American public accepts evolution then? (as well as say 80% of the population in Japan) I think the two classes of variables of note are individual dispositions (intelligence, aversion to conformity, level of education) and group wisdom. Here’s a quick & dirty from the GSS using the EVOVLED variable in a logistic regression.

Variable B P-value
POLVIEWS 0.25 0.000
BIBLE(Literal vs. Non-literal) -1.34 0.000
WORDSUM -0.05 0.144
GOD 0.64 0.000
SEX 0.40 0.001
DEGREE -0.16 0.003
AGE 0.02 0.000
Pseudo R-squared = 0.260

Don’t take the values above too seriously. Please. But it does show you the determinative power of Biblical literalism in predicting whether you are likely to be a Creationist or not. Intelligence in terms of vocabulary actually tends to go away in this treatment when you control for other factors which are correlated with intelligence (Biblical literalists are less intelligent). GOD spans the range from atheist to those who know that God exists. Interestingly sex has a stronger effect than education (women are more likely to be Creationist). Political ideology has an impact, but once you control for religion it is far weaker (conservatism is correlated with Creationism). In the same range as education. These data would tend to support the contention that group identity markers are now more important than individual variables like education (or the two are confounded together in such a way that there’s no juice to be gained at looking at individual variables separate from group identity).

I decided to post on this topic because of a conversation I recently had with Josh Rosenau of Thoughts from Kansas. We were talking about the correlation of Creationism and anti-Global Warming with politics; specifically the right-wing association of both. I made the argument that there were deep qualitative differences between the two. Creationism is a shallow but broad belief, rooted in intuitions and imbued with symbolic valence. Is man a monkey or an angel? The stance toward Global Warming is different, and more explicitly a function of proximate politics and tribal identity (whether you’re an “expert” on either side of the scientific question, please admit that most people haven’t dug into the scientific details and simply go along with the cultural and political authorities whom they trust). Unlike Creationism Global Warming has concrete near-term implications. I am aware of the contention that rejection of the science of evolution kicks the legs out from under practical fields such as medicine, or, that the inferences that necessarily lead to evolutionary theory are entailed by the same axioms which lead to other practically relevant domains. Nevertheless, for most people medicine, pharmaceuticals, and science in general, are “black box” affairs. If they work, they work, and the philosophical issues are not particularly relevant to them. Anthropogenic Global Warming, and the specific public policy responses which people believe would be prudent to make in response to the validity of the hypothesis, are much more concrete and immediate. Thirty years from now we will not be discussing Global Warming, thirty years from now we will probably be discussing evolution.

But back to Josh. He decided to do some structural equation modeling with the beliefs of the Tea Party segment of the electorate as predicted by demographic variables. Controlling for background variables he did not find that Tea Party identified Americans were any more, or less, Creationist than they should have been (they’re disproportionately religious conservatives, but they’re not more Creationist than you’d expect from that). On the other hand, they do tend to reject anthropogenic Global Warming to a greater extent even when Josh controlled for background variables. I think this tends to support my contention that the evolution controversy will be with us for a while, and to some extent is sui generis. Both because it as at some remove from immediate policy implications outside of the domain of education, and, because of the deep cultural and psychological soil which Creationism can take root in. It is more than just politics, and so not an necessarily epiphenomenon.


Christine O’Donnell has said a lot of kooky things. Right now people are focusing on her Creationism. Though I’m obviously not a Creationist I think mocking someone for this belief in a political context is somewhat strange: the survey literature is pretty robust that Americans are split down the middle on opinions about evolution. More specifically most of the polling shows that around ~50% of Americans tend to reject the validity of evolutionary theory when asked. This is what I like to call a broad but shallow belief; for the vast majority of Americans attitudes about evolution are really just cultural markers, not stances of deep feeling or impact. One point of evidence for this conjecture is that polling on evolution is easy to massage through framing. Another is that Republican candidates for the presidency do not invariably hew to a Creationist line despite the likelihood that the majority of primary voters are Creationist. Politicians react to incentives, and my own hunch is that there isn’t a strong push from the Christian Right on evolution as there is on abortion or gay marriage.

I’ve posted plenty on how Creationists are more female, less intelligent, more conservative, more likely to be ethnic minorities, less educated, etc. Here I want to put the spotlight parameters which might shed some light on the O’Donnell race. Is her kooky opinion on evolution a particular liability in Mid-Atlantic Delaware? Are Creationists less likely to vote? And what are the regional breakdowns which might explain the bi-coastal shock and amusement at O’Donnell’s opinions?

First, to gauge a sense of Delaware’s religious culture I looked at the Religious Landscape Survey. Because of the small sample size the margin of errors were large, but going through the data I think it is safe to say that Delaware is near the “middle of the road” in reference to the national sample, perhaps just a bit on the more secular and/or religiously liberal end of the spectrum. In the South it seems that Delaware would be very religiously liberal, while in the Northeast it is probably a touch on the more conservative side.

Next, I used the GSS data set. There are four variables which address evolution:


1. God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years

2. Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process.

3. Man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, including man’s creation

EVOLVED: Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. Is that true or false?

SCITESTY and SCITEST4: Both also ask if human beings developed from earlier species of animals. Answers though are definitely true, probably true, probably not true, and definitely not true.

I looked to see who voted in the year 2000, variable VOTE00. Note that the questions were asked between 2000-2008, so the “Not Eligible” category simply points to the individuals in the samples in the mid-to-late 2000s who were not yet 18 and could not vote in the 2000 election.

Voted in 2000 Election Did not vote in the 2000 Not eligible to vote 2000
God Created Man 43 44 32
Man Has Evolved, But God Guided 41 42 45
Man Has Evolved 13 10 16
Human Beings Developed From Animals (EVOLVED)
True 50 46 59
False 50 54 41
Human Beings Developed From Animals (SCITESTY)
Definitely True 16 12 21
Probably True 28 31 38
Probably Not True 15 15 15
Definitely Not True 41 41 27

It does not seem to me that the electorate is much less Creationist than the non-voters. The bias toward evolution in the not eligible to vote category is because these are younger age cohorts, who are more secular and less Creationist.

censdivNext I wanted to do some regional analysis of attitudes toward evolution. The GSS has a variable REGION which is broken down into nine categories. The map to the left shows the divisions, as they’re from the Census definitions. 1 = New England, 2 = Mid-Atlantic, 3 = Great Lakes, 4 = Upper Midwest and Plains, 5 = Atlantic South, 6 = Central South, 7 = South Southwest, 8 = Mountain West, and finally, 9 = Pacific West. To increase sample sizes I aggregated some of these together, so 1 + 2 = Northeast, 3 + 4 = Midwest, 5 + 6 + 7 = South, and 8 + 9 = West. Unfortunately the divisions don’t always quite map onto real social and geographical divisions. Missouri is in the same class as North Dakota. The Mid-Atlantic border states of Maryland and Delaware are thrown together into the same category as Florida. In contrast, the Mountain, Great Lakes, New England and Pacific regions are coherent. New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey do form a tight unit in the Mid-Atlantic (though I think today Maryland and Delaware should be included in the same class).

In any case, I took REGION and recombined it like so: REGION(r:1-2 “Northeast”;3-4 “Midwest”;5-7 “South”;8-9 “West”). Delaware might be in the South in this system, but the Northeast is probably more representative of its values and attitudes. All of the results are for the year 2000 and later.

Northeast Midwest South West
God Created Man 31 41 54 34
Man Has Evolved, But God Guided 50 46 33 45
Man Has Evolved 15 11 9 16
Human Beings Developed From Animals (EVOLVED)
True 64 52 40 57
False 37 48 60 43
Human Beings Developed From Animals (SCITESTY)
Definitely True 22 13 11 21
Probably True 40 34 23 30
Probably Not True 11 13 15 20
Definitely Not True 27 40 51 30
Human Beings Developed From Animals (SCITEST4)
Definitely True 22 9 12 21
Probably True 39 34 26 30
Probably Not True 16 20 19 15
Definitely Not True 23 38 43 34

Let’s limit the sample to non-Hispanic whites:

Non-Hispanic Whites Only
Northeast Midwest South West
God Created Man 29 40 53 35
Man Has Evolved, But God Guided 42 46 34 40
Man Has Evolved 15 12 10 19
Human Beings Developed From Animals (EVOLVED)
True 70 54 41 55
False 30 46 59 45
Human Beings Developed From Animals (SCITESTY)
Definitely True 24 13 12 24
Probably True 42 35 23 25
Probably Not True 11 14 16 20
Definitely Not True 24 39 49 32
Human Beings Developed From Animals (SCITEST4)
Definitely True 22 10 13 25
Probably True 46 32 25 32
Probably Not True 16 22 20 12
Definitely Not True 16 37 43 32

Observations? First, both the Northeast and West tend to be much more accepting of evolution than other regions of the nation. But the West is more polarized, with a larger Creationist minority. This makes sense, as the American West tends to be more secular than the Northeast, but the religious institutions which do exist are generally more fundamentalist in orientation. In the Northeast Roman Catholicism and mainline Protestantism are much more influential than evangelical Protestantism. In the West the situation is more balanced between Catholics and evangelicals, and includes Mormons who tend to have skeptical attitudes toward evolution. The South is more Creationist than the Midwest, though the Midwest tends toward more fundamentalism in belief than the Northeast and West. This I think aligns with our intuitions, the Midwest tends to be the “swing-vote” in culture and politics, though part of this is because there are more “Southern” regions of the Midwest. The “Butternut” areas of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio were settled from the South, while Missouri is also split between Southern and Midwest leaning areas. In contrast, northern Ohio and Illinois, Michigan, and the Upper Midwest states were part of “Greater New England,” and later settled by Scandinavians and Germans who were not congenial toward American Protestant fundamentalism (with the exception of Missouri Synod Lutherans).

As for as Christine O’Donnell and her Creationism, I think she would have benefited from running in Alabama or Mississippi. In some ways the coastal elites are out of touch with how common and pervasive Creationism is, but though Delaware may not quite be part of BosNyWash megalopolis, it’s on the margin of its sphere of influence.

• Category: Science • Tags: Creationism, Data Analysis, Evolution, GSS, Poll 

One of the trends that makes me less pessimistic about the inevitability of an idiocratic end-point to technological civilization is that it seems young Americans are more likely to accept evolution than earlier age cohorts. The EVOLVED variable asks whether one believes that “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animal.” It was asked in 2004 and 2008, and its response is dichotomous between true and false. The favorable age trend I was aware of, but almost randomly I decided to control for some demographic variables, and I stumbled onto something which surprised me a bit, but in hindsight shouldn’t have: much of the greater acceptance of evolution among the youth has to do with a closing of the sex gap between men and women. Traditionally women have been more religious and Creationist in their inclinations, but far less so in Gen Y. Chart below of EVOLVED.


The convergence between men and women here seems to mirror what is occurring with religion more generally. Young men aren’t getting that much more secular, but women are, resulting in an aggregate of serious secularization.

Here are the percentages for 2004 and later in relation to attitudes toward the bible.


So some, but not all, of the closing of the “evolution gap” across sexes can be attributed to decreased belief in the core precepts of organized religion (e.g., the revealed nature of scripture). Rather, if you constrain the beliefs about evolution to those who believe that that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, you see that women are converging with men in the proportion who are theistic evolutionists, and turning away from Creationism. Among these believers, for those who were 61 or older 42% of women accepted evolution vs. 56% of men. For those in the age bracket 18-30 the proportion was 65% for both sexes.

• Category: Science • Tags: Creationism, Data, Data Analysis, GSS 

A comment below about intelligent people who believe in dumb ideas made me want to revisit the Creationism demographics in the GSS. More on point I wanted to look at the relationship between IQ and Creationism crossed with demographic variables. I used the WORDSUM variable as a proxy for IQ (the correlation is ~0.70). WORDSUM scores range from 0 to 10; 10 being a perfect and 0 being not so perfect. To get a sense of the range, here are mean WORDSUM scores by highest degree attained, constrained for the years 2004 and later:

No High School Diploma 4.57
High School Diploma 5.91
Junior College 6.29
Bachelor 6.82
Graduate 7.73

I decided to limit the year to 2004 and later because to explore Creationism I want to use the variable EVOLVED, which was asked in 2004 and 2008. I selected EVOLVED because the sample size was not that small, nearly 1,500, and, the response is dichotomous. Here’s what EVOLVED asked:

Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. (Is that true or false?)

Querying Americans about human descent from animals primes them to be a bit on the Creationist side. True and false come at at about 50:50 for the above question. Below is a table where the columns have mean WORDSUM scores for non-Creationists and Creationists, and the rows indicate the particular demographic. I have put in bold those variables where the horizontally adjacent cells are outside each other’s 95% confidence interval. Additionally I constrained the sample to non-Hispanic whites (so the N is closer to 1,350).

Accepts Human Evolution Creationist
No College Degree 6.14 5.95
College Degree 7.43 6.96
Liberal 7.36 5.84
Moderate 6.25 5.78
Conservative 6.42 6.48
Democrat 6.9 5.84
Independent 6.13 5.92
Republican 6.54 6.35
Bible is….
Word of God 5.03 5.93
Inspired Word 6.71 6.45
Book of Fables 7.11 5.88
Protestant 6.61 6.21
Catholic 6.35 6.08
No Religion 6.8 5.31
Confidence in existence of God….
Atheist and Agnostic 7.13 6.87
Higher Power 6.74 5.66
Believe Sometimes 6.8 6.06
Believe With Doubts 6.52 6.06
Know God Exists 6.49 6.18
Male 6.51 5.8
Female 6.82 6.4
18-34 6.1 6.03
35-64 6.79 6.29
65 and older 7.25 5.89

First, I have no explanation for the age differences. Second, notice that liberals and Democrats who are Creationists tend to be kind of unintelligent. It’s not surprising to me that those who believe that the Bible is the Word of God but are not Creationists are less intelligent than those who are (the two ranges were almost outside of the 95% confidence interval). I suspect these are individuals lacking in the faculties with which to make any inferences at all from their putative beliefs, or, those who regularly get confused on questions because they have minimal comprehension of complex grammatical constructions. In my opinion something similar is going on with liberals and Democrats who are Creationist, though there is a subtle difference. In this case their social-political milieu would tolerate acceptance of the scientific consensus, but they go with their common sense gut. I have minimal experience with politically liberal Creationists of late, but when I was younger I knew a few, and their opinions were generally inchoate and vague due to an indistinct comprehension of the basic abstract issues. In other words, these were just not the sharpest tools in the shed.

• Category: Science • Tags: Creationism, Data Analysis, GSS 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"