ANN ARBOR, Mich. — More Americans believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution than those who do not, according to a new study. University of Michigan researchers explain “public acceptance” of evolution is now firmly above the halfway point – with the shift occurring over the past five years or so.
“From 1985 to 2010, there was a statistical dead heat between acceptance and rejection of evolution,” says lead researcher Jon D. Miller of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research in a university release. “But acceptance then surged, becoming the majority position in 2016.”
What’s behind this shift in American thinking?
Study authors point to greater rates of higher education. An analysis of data spanning the past 35 years reveals multiple aspects of education as the strongest factors predicting belief in evolution. Such educational elements include graduating college, civic science literacy, and taking science courses at college.
“Almost twice as many Americans held a college degree in 2018 as in 1988,” comments study co-author Mark Ackerman, a researcher at Michigan Engineering, the U-M School of Information, and Michigan Medicine. “It’s hard to earn a college degree without acquiring at least a little respect for the success of science.”
The team included numerous surveys in their research, including polls conducted by the National Science Board, national surveys funded by various units of the National Science Foundations, and a NASA-funded series of polls focusing on adult civic literacy. Across all of those surveys, respondents either agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.”
Between 1985 and 2007, Americans were evenly divided on the subject of evolution. For instance, one 2005 survey comparing evolution beliefs between countries found only Turkey ranked below the U.S. in terms of accepting evolution as fact. However, over the last decade or so the percentage of Americans who believe in evolution has increased from 40 percent to 54 percent.
Religion becoming more accepting of evolution
On the other end of the spectrum, researchers also investigated what leads to evolutionary skepticism. They list religious fundamentalism as the number one driver of evolution denial. While their numbers have dropped somewhat over the past decade, 30 percent of Americans continue to meet the criteria set by study authors for religious fundamentalism. Interestingly, though, some fundamentalists are keeping a more open mind in recent years. In 1988, only eight percent of fundamentalists accepted evolution. By 2019, that statistic had increased to 32 percent.
“Such beliefs are not only tenacious but also, increasingly, politicized,” Miller adds.
The team points out that the subject of evolution has become increasingly politicized in recent years. In 2019, only 34 percent of conservative Republicans accepted evolution, while 83 percent of liberal Democrats accept the theory to be true.
The study is published in Public Understanding of Science.