Darwin in America: The evolution debate in the United States

Source: Pew Research Center

By David Masci

Almost 160 years after Charles Darwin publicized his groundbreaking theory on the development of life, Americans are still arguing about evolution. In spite of the fact that evolutionary theory is accepted by all but a small number of scientists, it continues to be rejected by many Americans. In fact, about one-in-five U.S. adults reject the basic idea that life on Earth has evolved at all. And roughly half of the U.S. adult population accepts evolutionary theory, but only as an instrument of God’s will.

Concerns about how his ideas would be received by the public led British naturalist Charles Darwin, pictured here in 1878, to wait 20 years before publishing his groundbreaking theory of evolution. (The Print Collector/Getty Images)

Most biologists and other scientists contend that evolutionary theory convincingly explains the origins and development of life on Earth. Moreover, they say, a scientific theory is not a hunch or a guess, but is instead an established explanation for a natural phenomenon, like gravity, that has repeatedly been tested and refined through observation and experimentation.

So if evolution is as established in the scientific community as the theory of gravity, why are people still arguing about it more than century and a half after Darwin proposed it? The answer lies, in large part, in the theological implications of evolutionary thinking. For many religious people, the Darwinian view of life – a panorama of brutal struggle and constant change – conflicts with both the biblical creation story and the Judeo-Christian concept of an active, loving God who intervenes in human events. (See “Religious Groups’ Views on Evolution.”)

This basic concern with evolutionary theory has helped drive the decadeslong opposition to teaching it in public schools. Even over the last 15 years, educators, scientists, parents, religious leaders and others in more than a dozen states have engaged in public battles in school boards, legislatures and courts over how school curricula should handle evolution. The issue was even discussed and debated during the runups to the 2000 and 2008 presidential elections. This battle has ebbed in recent years, but it has not completely died out.

Outside the classroom, much of the opposition to evolution has involved its broader social implications and the belief that it can be understood in ways that are socially and politically dangerous. For instance, some social conservatives charge that evolutionary theory serves to strengthen broader arguments that justify practices they vehemently oppose, such as abortion and euthanasia. Evolutionary theory also plays a role in arguments in favor of transhumanism and other efforts to enhance human abilities and extend the human lifespan. Still other evolution opponents say that well-known advocates for atheism, such as Richard Dawkins, view evolutionary theory not just as proof of the folly of religious faith, but also as a justification for various types of discrimination against religion and religious people.

A look back at American history shows that, in many ways, questions about evolution have long served as proxies in larger debates about religious, ethical and social norms. From efforts on the part of some churches in the 19th and early 20th centuries to advance a more liberal form of Christianity, to the more recent push and pull over the roles of religion and science in the public square, attitudes toward evolution have often been used as a fulcrum by one side or the other to try to advance their cause.

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