Americans Not So Sure About Evolution

Old habits die hard. A recent poll revealed that 4 in 10 Americans believe in some variant of creationism, 38 percent in “theistic evolution” — that is, evolution guided by God — and 16 percent in evolution tout court. The expected, incredulous reaction of the average reader of this article is as follows: “Really? In 2010?” But the charts show that this is the lowest occurrence of belief in creationism in decades, and progress — if this is progress to you — comes at its own pace.

America’s predilection for bizarre beliefs (if creationism fits in that category for you, dear reader, and given the demographics it is likely) is nothing new. As Ross Douthat has noted in a New York Times Op-Ed, in addition to 20 percent of Americans believing that Obama is a Muslim, 32 percent of Democrats and 18 percent of Republicans blame “the Jews” for the financial crisis, and 25 percent of African-Americans think that AIDS was “created in a government lab” — and these are just the popular political topics of the day. No doubt more repugnant numbers lurk beneath survey questions not yet asked.

How reflexive are these polls of American paranoia and irrationality? Not very, according to libertarian blogger Julian Sanchez, who uses the phrase “symbolic belief” to describe the prevalent belief, especially in the South, that Obama was not born in the United States. While this triggered a media kerfuffle of denunciation and ridicule of Tea Party activists and conservatives alike, beyond these solemn grievances not much else followed the “Birthers” movement; like the quiet consequences of the 9/11 conspiracy, no assassination attempts or random outbursts of violence or rebellion converged with adherence to these lunacies.

Sanchez aptly pinpoints that the discrepancy between the behavior and purported belief of subscribers to vogue conspiracy theories belies an Orwellian “doublethink” on the part of people who hold these unorthodox beliefs. Rather than a firm predication of some correspondence between their beliefs and reality, symbolic beliefs “promote standards of behavior” and amount to a value judgment of the central subject of the question. Sanchez explains that when Birthers claim that Obama was not born in the United States, what they really mean is that they consider Obama phony, dishonest and un-American; they are not actually affirming that Obama was born outside the country.

In interpreting the results of the new poll, Sanchez’s theory would explain away America’s creationist yearnings as a symbolic declaration of their preference of religion over modern science. Deep down, Sanchez would say, creationists know that evolution is true, but pretend otherwise.

But this theory is too self-congratulating to adherents of evolution, in more ways than one. First, while the “4 in 10” statistic may grab headlines, the almost equally popular idea of theistic evolution seems more logically specious and questionable, a far better representative of Orwellian doublethink than Creationism (or Intelligent Design, merely Creationism in scientific drag).

The logic of Neo-Darwinism, the orthodox interpretation of evolution championed by the likes of Richard Dawkins and company, is contrary to any intentional intervention by an external agent, for that would throw predictive powers of evolution into question. If God had supervised evolution at various moments, then He could have allowed for the survival of the weakest instead of the fittest. Since it is unknowable when and where God intervened with evolution, theistic evolution renders the origins of man an even deeper epistemological lacuna than either creationism or Neo-Darwinism, for unlike the latter two, theistic evolution is wholly unprincipled, placing the forces of gene-based competition and God side by side without a mediating principle. Throwing divine intervention into evolution unravels the weft-and-woof of evolution-based theories. While Old Earth Creationism is plausible if you believe in a creative, personal God and are rationally skeptical of the shoddy paleontological evidence for evolution, theistic evolution is logically incoherent unless you’re a pantheist, and the day 38 percent of America is comprised of pantheists is the day pigs fly.

Second, this theory is too self-congratulatory to secular naturalists, who can explain away any opposition to their cosmology as trivial, antiquated religious “symbols,” the artifacts of fideism. For one thing, symbolic beliefs go both ways in this case — given the haughty certainty and condescending scorn of evolution proponents that I have often observed, Sanchez’s theory arguably fits many champions of Darwin as well. Allow me to surmise that in all likelihood the average man on the street who is “certain” that man emerged from apes would have 200 years ago been “certain” that Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt millennia ago.

Neo-Darwinism is mired with numerous theoretical black holes — the origins of consciousness and bipedalism just to name two — with no solutions in sight. While it reigns supreme over rival scientific theories, by itself the theory can barely withstand mild skepticism. An exemplary area of controversy is evolution psychology — labeled by many intellectuals as pseudoscience — which follows the core principles of Darwinism but has yet to gather any incontrovertible results since its inception. Hoi polloi, even the educated among them, tend to follow leaders, whether spiritual or scientific, and science bears no exemption from this pattern. For many, the belief in evolution amounts to an affront to the religious establishment and a declaration of their philosophical materialism. For others, it’s conformity to the popular credo of the day.

Of course, the existence of inauthentic motives for believing in a truth does not disprove its veracity, but it does trivialize the meaning of these polls. Unfortunately, our thriving democracy, and many others in the West, operates under similar procedure, i.e. polling. What do you know!

Yichao Hao is a first-year economics major. He can be reached at haoy1@uci.edu.