Several Reasons Why So Many Have Trouble With Evolution

NPR’s blog ran this post yesterday, in which a physicist scratches his head and wonders why so many Americans don’t “believe in” evolution, despite a mountain of evidence in support of it.

Not surprisingly, and rather unfortunately, religious belief interferes with people's understanding of what the theory of evolution says.

The evidence for evolution is overwhelming. It's in the fossil record, carefully dated using radioactivity, the release of particles from radioactive isotopic decay, which works like a very precise clock

The author, physicist Marcelo Gleiser, offers no answer to why so many people have trouble with evolution.  I have several suggestions for him. First, he should take a look at the state of creationist propaganda out there. There are now dozens of flavors of creationism, from various form of ID to literal biblical creationism to an insistence that God created the first bacteria and then sat back to watch things unfold.  And much of the propaganda helps people feel smart and superior to “Darwinists”.  

I’d also suggest Dr. Gleiser read Michal Shermer’s new book The Believing Brain. I’m about 2/3 of the way through and really enjoying it. Rather than wring his hands and wonder why people can’t just get with the program and accept evolution, Shermer offers some real insights from psychology and brain science to explain why people believe in weird things – whether it’s spirits or angels, alien abductors or intelligent designers.   

There are two other factors Dr. Gleiser should consider. First, while court battles such as the one in 2005 in Dover have pushed the creationists out of public school classrooms, teachers are still failing to teach evolution in an adequate way.  Another factor is the language we use to describe evolution. I’m still struck by the way we ask people if they “believe in” evolution as if it’s a religion or an ideology. We would never think of asking whether people believe in atomic theory or relativity. I explored the use of the term belief in this column, tied the Miss USA pageant last summer.  

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