Endorsing evolution: A matter of authority?

As I discussed earlier in this blog, there appears to be substantial cross-cultural variation in the degree to which people endorse evolutionary theory. According to a study by Miller et al., some countries are characterized by an almost universal acceptance of evolutionary theory (e.g., Iceland, Japan), whereas in other countries (e.g., USA, Turkey), less than half of the population endorses it. This cross-cultural variation seems to result from an interplay between cognitive factors (what cognitive mechanisms underlie our understanding of evolutionary theory) and cultural ones (why do we endorse evolutionary theory).


The popularity of evolutionary theory in Japanese pop-culture is nowhere more obvious
than in the Pokemon Universe – Cartoon found on Comics Alliance.


Several studies indicate that evolutionary theory is at odds with our intuitive notions about the origin of living things. Creationism seems to be (close to) the default position: young children, regardless of their religious background, believe that organisms are products of design, and that creatures are there for a specific purpose (see this paper by Deborah Kelemen). Moreover, people with Alzheimer tend to revert to such forms of teleological reasoning (see this paper by Lombrozo et al.), and even educated adults are vulnerable to it when they are put under time pressure (see this paper by Kelemen & Rosset). Several studies indicate that evolutionary theory is at odds with our intuitive notions about the origin of living things.

Most adolescents and adults do not seem to understand the mechanisms that underpin evolutionary theory, such as natural selection or drift. Bloom and Weisberg (here) suggested that different rates of acceptance of evolutionary theory may be a matter of epistemic trust, i.e., the degree to which we defer to scientific authorities when we utter statements of the type "I believe evolutionary theory is true". Most people are not able to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of current scientific theories (e.g., the theoretical underpinnings and empirical support for general relativity theory or plate tectonics), but rely on experts for their scientific beliefs. A statement like "I believe string theory is correct" is not based on considerations about string theory itself, but rather on the perceived reliability of physicists who developed this theory. The question then becomes: why are Japanese more willing than Americans to trust evolutionary biologists and other scientific experts?

Beliefs that we endorse but do not fully understand are quasi-beliefs (a term coined by François Récanati). Tyler Burge already pointed out that quasi-beliefs are actually quite common. For example, someone can erroneously hold the belief that she has arthritis in her thigh muscles; she can sincerely believe this even though it must be false, since arthritis affects only the joints. Indeed, the truth-value of the utterance "I have arthritis in my thigh muscles" is dependent on how experts (physicians) fill in this term – we can imagine a world where arthritis could be a term that had a different meaning (muscle disease), and in that case the utterance could be correct. Similarly, orthodox Jewish people defer to the expertise of a rabbi or Kosher labels on food packaging in forming their belief about whether or not particular food sources are kosher.

For someone who cannot understand the mechanism of natural selection, the belief that evolutionary theory is correct is a quasi-belief. By definition, a quasi-belief is not fully understood, so judgment about its validity cannot depend much on the content of that belief, but rather on considerations about the reliability of its source. In the USA, the science-inspired belief that evolutionary theory is correct has direct competitors from religious sources, which contend that species do not change over time, and that humans did not evolve from apes. In the USA people can choose to defer either to the expertise of evolutionary biologists, or alternatively, to religiously-inspired pseudoscientists such as young earth creationists. In Belgium, where I live and work, there is a sharp distinction in acceptance of evolutionary theory: whereas most Christians (mostly Roman-Catholics) accept it, many Muslims reject it. This is mainly due to the efforts of Muslim creationists such as Harun Yahya, who publicly challenge evolutionary theory in pamphlets and books that are freely distributed. It is because the poorly understood belief in evolutionary theory has a competitor, a potential source in which people can choose to place their epistemic trust, that the acceptance of evolutionary theory is compromised in Muslims.

Although I know of no quantitative comparisons, I am convinced that Einstein's theories of general and special relativity are endorsed more widely than evolutionary theory (leaving aside the occasional crackpots who claim to have discovered glaring errors in Einstein's original papers). Yet, there is nothing in our intuitive physics that prepares us for these ideas, and very few people possess the mathematical background that is necessary for a full grasp of this theory. By contrast, Darwin's theory can be understood purely verbally (as Darwin himself did). To speculate: if there were a tendency in religious movements in the USA to ask people to critically reflect on Einstein's theories, to give 'equal time' to Einstein and medieval impetus theory (which is in fact closer to our intuitive physics), epistemic trust in current physics would decline markedly. Indeed, flat earth movements enjoyed some modest success in the 19th and early 20th century, although their success was not of the magnitude of that of contemporary creationist movements (that have more money, and more media at their disposal).

The cross-cultural differences in acceptance of evolutionary theory, therefore, does not depend in how far people understand this theory (although understanding would probably help), but rather on the presence of competitors in which people can place epistemic trust.


  • comment-avatar
    Dan Sperber 1 May 2010 (03:25)

    I agree with Helen that “the cross-cultural differences in acceptance of evolutionary theory… does not depend on how far people understand this theory… but rather on the presence of competitors in which people can place epistemic trust.” Then however I don’t quite see the relevance of the intuitive/non-intuitive character of the theories in competition to explaining these differences, or of these differences as evidence of the intuitiveness/non-intuitiveness of these theories. Evolutionary theory (even in its most rudimentary version according to which living kinds are the way they are because they evolved from earlier forms and all from the same earliest forms of life)stands in contradiction to origin myths according to which kinds were created or emerged more or less the way they are. In all modern societies evolutionary theory is taught as part of science and benefits from the authority of the teachers. In some modern societies, the US and Turkey for instance, there are powerful religious organizations that insist that their origin myths are literally true and that it is sinful to say or think otherwise. In these societies, there is a conflict of authorities and evolutionary theory is explicitly rejected by part of the population. Do we need to assume that there is an innate predisposition to prefer a creationist account in order to account for these facts? In other terms, do we have reasons to believe that the situation would be different if there was no such predisposition? Of course, if we look historically, until recently there were only creationist stories (or spontaneous emergence stories) and evolutionary theory was not an alternative at all. Does this show that creationism is more intuitive? One could argue that neither creationist nor evolutionary stories are intuitive, that they are both hard to understand, and that, when they are believed, they are believed ‘reflectively’, that is with awareness of reasons to accepts these stories (these reasons being most of the time the support of authorities seen as trustworthy). So, the past total domination of creationist stories might be evidence not of their intuitiveness but, say, of the ease with which these stories could be concocted. A creationist story is easy to invent – Why are things the way they are? Because a supernatural power has so decided –, but they are hard to understand: How on Earth does the decision get realised? The invention of evolutionary theory on the other hand was an intellectual feat and could only take place in a very specific cultural context that permitted the emergence of modern science. It was a hard-to-concoct story, it is not easy to understand, but, to me, it is way easier to understand than a creationist story. The cognitive processes and dispositions involved in grasping (to whatever extent) and accepting creationist or evolutionary stories are well worth investigating, but I doubt that they boil down to a simple contrast between intuitiveness vs. non- or counter-intuitiveness.

  • comment-avatar
    Helen De Cruz 1 May 2010 (13:27)

    Dan’s concern is a valid one: in how far is the intuitiveness of some aspects of creationism a contributing factor to its success? Can’t we just explain them both as reflective beliefs, and cross-cultural variation as a matter of deference to authorities? I think the outcome of this question depends upon to what extent one can draw a sharp distinction between ‘intuitive beliefs’, which emerge spontaneously without deliberation, and ‘reflective beliefs’, which are stored in a more explicit format. Dan has persuasively argued for this distinction in much of his work. Nevertheless, there is increasing evidence that intuitive beliefs continue to influence reflective beliefs. For example, in the domain of theology, Justin Barrett has experimentally shown that people’s explicit theological concepts (God as omniscient etc.) gets distorted by normal, intuitive expectations about what agents do in some online reasoning tasks. Interestingly, a recent study by Desendruck and Haber in Cognition (vol. 110) also indicates that religiosity increases essentialist beliefs about social categories, and teleological beliefs about both animal and social categories. This seems to suggest, although more empirical evidence is needed to substantiate this claim, that the distinction between intuitive and reflective beliefs regarding creationism is not very sharp. To examine whether intuitive biases play a role in the persistence of creationism, one would have to find out in how far such biases still play a role in creationist writings, and in how far people who are more subject to these biases have a higher chance of rejecting evolutionary theory.

  • comment-avatar
    Dan Sperber 1 May 2010 (23:02)

    I don’t disagree with Helen’s response to my comment, but where we might disagree is with the idea that creationist stories are intuitive. I find the evidence weak and – this is my bias – I tend to think that appeals to supernatural powers are not intuitive but (cheaply) reflective. On the other hand, I assume that intuitive biases affect the success, interpretation, and propagation of all beliefs. In the case of creationist stories, the creator is endowed with a mostly intuitive psychology, his actions are taken to be rational, that is, adjusted to their goals, and the material world is taken to be as usual unless specified otherwise, all this à la Boyer. In the case of evolutionary theory, its interpretation is commonly biased by intuition: so, it (mis)undestood in terms of an ‘intentional stance’, teleogically, and often with a good dose of essentialism creeping in.