Where does America rank next to last?

I came across this graph, and thought it was worth sharing. At the very least, it was better than paying Josh $6 for not posting this week.

In this 2005 ranking of industrialized countries (U.S., Europe, Japan) the United States places next to last. Pop quiz: What is this a ranking of?

What does this ranking represent?


And just for fun, comment what you guessed originally.

The above graph accompanied a paper published in Science magazine in 2006, entitled Public Acceptance of Evolution, by Jon D. Miller, et al. Data was taken from the wonderful Eurobarometer survey, a national survey in Japan by the Japanese National Institute of Science and Technology Policy, and in the U.S. by Knowledge Networks, Inc. and funded by the National Science Foundation. Though the exact wording of the question diverged, the basic question was simple: Is evolution true or false? In the U.S. the statement to be evaluated was more or less: “Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals.” Blue indicated true, yellow indicated not sure, and red indicated false.

The only country that believed less in evolution than the United States was Turkey. In Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, and France, over 80% of people accepted evolution, and in Japan it was 78%. In the United States, “Over the past 20 years, the percentage of U.S. adults accepting the idea of evolution has declined from 45% to 40% and the percent-age of adults overtly rejecting evolution declined from 48% to 39%. The percentage of adults who were not sure about evolution increased from 7% in 1985 to 21% in 2005. After 20 years of public debate, the public appears to be divided evenly in terms of accepting or rejecting evolution, with about one in five adults still undecided or unaware of the issue.

This is particularly interesting because countries with comparable or higher rates of religious belief still have much higher rates of belief in evolution. According to a 2005 Gallup poll, 73% of Americans surveyed reported that they believed in a God. In the same year, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Turkey, and Malta all reported equal or higher rates of belief in God0–ranging from Italy’s 74% to Malta and Turkey’s 95%.

The authors propose three reasons to explain why the United States is so lacking in a belief in evolution. First, it identifies American religious fundamentalism as particularly literalist compared to mainstream European Protestantism and Catholicism. Genesis is taken to be a literal truth in the United States, not a metaphor. Individuals who hold a strong belief in a personal God and who pray frequently were significantly less likely to view evolution as probably or definitely true than adults with less conservative religious views, but this correlation was twice as strong among strong believers the U.S. than in Europe. Second, the authors argue that while the Republican party has incorporated the evolution/creationism/”creation science” debate in its platform, no comparable politicization of evolution exists among major parties in Europe and Japan.

Interestingly, Americans were more accepting of evolutionary ideas when the word “evolution” was omitted from the explanation. 78% of American adults agreed that “Over periods of millions of years, some species of plants and animals adjust and survive while other species die and become extinct” but 62% of Americans also agree that “Human beings were created by God as whole persons and did not evolve from earlier forms of life.” Evolution might explain how other animals came about, but Americans adhere to human exceptionalism, or else just shut down when they see the word “evolution”.

Finally, the authors reported that genetic literacy (measured in a 10-question test and graded from 1-10) had a moderate positive relationship with belief in evolution, and the magnitude of this relationship (unlike religious fundamentalism) was the same in both Europe and the United States. The U.S. actually scored slightly higher in genetic literacy, with a median score of 4 out of 10 on these questions:

Genetically modified animals are always larger than ordinary animals. (F); Cloning is a form of reproduction in which offspring result from the union of sperm and
egg. (F); Today it is not possible to transfer genes from humans to animals. (F); If someone eats a genetically modified fruit, there is a risk that a person’s genes might be
modified too. (F) ;All plants and animals have DNA. (T); Today it is not possible to transfer genes from animals to plants. (F); Humans have somewhat less than half of the DNA in common with chimpanzees. (F); It is possible to extract stem cells from human embryos without destroying the embryos. (F); All humans share exactly the same DNA. (F)

How do we fix this? I suspect the only way to change this disturbing trend of American ignorance is not at church, where people are sensitive, or in politics, where people are stubborn, but in the classroom. Specifically, we should teach more science without overtly using “evolution” all that often. Even if in some school districts the term “evolution” must be eschewed by teachers fearing the wrath of fundamentalist parents, an illustrative education on how genetics works, how chromosomes are transmitted from mother to daughter, what the Mendel experiments showed, how mutations can come about and examples of natural selection, maybe an experiment showing evolution in real-time (like conferring antibiotic resistance to a plate of bacteria, which takes like a day or two to conduct)–essentially all the self-evident evidence in favor of the theory we call “evolution”–will not only better convince students of the final idea* (since genetic literacy correlates with belief in evolution), but will be more helpful than merely memorizing a definition that “we descended from earlier species”, particularly since some of the best evidence in favor of evolution requires an understanding of genetics. We should not trade indoctrination from the Bible to indoctrination from a textbook. The understanding of the mechanism will lead to belief in the model.

*For the correlation/causation skeptics: I think kids are fairly plastic, so I don’t think kids don’t believe in evolution first and therefore decide not to pay attention to genetics.


5 thoughts on “Where does America rank next to last?

  1. Very interesting. My initial guess was something along the lines of “Most socialist countries,” even though many nations would have been notably out of place in the rankings. I really did not see the actual answer coming.

  2. Christine O’Donnell: If evolution was real, why are there still monkeys?

    Because education is real, but we still have morons.

    For the record, seeing denmark near the top, and the US and Turkey so low, I was almost tempted to say “% of people ok with showing a depiction of the prophet Muhammad”, but then Turkey seemed too high for that.

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