GOP isn’t Getting more Ignorant on Evolution, it is Just getting Older

(By Juan Cole)

Polling by the Pew Charitable trust shows that the gap between Republicans and Democrats on evolution has substantially widened in just 5 years.

The percentage of Republicans who say that human beings have been unchanged since they originated rose from 39% to 48% just since 2009.
The percentage of Republicans who say that human beings have been unchanged since they originated rose from 39% to 48% just since 2009. Meanwhile, the percentage of Democrats who believe in evolution rose from 64% to 67%. Between the 9 point increase in creationism among the GOP faithful and the 3 percent decline in that persuasion among Democrats, the gap between the two parties on this issue increased by 12% in just a few years.

You never want to see a substantial body of Americans rejecting science; it is bad for the country. Understanding evolution is absolutely key to science, biology and biotech, and the South Koreans will have us for lunch economically if our public turns ignorant on this issue. It isn’t only biology that requires scientific thinking. There is now a field of evolutionary psychology. It comes into the workings of the brain. Comparing primates would be nonsensical if humans weren’t related to chimpanzees, bonobos and apes (it should be obvious that they are just from observing them). But many medical and other scientific discoveries can be accomplished through such comparisons. Those are discoveries, and technologies and commodities that others will invent, not thinking-impaired Americans.

The future of the world is a future of science and technology. For an entire political party to be dominated by the determinedly ignorant is dangerous to American fortunes.

There isn’t any doubt of US backwardness on this issue. In a poll of publics in 34 countries, the US came in 33rd. Only Turkey ranked lower. That is, Christian fundamentalism and Muslim fundamentalism dragged these two countries to the bottom. In countries such as France, Sweden and Denmark, 80 percent of adults accept evolution. Some 78 percent of Japanese do.

Backward thinking dominates the US and the GOP appears to be taking the country down further into obscurantism.

The good news from the Pew poll, however, is that the youth of America disproportionately do accept evolution.

In the 18 to 29 age bracket, 68% of Americans reported accepting evolution. That is slightly better than the Democratic Party. In the 30 to 49 age group it is 60%. Our youth are about 10 points behind the Japanese public on this matter, and 12 points behind France. But they are closer to the norm of advanced countries than is the Republican Party.

One explanation for the decline of scientific thinking in the Republican Party over the past decade and a half is that young people have deserted it in droves and the party itself is just old.

Some 60% of youth aged 18 to 29 voted for Barack Obama in the last election, with only 36 percent going for Romney. Some of that vote for Romney appears to have been a protest against the lack of jobs. Moreover, voting for Romney and being a self-identified Republican are not the same things, and I suspect that many of those youth votes were from independents.

American youth in polling report that they do not believe in trickle down economics and that they do believe in gay marriage. Youth values lead them to be disproportionately democrats, and they may well develop a lifetime loyalty to that party, as young people in the 1940s became devoted to FDR and mostly stuck with the Democrats.

Fox Cable News is suffering from the same sort of age gap as is the Republican Party, as Politicsusa points out, which is natural since Fox is the media arm of the GOP. Comparing 2013 to 2012, Fox lost 19 percent of of its viewers aged 25 to 54 during the day. In prime time they were down 30% in that prized demographic. No other network plummeted in youth viewers as steeply as Fox. The network’s attempt to stanch the outflow by moving Megyn Kelly to the 9 pm slot failed miserably. She was down 20% in young viewers compared to Sean Hannity in 2012.

Region may also be playing a role. As of 2009, the GOP was for a while almost exclusively a southern party. The South is Baptist country, and Baptists have a far higher rate of rejection of evolution than do the churches that predominate in the urban areas and the north and west of the country. (The growth of Protestant evangelicalism and fundamentalism, some scholars argue, is an artifact of so many workers having emigrated to the Sun Belt. When they arrived in Dallas or Atlanta, northern workers often just started going to the local Baptist church even if they had originally been Methodists or Lutherans.

The GOP is older than it used to be and more southern than it used to be. But above all it is smaller than it used to be. The minority of people who have stuck with the party have social characteristics that make them likely to reject evolution.

The bad news is that you have a major political party in a superpower promoting irrational beliefs like creationism and rejection of climate change. We all suffer from the bad policy the party makes, as with the steep cuts in the science budget of the “sequester,” made by people who don’t respect or like science.

The good news is that that party is not setting the national agenda and will have difficulty doing so.

American science is in the hands of American young people, who are full of innovation and creativity. They just aren’t on the same page with the GOP, which is increasingly made up of people who “like” stories about Jesus among the dinosaurs on Facebook.


Related video:

Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks reports on “Evolution Is A Lie From Hell! (Republican Rep. Paul Broun)”

19 Responses

  1. I think that the world began on October 1st 1933 or November 22nd 1963 and that everything before that is just virtual history implanted in our brains like in the movie Blade Runner and that this universe is really just a movie set that is only a few decades old and is only the size of a large computer in a fourth dimension that we are all trapped inside of. So does that make me a religous fundamentalist, an artist who takes art to seriously, or a just a nut case? Yes science has some practical values, but I have some evidence that I do not care to share with you because scientist will not accept it as evidence anyways, that in the end it will not be the scientists who will be laughing at the foolishness of others but the artists.

  2. Oops I miscalculated do to the (intended) Pavalonian response action. My comment above should have read Thursday October 5th as those scientists who devoloped the theory were quite clear that everything came in to existence on a Thursday.
    Those who developed this theory were clearly inspired by religous fundamentalists. History will show that they were quite clearly mocking religion. But as the day wore on it began to dawn on one of them that this was actually a way to diffuse the the arguement. You diffuse it by making it a left brain and right brain type of thing. Scientists can continue to beleive with the left and the right part of their brain that evolution is true and that it is real. The religously stubborn can
    continue to maintain that man has not changed with the right part of their brain but with left part of their brain they can play what if games with evolution since it is not real but only virtual.
    Most of the rest of us can maintain that evolution has not changed with the left side of our brains but we can play what if games with the bible as it is only virtual and not real with the right side of our brains.
    A few us can maintain that although both the stories of the bible and the stories of evolution might make some interestng points both of them are full of wholes and even mistakes waiting to be corrected with both sides of our brains.

  3. Scientists work for the same people as the rest of us: the ruling elites. A huge percentage of research is funded by corporations and foundations. That which isn’t is often designed to benefit corporations, for example, agricultural research. With education being commoditized, why should elites pay $100K for an American scientist when they can get an Indian one for $15K?

    America will be worse off, but the ruling elites will be better off. That’s all that matters.

  4. A few observations when I control my hilarity in response to Kurt.

    Five minutes later. Okay. This is intuition and personal opinion, not social science.

    The Republican Party is a coalition of the most diverse and thus inherently unstable sort. It was, after all, an alliance conceived by Tricky Dick and his men.

    On one hand it’s old whites, and megachurch-educated ignorati living in the South and in the fly-over zones. This obscurantist wing has very little in common with the pragmatic business and corporate faction where the money is. It is obviously a marriage of convenience which is fully understood by the corporatists but not by the aforesaid ignorati which oddly equate reaction with the work of a humanist radical 2,000 years ago.

    That alliance is going to collapse because its major components have conflicting interests. The captains of industry need our bright young people to be fit for their purposes and like it or not, national power is a function of our economy and mental fitness. Class warfare as acted out in recent decades enhances neither. Nor does it enhance the domestic market.

    There isn’t much question that the corporate wing’s long term interests are closer to those of conservative/centrist Democrats, with whom they are capable of getting along tolerably well as those Democrats are definitely not socialist radicals. They simply need an informal understanding that they can organize to get a fair apportionment of GNP and can provide for their kids to be upwardly mobile again. In other words they need a tacit disavowal of the class warfare led by Republicans which has so hurt the country.

    It is not impossible as we achieved it in the 1950s, the most idyllic decade in our history, with an independent working class, and especially with essentially free university education. I remember it well. We can reach a general consensus again. It would leave the Evangelicals with less power within the Republican Party but nowhere else to go. When we generate a healthy attitude toward worker organization and education being rights as we had then, we should arrest our national decline into mediocrisy.

    I emerged from eight years in college and at the University with no debt whatever. My Dad was a rural school administrator. There was no inherited wealth. My mother worked at home. My generation’s opportunity was the fruit of the post-war understanding, tacit though it might have been. Why has the party of the right thrown that away? It was a sensible compromise which benefited everyone. It provided stability.

    So, in a two party system, what we need is a loyal opposition. That’s been thrown out with the bathwater. It didn’t have to be that way.

  5. It may be the sky really is falling. This is not a situation where that segment of the population rejecting science simply sits on its hands while dying off. Efforts at voter suppression are clear attempts by the most retrograde elements to hold on to power by disenfranchising younger and minority voters. Aggressive gerrymandering is another example, and the formation of disinformation PACs a third. The business sector has largely co-opted immigration reform as it will bring in bright, well-trained foreigners to provide manpower, or simply conduct research abroad, using political power to protect privilege. While I would prefer this not to be true I see no reason why a strategy of manipulate voters at home and do your innovation abroad will not appeal to those business sectors supposedly amenable to working with centrist Democrats.

  6. If the poll question really involves the issue of whether humans changed SINCE they arose, I don’t think thats a good proxy for belief in evolution. The question simply asked whether humans have been changing genetically. One could believe in evolution, but think there hasn’t been enough selection pressure on humans to change us recently, i.e. apart from environment, cavemen equals modern men.

    Now, I do agree that the GOP contains a lot of anti-science anti-evolution types, I just don’t think this was the right poll question.

    • If you’ve ever seen Lucy’s skeleton, you know human beings have rather changed since they arose (we are not talking about homo sapiens sapiens here, which may only be 130,000 years old).

      • It all depends upon the pollee’s interpretation of the word “arose”. It wouldn’t be wrong the claim that since the emergence of Cro-magnon, humans haven’t changed their appearance. [Personally I think there has been likely been significant brain/behavior evolution due to social selection, but one could have a decent understanding of evolution and still answer the poll question no.

        • “but one could have a decent understanding of evolution and still answer the poll question no”

          Um, no, you couldn’t. According to Pew, the question was if “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time” or if “humans and other living things have evolved over time.” (Emphasis obviously added.)

          While I find it extremely hard to imagine any evolutionary biologist asserting that there has been no human evolution since the emergence of Cro-Magnons (and even accepting that non-scientific designation), even if one could be found it doesn’t matter: the sort of hyper-parsing you propose can’t be found within the question as asked.

        • OK. I’ll buy that. I was going off a shortened version of the poll question.

          In some limited sense we might have some progress (devinely guided evoloution), is perhaps a step up rom no evolution.

  7. I hate to be the one to point this out but Creationism is wll known in South Korea– about 50% of the population there are American-style evangelical Protestants and some of them are ridiculously religious. They have had access to American religious propaganda for many years and certainly a good number of South Koreans believe in Creationism too. Creationism “science” is also experiencing a meteoric rise in the Muslim world thanks to the efforts of one Odnan Aktar aka Harun Yahya, who plagiarizes American material. He’s most influential in Turkey, but it’s a growing thing everywhere with Muslims. I would love to see what thoughts Dr. Cole has about that, too.

    • I think the Christian population of South Korea is exaggerated. A majority of South Koreans does not belong to an organized religious community. About a fifth are Buddhists and another fifth or so are Christians. link to Not all of the Christians are fundamentalists or would necessarily reject evolution.

    • The most accurate figure I have seen pegs the Christian population of South Korea at 30 percent, and not all are evangelicals.

  8. @Hunter Watson, I also remember nearly free education, $85/semester at LSU in 1961; worked weekends and graduated with more in the bank than when I started. Then TA’ed my way through grad school. UCal was famously cheaper. It is my understanding that we can credit Reagan for the instigating the decline, while he was gubna. Unfortunately California tends to set trends.
    And Curt, in Niebla, Unamuno argued convincingly that we are but god’s dream. We die when he wakes up. No need for evolution.

    • Its a bit early to tell, but California may again be changing course. More then Reagan, California education (and government service in general) has been decimated by prop-13. Finally this fall the Republican minority -which had been able to block all attempts to raise revenue as long as they held a third of the seats in the state government, now has fewer than a third.

  9. Two brief comments on this:

    1. As I noted when I mentioned this poll, of those who said they believe that human and other living things evolved over time, slightly more than half (32% of the total sample) said it was a natural process while many of the others (24% of the total sample) said evolution was guided by a supreme being for the purpose of creating us, i.e., humans. Which means that only 1/3 of Americans, based on the poll, actually accept the theory of evolution.

    2. Perhaps I’m being overly-picky here, but saying the GOP is just getting older rather than more ignorant on evolution, while likely true, isn’t actually shown by the information presented. Even if the number of young Republicans is down, it could be that they are even more ignorant on evolution than their seniors and that young Democrats are even more knowledgeable than their seniors, leaving both the party and age divisions intact but hiding the distribution within a given age group.

    That is, lacking a breakdown of the results to relate age and party to knowledge of evolution, we can’t say for sure that age difference is the only thing driving down Republican support for the science involved.

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