Sunday, 29 November 2015

More young adults are accepting evolution. Here's why.

The Pew Research Center recently released the results of a survey on the attitudes of Americans on politics and science. The survey showed some predictable results, such as anthropogenic climate change being linked with political leaning, with Democrats and Independents more likely to accept that it exists.  What it also showed was that there has been a significant increase in acceptance of evolution among younger people. Palaeoanthropologist John Hawks notes:
This increase among young adults first was noticed in the results of a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, and continued in a 2014 survey. In the more recent survey, a slight majority (51%) of adults ages 18-29 agreed with the statement that humans and other living things have evolved over time by natural processes such as natural selection. A much greater majority, 73%, agreed that humans have evolved over time, and have not been in their present form since the beginning of time.
Unsurprisingly, acceptance of evolution is correlated with increasing scientific knowledge, with 54% of those with a modest amount of scientific knowledge accepting human evolution, while 76% of those with more scientific knowledge accepting this:

For evolution denialists in our community, this news points out the fact that attacking evolution in public lectures is an ill-advised, risky strategy, as our target audience is increasingly educated, and will regard with scorn and disbelief any preaching campaign that attacks what is accepted as a fact.

What is also of note is the link between acceptance of evolution and a lower attendance of religious services. Militant anti-evolutionists are doubtless likely to point to that and claim that accepting evolution turns one into an atheist. Mind you, given that these same people frame the discussion in zero sum terms, where if evolution is true then the Bible is false, then they have only themselves to blame if young people, inculcated in this regressive view in which evolution and Christianity are mutually exclusive, take their elders at their word and reject Christianity once they learn that evolution is indeed true. Frame the debate in terms of evolution AND creation, rather than evolution or creation, and it is quite likely that acceptance of evolution will not inevitable result in rejection of faith. I am living proof that acceptance of evolution not only does not destroy faith, but actually intensifies it, given that evolution allows the problem of evil to be full answered.

The simple truth that evolution denialists in our community will need to realise and accept is that young people are more likely to accept evolution because in the last ten to twenty years, the evidence for evolution has become overwhelming, and one has to work hard at self-deception to avoid grasping that fact. John Hawks outs it eloquently:
In this, I have a similar intuition as the geneticist Sean B. Carroll, who wrote about the results of the previous 2013 Pew survey: “Is America Evolving on Evolution?”:
[A]n additional possibility that we in the science education profession would like to entertain is that today’s young-adult generation has received the most and best information about evolution. The last few decades have been a golden era for evolutionary science, from discoveries in the fossil record to the mining of DNA to reveal how evolution works at the molecular level. And over the past decade the concerted efforts of various academic and scientific organizations have led to greater emphasis in textbooks and curricula on the central place of evolution in understanding life.
Human evolution has become more vivid and interesting within the last 10 years. The increasingly widespread genetic sampling of the world’s peoples has demonstrated the recent evolution of our species, including the effects of natural selection during the past 10,000 years since humans invented agriculture and civilization. Ancient DNA evidence has expanded our knowledge of our genetic relationships to even more ancient populations, including the Neandertals. Those classic representatives of “extinct” humans are not fully extinct but instead contributed to the ancestry of living people. We can find their genes within living people, so that every month seems to bring a new discovery of how evolution within modern humans has changed our biology.
Meanwhile, paleoanthropologists have made stunning fossil discoveries.
In the last ten years, we’ve had the first publications of two skeletons of Australopithecus sediba, of one skeleton of Ardipithecus ramidus, new material of Australopithecus afarensis including a partial skeleton, new postcranial remains and a new skull of Homo erectus from Dmanisi, new remains of Homo rudolfensis and Homo habilis, a raft of new hominin material from Sima de los Huesos, and of course this year, Homo naledi. And I’m leaving many out! Just this week, a new skull of Homo erectus.
The avalanche of new fossil discoveries means that since the turn of the century, if we look beyond modern human and Neandertal remains, the fossil record of hominin evolution has grown by nearly a third.
In the face of such a relentless pace of discovery, advocates of creationism are failing to persuade young people that scientists have no evidence of our evolution. The evidence is within all of our cells, in billions of base pairs of information.
Human evolution is no longer a theoretical exercise in many classrooms. Students are browsing actual genome data to see the parts that have evolved. Teachers are printing their own casts from fossil data. These technologies make it possible for us to take the rich legacy of our evolution and make it visible for students. The strength of the evidence has made human evolution more and more important to biology education. (Emphasis in original)
Evolution denialists in our community can misrepresent evolution, shut down debate in the magazines they control, slander evolutionary creationists, and excommunicate them. However, they cannot fight the inevitable. The magnificent fossil discoveries of the last decade, coupled with the powerful testimony from genomics have shown a new generation (and an older one with ears to hear) the truth of evolution, and the current explosion in militant anti-evolution rhetoric will do nothing to stave off the inevitable acceptance of evolution among the next generation. Whether those young people remain believers is of course contingent on whether the militant anti-evolutionists accept reality, and cease placing stumbling blocks in the way.