Millennials turn away from Creationism

When I was younger dealing with Creationists was something I had to do as a matter of course. Like many members of “Generation X” I haunted Usenet groups in the 1990s where the “evolution-creation” debate raged, always defending the consensus science from detractors. Even in the early years of this weblog, we tackled Creationists now and then. It was something you had to do.

But over the past decade or so there has been a change in the air. American society has become more secular, and religious conservatives do not wield as much power. Acceptance of evolution has been increasing, simply due to secularization. Books like The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design, seem to be artifacts of the 20th century, dealing with the concerns of a bygone age.

This is on my mind because recently I happened to read a positive review of Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. I haven’t read a piece of apologia for Intelligent design since the 2000s, and it’s rather strange because we have so much data now due to genomics. Many of the old arguments that Intelligent Design advocates deploy ring hollow and theoretical because the data refute them. People like David Klinghoffer are beneath notice.

It is true that a minority of the population rejects evolution on cultural grounds. But as with the rejection of gay marriage, the broader society has moved on to other concerns. “Darwin’s enemies on the Left” are far more vocal and powerful than those on the Right. I can’t imagine an organ of mainstream secular conservatism such as The Weekly Standard publishing something like Evolutionary Psychology and Its True Believers today. At the time it struck me as a coalitional sop to evangelicals.

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People believe in evolution, just not for humans

The term “liberal Creationism” refers to the fact that on the cultural Left there is a strong belief in the concept of evolution on the whole, but in the case of human beings biological evolutionary processes are seen as marginal in comparison to culture. In other words, natural selection and adaptation explain the diversity around us in the animal and plant world, but can tell us little about human beings.

This viewpoint exhibits various degrees of sophistication, but I think it gets at a real deeply held perspective (though not universal one, in Defenders of the Truth it is recounted that Noam Chomsky held his fire during the sociobiology controversy in part because he was quite open to the idea that behavior could have some biological basis).

Looking at the General Social Survey though, I believe now that the liberal Creationist viewpoint is actually just a spin on the normal American position. That is, Americans as a whole are quite open to the idea of descent with modification and common ancestry in the context of animals, but much more squeamish when it comes to humans. Some conservative religious Creationists admit this rather frankly. Their objection to evolution is not about science, but about human dignity. In fact I believe William Jennings Bryan’s Creationism mostly just involved special creationism for human beings. The rest was not important to him.

A new GSS variable, EVOLVED2, which complements an older variable, EVOLVED, allows us to explore this question directly.

Here is what they ask:

EVOLVED: Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. (Is that true or false?)

EVOLVED2: Elephants evolved from earlier species. (Is that true or false?)

53 precent of respondents answered yes to true in the first case, but 86 percent in the second case. In other words, presenting evolution in a non-human context reduces resistance.

You can check the responses against attitudes toward the literality of the Bible:

I think this suggests to us that on a broader social scale resistance to evolution is culturally conditioned, and derives from deep intuitions about human dignity. The specific details of where that dignity comes from, whether it be Protestant Fundamentalist or Social Justice is incidental.