Despite a huge gap in public acceptance, the theory of evolution and natural selection is not a controversial theory. It is widely accepted by the scientific community and is, in fact, one of the most successful scientific idea in history. Yet, billions of people around the world discard evolution and uphold a creationist view of how humans, other creatures or the whole cosmos came to being. Ironically, it may be the way that our own brains evolved and supported the adaption of our species that supports a natural predisposition towards creationism. This idea is supported by a paper published in Cognition which found persons who rely more on intuition than analytical thinking are more likely to discard evolution and vice-versa.
Question, analyze, conclude
One in three American adults believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, while 19% believe this human era existed for less than ten thousand years in support of literal biblical accounts. These statistics suggest that the United States has the lowest rate of evolutionary belief among developed countries. Even so, only a handful of countries in the world can boast over 80% support of the theory evolution among the populace. With this in mind, it’s natural to ask the question: why do so many people decide not to support evolution and natural selection as the basis of the origin of humans in light of overwhelming evidence? Religion and cultural upbringing play a major role – this cant’ be disputed – but alas it may be our inherent cognitive tendencies that predispose humans to a creationist worldview.
People generally accept explanations which give purpose or certainness in regards to their place in the world. Regarding scientific accounts, people generally favor explanations which involve biologically concise ideas, as opposed to the more complex and difficult to comprehend theory of evolution which isn’t intuitive at first.
Psychologist Will Gervais of University of Kentucky conducted two sets of experiments to determine the relationship between intuition/critical thinking and support of evolution/creationism. In the first study, 757 psychology undergraduates participated. A questionnaire showed that 76% received a religious upbringing, 5.8 our of 7 believed in God (a creator), and ~30% of participants endorsed a recent creation of human beings. The demographics reflect those nationwide.
One in three American adults believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time
Three sets of tests were then taken by the participants to assess their belief about evolution, critical thinking abilities and religious profile. First, the participants were supposed to answer ‘Which comes closer to your view?’’ with options ‘‘A. Humans and other living things have evolved over time’’ and ‘‘B. Humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.’’ Answer B directly endorses creationism. If option A was selected, the participants then had pick which comes closer to their view: ‘‘A. Humans and other living things have evolved due to natural processes such as natural selection’’ and ‘‘B. A supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.’’ These options represent stances of naturalistic evolution and guided evolution, respectively.
In the analytical thinking test, participants had to answer three questions for which an incorrect answer impulsively springs to mind. For instance, one of the questions was: ‘‘In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?’’ The intuitive response is 24 days (wrong), while the analytical response is 47 days (correct).
Results from the first study show analytic thinking predicted increased belief in evolution, but did not predict attitudes regarding the natural vs. supernatural forces guiding evolution. Both religious belief and political conservatism unsurprisingly predicted lower endorsement of evolution. Additionally, religious upbringing and current belief in God generally predicted creationist beliefs.
In the second study, psychology undergrads were again selected as participants, but only those who had not joined the first study. The demographics were very similar to those of participants in the first study. Namely, a fairly religious sample whose performance on the analytical thinking tasks was again fairly low. The two studies were very similar, with the key difference being that a slightly different measure of evolution endorsement was used.
This time three options were given to participants when asked about their evolutionary belief. ‘Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings?’’ with options ‘‘A. Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, and God had no part in this process,’’ ‘‘B. Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process,’’ and ‘‘C. God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.’’ These options represent stances of naturalistic evolution, guided evolution, and creationism, respectively.
Again, analytic thinking predicted greater endorsement of evolution and cultural learning of religion predicted reduced levels of evolution endorsement.
“In sum, it appears that analytic thinking consistently predicts endorsement of evolution, but cultural exposure to religion tends—if anything—to predict reduced evolution endorsement,” writes Gervais in his paper.
The findings suggest that while intuitive thinking is a major part of our cognitive process, a small sub-group can override this instinctual reaction.
“Reliably developing intuitions may give creationist views an early cognitive advantage. This early advantage also is likely bolstered by early enculturation advantages for creationist, rather than evolutionary, concepts in many cultural contexts. However, individuals who are better able to analytically control their thoughts are more likely to eventually endorse evolution’s role in the diversity of life and the origin of our species,” Gervais writes.