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June 9th, 2012

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04:45 pm - Musings on Cultural Blindness
Here's an article purporting to help explain why people in the US are so resistant to believing in evolutionThe article begins:
Last week, Gallup announced the results of their latest survey on Americans and evolution. The numbers were a stark blow to high-school science teachers everywhere: forty-six per cent of adults said they believed that “God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.” Only fifteen per cent agreed with the statement that humans had evolved without the guidance of a divine power.

What’s most remarkable about these numbers is their stability: these percentages have remained virtually unchanged since Gallup began asking the question, thirty years ago. In 1982, forty-four per cent of Americans held strictly creationist views, a statistically insignificant difference from 2012. Furthermore, the percentage of Americans that believe in biological evolution has only increased by four percentage points over the last twenty years.

Such poll data raises questions: Why are some scientific ideas hard to believe in? What makes the human mind so resistant to certain kinds of facts, even when these facts are buttressed by vast amounts of evidence?
It then goes on to claim that much of the reason is that the problem is people come equipped with natural instincts that are contradicted by science but are difficult to let go of. It's an interesting theory, which is also obvious nonsense, especially wrt belief in evolution. Sure, most of the US population doesn't believe in evolution, but according to this theory, the same should be true elsewhere. And yet, in Britain the numbers are rather different:

Half of British adults do not believe in evolution, with at least 22% preferring the theories of creationism or intelligent design to explain how the world came about, according to a survey.

The poll found that 25% of Britons believe Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is "definitely true", with another quarter saying it is "probably true".
Certainly not encouraging numbers, but almost twice as many people in Britain accept evolution and half as many creationism. Then, you go a bit further afield and look at the table on page 12 of this PDF (Fig. S1), where the number of people in Denmark who don't believe in evolution is literally half the number in Britain and it's also clear from reading more about these studies that even more in Europe than the US, older people are more likely to disbelieve evolution.

I found both the UK and the Europe data in a 5 minute Google search. What annoys me about this article the most is how common this sort of belief is – the idea that what is true in one nation or culture (especially if it's constant over a time period of more than a generation) is in some way innate to humanity (or perhaps, it's that even more dubious and fraught word "natural").

This sort of limited and inherently flawed thinking is behind most articles on evolutionary psychology as well as a whole lot of similar foolishness, and these days it's so easy to refute. Amusingly, in one sense, this error proves a portion of the author's point – people make mistakes, not because science contradicts people's intuitions, but because other people and places do. In large part, because these intuitions are all culturally based. The US is filled with a truly horrifying number of Christian religious zealots, but the number of such people is far lower in Europe and the presence of such people and the cultural attitudes that both foster their existence and that they produce clearly has a large effect on belief in evolution (as well as on belief in various other ideas). Culture matters, and it matters in vast ways that can easily be invisible to many people.

My favorite example of cultural blindness remains perfect pitch. until recently people in the US believed that only 1 in 10,000 people had perfect pitch and that it was some sort of rare and special genetic quirk, then they looked at people who spoke Chinese or other tonal languages, and found it to be quite common. Perfect pitch is quite rare – but only among native speakers of non-tonal languages who don't receive extensive musical education as children. Similarly, I remember various books of my youth purporting to show that humans "won the evolutionary race" because they were more violent than other apes, which in addition to later evidence of primate aggression being discovered, it's also clear that cultural factors can reduce the level of human violence by a factor of almost two orders of magnitude.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

(3 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:June 10th, 2012 09:53 am (UTC)
My understanding is that humans are, in fact, _less_ violent when it comes to out-groups. Most primates will attack strangers on sight, whereas humans have been able to deal with long-distance trade routes very well. I strongly suspect it's our cooperative nature that gives us a lot of our advantages.
[User Picture]
Date:June 10th, 2012 03:46 pm (UTC)
I'd like to see the entire survey. Even though I have believed in evolution from the time I learned about it, some people may still put me in the creationist camp. The reason? Gods created life (why), but evolution is how life came about and developed. If the survey asked whether people believed in evolution, without mentioning God, the percentage of people saying they believe in evolution may be higher.
[User Picture]
Date:June 10th, 2012 05:14 pm (UTC)

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