Wait…ARE Creationists Just Dumber?

If you ask the Richard Dawkinses and the Bill Nyes of the world, creationism is a pretty simple problem. Those who won’t accept the evidence for mainstream evolutionary theory must be “ignorant, stupid, or insane (or wicked…)”. Those of us who know better have always pooh-poohed such simplistic science chauvinism. We argue instead that creationism is not mainly a question of knowledge, but of identity. A new study from the UK seems to challenge our assumptions. Maybe people who don’t accept evolution simply aren’t understanding it.

Here’s what we know: A group of researchers at the University of Bath studied over a thousand teenagers. Unlike studies in the USA, these teenagers showed a strong correlation between academic knowledge and acceptance of evolutionary theory. That is, students who understood evolution better tended to accept it more readily. Students who didn’t understand it as well tended to dismiss evolution or to say that both mainstream evolutionary theory and creationism could somehow both be true.

Here’s how the authors describe their conclusions:

before teaching, students with low acceptance had lower understanding of both evolution and of genetics; the low-acceptance students sat disproportionately in the foundation (rather than higher) science classes; low-acceptance students showed lower increments in the understanding of genetics; and student gain in the understanding of evolution correlated positively with gain in the understanding of genetics. We find no evidence either for a role for psychological conflict in determining response to teaching or that strong rejectors are more commonly of a higher ability.

We don’t want to jump to any grand conclusions of our own, but it seems for these students at least, better understanding and knowledge of mainstream evolutionary theory really did lead to greater acceptance.

understanding evolution

T’aint natural…

Does this mean UK creationists just don’t get it? I don’t think so. But I think it does underscore the notion that mainstream evolutionary theory is not a particularly intuitive thing. It is difficult for us to comprehend central notions of deep time and population genetics. As people such as Kostas Kampourakis have pointed out in detail, our intuitions seem to point us away from a thorough understanding of concepts such as natural selection.

Are creationists dumber? No. For these students, though, a passing acquaintance with mainstream evolutionary theory apparently led them away from it, not toward it.


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  1. This is going to be a longer comment than I usually make.

    No, creationists are not dumber. But they do tend to evaluate information based on the source rather than the content. If it comes from their pastor or from a valued leader in their religion, they are likely to accept it as true even if it might seem implausible. If it comes from a scientist — well that doesn’t mean much to them. And this evaluation based on source rather than content, is what makes them gullible.

    In terms of knowledge, it is true (in my experience) that creationists have a very poor understanding of evolution. But I don’t see this as evidence that they are dumb. Rather, they are motivated by their religious beliefs to misunderstand evolution in a way that makes it easy to reject. And their religious leaders, the sources that they do trust, encourage that kind of misunderstanding.

    As for the theory of evolution, I am somewhat of a critic. I don’t disagree with the basic processes, as described by the theory. But I dislike the presentation. It almost seems designed to provoke criticism and misunderstanding from the religious.

  2. David Long

     /  January 16, 2018

    I can’t imagine that the differences in religious histories (I’m thinking Harold Bloom’s ‘American Religion’ thesis here) doesn’t matter in this comparison. Religiosity in the U.K. and the U.S. have diverged quite markedly and rapidly in recent decades. And agree with comment just above above.

    • I agree. I can’t help but think that many of the students in this sample were not typical American creationists–that is, they did not come from families that actively dissented from mainstream science on religious grounds. My library doesn’t subscribe to the journal in which this study was published, so I can’t access the details, but the abstract does say that some of the “religious” students involved ended up with a very American-style “compatibilist attitude.”

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