Acceptance of evolution is weak, even in the First World: Jerry Coyne

Photo: Humanist Society volunteers with Dr Jerry Coyne, shortly before the lecture began.

While not all religious people oppose evolution, religion remains the obstacle towards public acceptance of evolution in “large swathes” across the world today, said evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne. (Watch the full lecture here)

Speaking at a public lecture at National University of Singapore (NUS) on Oct 31, Dr Coyne lamented that despite the overwhelming empirical evidence in favor of evolution, public acceptance of the theory remains weak even in many first-world countries.

This includes his home country United States and, to his surprise, a first-world country such as Singapore.

“When I came here I felt this was a first-world country, it is not hyper-religious like the United States, so there’s not going to be a problem with evolutionary biology in Singapore,” said the 66-year-old American professor of biology, known for his decades-long research on speciation and his criticism of creationism.

“But I just learnt that, say, 30% of the students at the evolution course here are creationists, so even here at NUS there is a large proportion of people who reject evolution, and certainly in this country in general because there is so many different religions.”

Photo: Dr Jerry Coyne speaking at the Faculty of Science, National University of Singapore. It was his first visit to Singapore.

Formulated by British naturalist Charles Darwin in 1859, the theory of evolution by natural selection has been described as the unifying theory of biology. It is the process by which organisms change over time as a result of changes in heritable physical or behavioral traits. Another British naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, independently conceived the theory.

Although scientific opposition to the theory ended in the 1940s with the modern evolutionary synthesis, religious opposition in the form of creationism and intelligent design continued worldwide.

Dr Coyne’s NUS lecture, Evolution is True And Why People Still Don’t Believe It, sought to explain what the theory of evolution is, the evidence for it, and why people still refuse to accept them. The Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum and the Humanist Society (Singapore) co-organised the lecture.

While not of “immense practical consequences”, Dr Coyne said evolution is a “supreme intellectual achievement” because humans are the only species where an evolved organ — the brain — can understand how it came about.

Secondly, many people are concerned about their ancestors and evolution is the “ultimate ancestry”, showing humans as one tiny twig in the vast tree of life. “It has important effect on human self-image. It shows us we are not special in the universe,” said Dr Coyne.

Photo: The packed auditorium at NUS where Dr Coyne delivered his lecture. Many questions followed after his lecture ended.

A large part of Dr Coyne’s hour-long lecture was dedicated to the empirical evidence backing the theory. On what is meant by a “scientific theory being true,” Dr Coyne cited Stephen Jay Gould’s explanation: “An assertion for which there is so much evidence that it would be perverse to deny it.” Basically, a theory that has so much evidence backing it, that any reasonable person would have to accept it.

Dr Coyne then went on to explain five parts within the theory of evolution, which he emphasized was a multi-part theory: 1) Evolution happens as organisms change genetically over time, 2) evolution happens gradually, 3) speciation happens as species split into 2 or more species, species sharing common ancestry as a result of splitting lineages and 5) that much of the evolution change is caused by natural selection.

The theory holds only if all five parts of the theory must be proven true, said Dr Coyne.

Although the creationists have yet to disprove any of the five parts, they have gained a considerable following in many countries. Dr Coyne noted the growing creationist movement in Singapore, which had in recent years launched several talks in churches and schools.

There has been no public poll with regards to public acceptance of evolution in Singapore. Dr. John van Wyhe, a noted science historian and Darwin/Wallace scholar, faced a pushback when he wanted to launch a poll to gauge the Singapore population’s beliefs in creationism vs evolution due to “political sensitivity.” (Source)

Religion remains the main obstacle to the public acceptance of evolution, said Dr Coyne, pointing to a graph showing correlation between belief in God and the public acceptance of evolution. The more religious a country is, the lower the acceptance rate of evolution:

“If you are an economist, you would say: ‘What we have here is an elastic demand curve to God,’ said Dr Coyne, sparking laughter from the audience. “You have to give up 40% of your belief in god, to gain 10% of acceptance in evolution.”

One reason for such resistance to evolution, Dr Coyne added, was because children are taught about God before they are taught about evolution. The only ways to overcome this opposition is either to persuade religion to accept evolution, or promote the disappearance of religion, he said.

FURTHER INFORMATION

  • Dr Coyne took part in another dialogue at Yale-NUS on Nov 1.
  • Dr Coyne blogged about his Singapore visit here and here.
  • The visit will not be possible without a US-based Singaporean, Melissa Chen, from the Global Secular Humanist Movement. Follow her page here.