Science quietly wins one of the right’s longstanding culture wars

A new survey reveals a resounding victory for advocates of evolution and a setback for purveyors of pseudoscience

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published August 24, 2021 6:23PM (EDT)

Human Evolution Illustration (Getty Images/Man_Half-tube)
Human Evolution Illustration (Getty Images/Man_Half-tube)

The bitter culture wars over the teaching of evolution in public schools dominated headlines throughout the 2000s, in large part because of the Bush administration's coziness with evangelicals who rejected the science on evolution. Yet flash forward to 2021 — when the acrimonious battle over science has shifted from evolution to pandemic public health — and few youngsters are apt to have any idea what "intelligent design" even means. Curiously, despite the right seizing on face mask science and immunology as new battlegrounds in the culture war, the fight over evolution is all but forgotten. In fact, for many Americans, it is completely forgotten. 

Though it might seem hard to believe, Americans are more scientifically literate than ever in 2021 — so much so that creationism has become a minority opinion. And Americans are likewise been able to identify intelligent design and other forms of creationism as the inherently religious theories that they are. 

We know this thanks to a new study published in the journal Public Understanding of Science, one which analyzed surveys of public opinion since 1985 and noticed a trend in attitudes about evolution. As more Americans became highly educated — obtaining university degrees, taking college science courses, displaying rising levels of civi science literacy — acceptance of evolution grew accordingly.

From 1985 until 2010, there had been a statistical dead heat among Americans who were asked if they agreed that "human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals." Acceptance then began to increase, becoming a majority position in 2016 and reaching 54 percent in 2019. Even 32 percent of religious fundamentalists accepted evolution as of 2019, a stark contrast from the mere 8 percent who did so in 1988. Eighty-three percent of liberal Democrats said they accept evolution, compared to only 34 percent of conservative Republicans.

"Almost twice as many Americans held a college degree in 2018 as in 1988," Dr. Mark Ackerman, a researcher at the University of Michigan, said in a statement. "It's hard to earn a college degree without acquiring at least a little respect for the success of science."

The shift in attitudes towards evolution is particularly surprising given that the teaching of evolution was a major aspect of the culture wars of the late from the 1980s through the 2000s, particularly during the Bush Era in which the evangelical right was ascendant. Back in 2005, the then-raging culture war involved the so-called theory of "intelligent design," and, specifically, a textbook called "Of Pandas and People."

In a defining moment for the 1990s and 2000s culture wars, the board for Pennsylvania's Dover Area School District had instructed its ninth grade biology teachers to refer their students to "Of Pandas and People" because it promoted intelligent design. By 1997, the strategy of using intelligent design as a Trojan horse for creationism had picked up enough steam to wind up at the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Once there, however, the school district was told that their philosophy was indeed a form of "creation science" and just as scientifically invalid. When the Dover case was heard by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania in 2005, a judge appointed by President George W. Bush sided with the plaintiffs and noted the irony of people who claim to be religious dishonestly claiming that they did not admit to having a religious agenda.

"It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID [intelligent design] Policy," the judge noted in his decision.

Even though the Supreme Court had banned teaching creationism in the 1968 case Epperson v. Arkansas, nine other prominent legal cases occurred between 1981 and 2005 (including the ones in Louisiana and Pennsylvania that were mentioned earlier). Legal setbacks notwithstanding, the teaching of evolution remained a hot button issue by the time of the 2000 presidential election. In 2005, Bush even legitimized the intelligent design movement by telling reporters that "both sides ought to be properly taught" and that "part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought." His scientific adviser later added, although he did not want creationism taught as an alternative to evolution, "I think to ignore [ID] in the classroom is a mistake." As recently as 2014, popular science entertainer Bill Nye held a high-profile debate with young-earth creationist Ken Ham.

There is a long history of evolution being rejected in the United States, although a generation of Americans did not even know they had a theory to be potentially scandalized about. While Charles Darwin's classic book "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection" made waves in his native Great Britain upon its release in 1859, the book did not arouse widespread ire in the United States until the late 19th century. The issue was particularly contentious among American Protestants, who at that time were splitting into modernist and evangelical camps. By the 1920s, the theory of evolution had been tied in the public mind to other "modern" intellectual trends that they found distasteful, from Marxism to psychology. Fundamentalists pushed to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools since — as former Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan put it — the theory would convince future generations that the Bible was simply "a collection of myths."

Bryan had a chance to test his views in court during the Scopes Trial, when he squared off as an expert witness on the Bible against legendary attorney Clarence Darrow. American journalist H. L. Mencken famously wrote with contempt about the inevitability of Darrow's defeat and the massive support for anti-scientific theories, howling that "such obscenities as the forthcoming trial of the Tennessee evolutionist, if they serve no other purpose, at least call attention dramatically to the fact that enlightenment, among mankind, is very narrowly dispersed." 

That exchange, dramatized in the play "Inherit the Wind," turned public opinion against Bryan, but ultimately did not curb the anti-evolution movements, which won further successes after it was banned in Arkansas and Mississippi. A turning point did not occur until the 1940s, when scientists in the United States had reached a consensus that natural selection drove evolution and explained the rise of human beings.

By 1947, the Supreme Court had ruled in Everson v. Board of Education that the First Amendment's clause banning the establishment of religion applied to state governments, not just the federal government. As Justice Hugo Black wrote, teaching an explicitly theological doctrine like creationism meant citizens were being taxed to back a religious point of view.

"No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion," Black said.

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The 1947 decision, which was reinforced in a series of other cases over subsequent decades, made it clear to opponents of evolution that they had to adopt a different tactic. By the 1980s a University of California, Berkeley law professor named Phillip E. Johnson came up with a concept known as "intelligent design." It holds that the complexity of life on this planet is so precise that strictly naturalistic explanations cannot rationally account for them, and that scientists need to acknowledge possible religious or supernatural causes. This movement, though rejected by most scientists as merely a spruced up attempt to teach creationism, gathered enough steam that by the 21st century many states were pushing for laws to allow intelligent design to be taught in public school. 

While it is welcome to scientists that acceptance of evolution continues to spread, fundamentalists still pose a threat to America's overall scientific literacy.

"Such beliefs are not only tenacious but also, increasingly, politicized," lead researcher Jon D. Miller of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan said in a statement, pointing to the widening gap between Democrats and Republicans on basic science literacy.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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