Americans are more skeptical of science than citizens of other countries, on average. Globally, about 3-in-4 believe “humans and other living things have evolved over time” according to interviews with adults from 20 countries.
That percentage shrinks here. Only about 2-in-3 American adults believe in evolutionary development, according to the 2020 report from Pew Research. Among those who self-identified as Christian, belief in evolution dropped to about half.
In contrast, about 1-in-5 U.S. adults reject the idea that life on Earth has evolved. Most who accept evolutionary theory do so “only as an instrument of God’s will.” The gulf between Democrats and Republicans (about half the adult population) is enormous.
According to researchers from the University of Michigan, from 1985 to 2010, U.S. adults were equally divided between acceptance and rejection of evolution. In 2016, acceptance became the majority opinion.
It’s been more than 160 years since Charles Darwin conducted the research that led to a scientific understanding of how life has evolved on the Earth over millions of years. In 1859, Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species; in 1871, The Descent of Man.
The idea that God created humans and other animals in their present form was the dominant belief here 100 years ago.
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.”
The roaring ’20s and its backlash
It was the roaring ’20s, the Jazz Age, a time of “sexual permissiveness and racy Hollywood movies.” The transition from a rural to an urban society had passed a critical milestone: more Americans lived in cities than on farms. Women had achieved the right to vote in 1920 and worked outside the home in a “burgeoning consumer economy.”
In 1919, 6,000 ministers, theologians and evangelists had gathered for a week in Philadelphia.
[They] believed that God had chosen them to call Christians back to the “fundamentals” of the faith, and to prepare the world for one final revival before Jesus returned to earth. They called their group the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association.
The men and women at the conference were all white. On questions of race, fundamentalists defended the status quo. African-American and Latino Christians, even when they shared the same theology as their white counterparts, were systematically excluded from fundamentalists’ churches and organizations.
William Bell Riley, a Baptist preacher, organized the affair. “He described the inauguration of his organization and the rise of fundamentalism as more significant than Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany 400 years earlier.”
I think he had a crystal ball.
Evangelical Christians, especially in the South, believed modernists were “undermining the authority of the Bible and Christian morals in society.” Uncomfortable with “increasing visibility of Black culture,” millions joined the Ku Klux Klan. They rejected Darwin’s theories.
Columnist H. L. Mencken called Bryan a “sort of Fundamentalist Pope.” In 1924, Bryan gave a speech in Nashville, Tennessee, titled “Is the Bible true?” The talk was part of a “Fundamentalist crusade to banish Darwin’s theory of evolution from American classrooms.”
Tennessee bans the teaching of evolution
The next year, state Rep. John Washington Butler introduced HB 185 which banned the teaching of evolution in the state of Tennessee. It became law in March 1925 and made it a misdemeanor to “teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”
— The New York Times Archives (@NYTArchives) March 23, 2015
On 10 July 1925, John Thomas Scopes went on trial in Dayton, Tennessee, for teaching evolution in violation of the state law. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had offered to assist anyone who challenged the statute.
- Clarence Darrow joined the ACLU in defending the 24 year old high school science teacher and part-time football coach.
- Bryan, also an attorney, volunteered to help the prosecution and served as chief prosecutor.
Almost 1,000 people filled the courthouse that first day.
On 20 July 1925, according to the New York Times, “William Jennings Bryan, Fundamentalist, and Clarence Darrow, agnostic and pleader of unpopular causes, locked horns today under the most remarkable circumstances ever known to American court procedure.” The judge had moved the case onto the courthouse lawn.
The jury convicted Scopes, of course. That was only the beginning of a century marked by a growing insistence that Biblical origins be taught alongside science.
In 1975, Dr. J. Lawrence Fox, a zoologist at the University of Texas, told the New York Times that more than 80 percent of Texas biology texts did not mention evolution.
Thus, Dr. Fox and many other biologists have said, millions of school children, particularly the majority that does not go on to take college biology, are denied an adequate exposure to a concept that is increasingly coming to be viewed as the central, unifying theory of modern biological science.
Is it any wonder, then, that for more than two years so many Americans have rejected scientific public health recommendations with regard to Covid-19 and SARS-CoV-2?
In 2020 and 2021, the world had, on average 96 excess deaths per 100,000 people, according to the World Health Organization. The US is well above the average at 140 excess deaths per capita.
With 310 official Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 people, the US ranks 17th in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University. Brazil is the only major country with a (slightly) worse track record; it’s 15th.
Deaths per 100,000 population
- Australia, 40
- Brazil, 317
- Canada, 110
- Finland, 89
- Germany, 170
- Japan, 25
- Mexico, 255
- New Zealand, 33
- Russia, 256
- Singapore, 24
- Taiwan, 31
- United Kingdom, 267
- United States, 310
Part 1 of the Scopes Trial, 10 July 2022.
Part 2, 20 July 2022.