Illustration depicting the apparent conflict between science and religion

Darwin today

Nowadays, the theory of evolution satisfies most academics, although they argue over the finer details. The public is less convinced...

Almost no practising life scientist questions the general validity of evolutionary theory. But because the mechanisms are still being uncovered, there is plenty of dispute about precisely how evolutionary change happens. That is entirely to be expected and a sign of a healthy field.

But in a nationwide poll in 2013, a third of Americans said that they believed humans and other living things had existed in their present form since the beginning of time. A 2014 poll found that 42 per cent of Americans believed that God created humans within the past 10,000 years, a figure that has hardly changed over the past 30 years.

The USA may be extreme – only Turkey has more evo-sceptics, according to an August 2006 study published in ‘Science’. In the UK, around 80 per cent of people are content with the idea that we evolved from earlier species, although that still means one in five is not convinced.

Why do so many people find the idea of evolution so hard to stomach? Is it a failure in education? There is some evidence that scepticism is higher among less well-educated people in the USA, but plenty of highly intelligent people prefer to believe supernatural explanations.

Is it something to do with the long odds against life evolving by chance? Astrophysicist Fred Hoyle likened it to the probability that a hurricane blowing through a scrapyard would produce a jumbo jet.

But that is a false analogy. It ignores the intermediate steps, the length of time over which evolution acts and, most crucially, the power of selection.

The key factor is religious belief. Evolutionary explanations conflict with accounts given in sacred texts. Some people can accommodate scientific explanations within their framework of belief; others cannot.

Lead image:

Trouble arises when religion challenges science on its own territory, or scientists attack religious thinking.

Illustration © Glen McBeth


Questions for discussion

  • Do you think it matters if people don’t believe in evolution?

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Evolution’ in January 2007 and reviewed and updated in December 2014.

Ecology and environment, History
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development