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Europeans' understanding of science, evolution, more advanced than Americans

February 15, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO -- When it comes to scientific literacy, Americans aren't nearly as evolved as they may think. In fact, only about 40 percent of American adults accept the basic idea of evolution, a figure much lower than any European country.

Participating 8:30 a.m. PST Friday in an American Association for the Advancement of Science symposium, titled "Anti-Evolution in Europe: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid, or Not?," Michigan State University's Jon Miller argued that religion plays a major role in how Americans view evolution.

"The lowest-ranking country in terms of discounting evolution is Turkey. The United States is next," said Miller, who has analyzed surveys on belief in evolution from around the world. "The way we characterize religious fundamentalists in Turkey and in the U.S. is that they are both one-book religions.

"Fundamentalists in this country say everything you need to know is in the Bible, period. Islamists say everything you need to know is in the Koran, period," said Miller, a professor in political science.

Last year, Miller published a paper in the journal Science that stated two in five American adults rejected the concept of evolution, which was a significantly higher proportion than found in any Western European country. Another one in five were unsure about evolution.

In contrast, 80 percent or more of adults in Iceland, Denmark and Sweden accepted the concept of evolution.

In addition to religion, politics plays a crucial role in how Americans view evolution. It has become a highly politicized issue, Miller said, with the Republican Party in particular often using it as a litmus test for potential candidates.

"There is no major political party in Europe that uses opposition to evolution as a part of its political platform," he said. "In the United States, there are people who think it is a political advantage to discount evolution."

Not surprisingly, Miller and colleagues also found that persons with strong pro-life beliefs were significantly more likely to reject evolution than those with pro-choice views.

"The total effect of pro-life attitudes on the acceptance of evolution was much greater in the United States than in the nine European countries surveyed," he said.

-end-

Miller is the Hannah Professor of integrative studies at MSU. He has appointments in the Division of Mathematics and Science Education and the Department of Political Science.

Michigan State University
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