In science, explanations like evolution are accepted or rejected based on evidence — and in that sphere, evolutionary theory has more than proven its worth. Experiments, field studies, observations, and fossils — all of it lines up behind the idea that different species evolved from shared ancestors and that natural selection and other evolutionary processes shape the traits of lineages. However, in the public sphere, particularly in the United States, evolutionary theory has not fared so well. Between around 1950 and 2007, surveys suggest that less than half of American adults accepted evolution. But that is changing. Researchers just announced that, over the last decade, we crossed over the halfway mark: the majority of American adults surveyed now report accepting evolution as an explanation for humans. The new research delves into factors that might help explain this shift, such as a rise in number of people enrolling in four-year college degree programs and college-level science courses. Here, we’ll focus on the evolutionary science that accompanied this uptick in acceptance.
Where's the evolution?
If you are a fan of Evo in the News, the answer to that question is obvious: All over the news! In the last ten years, our news briefs have covered the gamut… of applications (from conservation to computation), of species (from bacteria to bed bugs), and of timescales (from the dawn of photosynthesis to the future of pharmaceuticals). But there are a few topics to which we’ve returned again and again. In celebration of a milestone for evolutionary acceptance, let’s look back at some of big ideas in evolution that tie together many headlines from the last decade:
- Advances in genetic techniques continue to yield insights. Though just a time slice of the ongoing trajectory of genetic technology, the last 10 years have seen a drastic drop in the cost of genetic sequencing. This has allowed us to gather genetic data at scales never before possible. We’ve been able to share and access these sequences globally through online databases and analyze them with better tools and more computing power. Most recently, we’ve seen all of these advances in action as scientists around the world used genetic sequencing to uncover the origins of SARS-CoV-2, trace its transmission pathways, and track its ongoing evolution.
Ancient DNA provides a new way to learn about past life. Scientists first began investigating the preservation of ancient genetic sequences in the 1980s. In the past decade, the field has taken off, reconstructing entire genomes from long extinct lineages. In Evo in the News, we’ve covered ancient DNA recovered from bacteria, rhinos, mammoths, and polar bears. But the biggest stories in this field have revealed the complex history of the human branch of the Tree of Life, elucidating the genetics of our extinct relatives, Neanderthals and Denisovans. These studies have shown that Homo sapiens interbred with those two lineages, and that Neanderthal and Denisovan gene versions live on in human populations today, shaping our lives in important ways.
Evolution happens around us … because of us. Study after study has documented how human activities are causing changes in Earth systems, which, in turn, lead to rapid evolutionary changes in populations. We’ve seen how weed populations become adapted to decreased snow accumulation in cities, how freshwater pollutants are causing fish to evolve, how bird populations evolve when bird feeders are widely deployed, and of course, we’ve continued to tally up how a vast array of pests and pathogens evolve resistance in response to our insecticides, herbicides, and antimicrobials.
This sampling of news stories from the past decade highlights the diverse phenomena that evolutionary theory helps us understand. It’s no wonder that more than half of American adults now agree: evolution just makes sense! Of course, 50% acceptance still leaves a lot of room for improvement. In the end, we accept scientific ideas because they work – they help us make sense of what we see and experience in the world, and they solve problems that matter in our everyday lives. Evolution certainly does all that, but we have a long way to go before the broad public recognizes it.
- Miller, J. D., Scott, E. C., Ackerman, M. S., Laspra, B., Branch, G., Polino, C., and Huffaker, J. S. (2021). Public acceptance of evolution in the United States, 1985-2020. Public Understanding of Science. DOI: 10.1177/0963625211035919 Read it »
- Press release on the new research from University of Michigan
- Article covering the research, as well as the history of social controversies relating to evolution in the U.S., from Salon
Understanding Evolution resources:
- Based on the first paragraph of the article above, what are the key ideas of evolutionary theory?
- Do you agree or disagree with the statement posed to respondents in the survey (“Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.”)? Explain your reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with that statement.
- Advanced: Do you think that item (agreement or disagreement with the statement, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.”) is a good measure of acceptance of evolutionary theory? Why or why not?
- Describe a practical problem that evolutionary theory has or could help solve. Then explain why or how evolution is important in solving that problem.
- What is a question you are curious about that evolutionary theory could help answer?
- Teach about SARS-CoV-2: In this news brief for grades 9-16, students review research on coronaviruses and the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Teach about ancient DNA: In this news brief for grades 9-16, students review research on Denisovans, Neanderthals, and humans involving ancient DNA.
- Teach about evolution in response to human activity: In this news brief for grades 9-16, students review research on how the opportunities and challenges posed by cities shape the evolution of their non-human inhabitants.
- Miller, J. D., Scott, E. C., Ackerman, M. S., Laspra, B., Branch, G., Polino, C., and Huffaker, J. S. (2021). Public acceptance of evolution in the United States, 1985-2020. Public Understanding of Science. DOI: 10.1177/0963625211035919