Belief in Evolution Promotes Tolerance

Belief in evolution makes us more tolerant of those who seem different from ourselves. Find out how a new study confirms this and encourages teaching evolution in the classroom.

I remember reading the play Inherit the Wind back in high school. It’s a fictionalized version of what took place at the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial” in 1925.

John Scopes was a high school teacher in Dayton, Tennessee. The State of Tennessee charged him with the crime of teaching evolution in a state-funded school.

The case became a media circus as modernists squared off against fundamentalists. Two of the most famous lawyers in American history agreed to represent either side in the case.

Intolerance From Those Who Lacked a Belief in Evolution

What struck me about the play was the intolerance expressed by those who lacked a belief in evolution. They called their opponents “sinners” and “infidels,” while the evolutionists seemed much more reasonable and open minded toward those with whom they disagreed.

The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a study last week that confirms my impressions. Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that “a disbelief in human evolution was associated with higher levels of prejudice, racist attitudes and support of discriminatory behaviour against Blacks, immigrants and the LGBTQ community in the U.S.”

The team found that the same trend holds true globally. Looking at Eastern Europe and Middle Eastern countries, evolution deniers were more likely to to be prejudiced and to oppose conflict resolution with other groups.

Belief in Evolution Increases Identification with Humanity

The study started with an idea that occurred to Stylianos Syropoulos, a PhD candidate in the university’s War and Peace Lab. His hypothesis was that belief in evolution would increase our identification with Humanity as a whole.

The thesis is that those who understand that everyone in the world has the same ancestry are less likely to be prejudiced against those with differences. Syropoulos put it this way, “People who perceive themselves as more similar to animals are also people who tend to have more pro-social or positive attitudes toward out-group members or people from stigmatized and marginalized backgrounds.” 

The researchers pulled together data from eight studies from around the globe. They accounted for factors like levels of education, political beliefs, religious attitudes, cultures and scientific literacy in their analysis.

“Less Prejudice, Regardless of the Group You’re In”

“We found the same results each time, which is basically that believing in evolution relates to less prejudice, regardless of the group you’re in, and controlling for all of these alternative explanations,” according to Syropoulos.

The team is quick to point out that their findings don’t mean that racists have never used evolution to rationalize their attitudes and behaviour. Specifically, white supremacists and eugenicists have often taken Darwin’s phrase “survival of the fittest” out of context to justify oppression.

In fact, there had been a school of thought claiming that belief in evolution can promote bigotry. Professor Bernhard Leidner leads the War and Peace Lab and is the senior author of the study.

“Belief in Evolution Seems to Have Pretty Positive Effects”

“This whole effect and pattern seems to be present in all major political systems,” Professor Leidner explained. “It was exciting for us to show that this actually is not the case, that the opposite is true and that belief in evolution seems to have pretty positive effects.”

In the United States, lacking belief in evolution was the driving factor behind prejudice against Blacks, affirmative action, LGBTQ people and similar intolerance. Israelis who believe in evolution are more likely to support peace between Jews, Palestinians and the Arab world.

Muslims with a belief in evolution were less prejudiced against Christians and Jews. Following the same pattern, Orthodox Christians in Eastern Europe who accepted the science of evolution were less biased against Romani, Jews and Muslims.

Traditional Stories About the World and Our Place in It

Part of the tension behind these trying times is that science has confused us by overturning our traditional stories about the world and our place in it. That was behind concerns about evolution leading to the marginalization of those we deem to be different, as 20th century history tragically proves.

This new research seems to be uncovering a new, science-based story promoting tolerance and universal acceptance. No longer something to fear, belief in evolution may now guide us toward a better world.

Professor Leidner agreed, saying, “Teaching evolution seems to have side effects that might make for a better or more harmonious society.” On that note, the researchers plan to focus on how we teach evolution in schools and how to create models to enhance the many benefits of belief in evolution.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
Disbelief in Human Evolution Linked to Greater Prejudice and Racism
Bigotry and the human-animal divide: (Dis)belief in human evolution and bigoted attitudes across different cultures
Human Tolerance Evolved from Living in Harsh Contents
Friendly People Ensured Human Survival
Friendly Faces Drove Human Evolution

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