Banner
    Acceptance of evolution in Canada.
    By T. Ryan Gregory | June 10th 2008 07:40 AM | 7 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About T. Ryan

    I am an evolutionary biologist specializing in genome size evolution at the University of Guelph in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Be sure to visit

    ...

    View T. Ryan's Profile

    About a year ago an Angus Reid poll provided some information regarding the acceptance of evolution in Canada, which was taken by some as the basis for claiming that the level of acceptance of this unifying principle of biology is roughly the same in Canada as in the United States. Although the results of the AR poll were indeed rather disappointing, they did not indicate an equivalence of views between the two nations.

    Here are two relevant press releases from Angus Reid:

    U.S. Majority Picks Creationism over Evolution (April 25, 2006)

    Most Canadians Pick Evolution Over Creationism (June 19, 2007)

    It is true that last year's poll suggested that nationally a disappointingly low majority of 59% of Canadians accept the notion of common descent. However, only 22% accept young earth creationism. In Ontario, the data are especially disheartening, with only 51% of respondents accepting evolution (but still only half as many choosing creationism). In Quebec, 71% accept evolution and only 9% align with creationist ideas. The original report can be accessed here.

    The US poll referred to above (by CBS) indicates that 53% of respondents believe that life was created in its current form within the past 10,000 years by God, 23% accept a form of evolution guided by God, and 17% believe in a strictly natural evolutionary account. The questions in the Canadian poll were not broken down in this way, but this poll still indicates that only 40% of Americans accept any form of evolution and 53% believe in a young earth. Other polls give similar results (see Miller et al. 2006, Science 313: 765-766). There is, unsurprisingly, a strong relationship between religiosity, political affiliation, and opinion about evolutionary science.

    A more recently conducted Gallup poll gave slightly more promising results than the earlier CBS finding, with 43% choosing young earth creationism, 38% ascribing to theistic evolution, and 14% accepting unguided evolution. This would put the total who accept some form of evolution at 52%, and when asked directly about evolution, 53% of respondents considered it to be either "definitely true" (18%) or "probably true" (35%). However, this encouraging result must be weighed against the fact that when asked directly about young earth creationism, 66% said it was either "definitely true" (39%) or "probably true" (27%). As Gallup put it,

    It might seem contradictory to believe that humans were created in their present form at one time within the past 10,000 years and at the same time believe that humans developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. But, based on an analysis of the two side-by-side questions asked this month about evolution and creationism, it appears that a substantial number of Americans hold these conflicting views.

    Clearly, Canada does not rank at the level of nations like Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, France, or Japan where public acceptance of evolution is very high (up to 80%), but neither does it fall in the same category as the United States. In particular, what we do not see in Canada, at least based on this single survey, is a high level of acceptance of creationism. Nevertheless, there is much work to do in educating the public in Canada. Most notably, an alarming percentage (42%) believe that humans and dinosaurs coexisted despite a majority accepting evolution. In other words, they are correct about common descent but confused about the details of life's history. In some ways this is not surprising, given the countless portrayals of "cavemen" and dinosaurs together in cartoons, movies, and other venues. I would not be surprised if a majority of people also believe that penguins and polar bears cohabitate while accepting the fact of a round Earth with two poles.

    A slightly more recent (July 3, 2007) poll by Canadian Press-Decima Research provided a breakdown covering young earth creationism, theistic evolution, and naturalistic evolution in the way that American polls sometimes have.  Some quotes from the report summarizing the results:

    • Less than one in three Canadians (29%) believe that God had no part in the creation or development of human beings.
    • Fewer still (26%) believe “that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so”.
    • A plurality, but still only 34%, say that “human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process”.
    • Belief in creationism is lowest in Quebec (21%), Alberta (22%), and B.C. (22%). In Alberta, the plurality view is that God guided human development (39%), while in Quebec the plurality feels God played no part (40%).
    • Rural residents are 12 points more likely than urban dwellers to believe that God created humans in their present form. Differences by generation are not all that large. The plurality of women (37%) believes that God guided the process, while the plurality of men (35%) believes that God played no part.
    • In polls using the same question (Gallup) put to US residents, findings are different: 45% said God created humans in more or less their present form (compared to 26% in Canada), 40% said that God guided the evolutionary process (compared to 34% in Canada). Only 15% say God played no part (compared to 29% in Canada).
    • According to Decima CEO Bruce Anderson “These results reflect an essential Canadian tendency: we are pretty secular, but pretty hesitant to embrace atheism. Our views on the role of science and spirituality lack consensus but these are not polarizing issues for the most part. It’s more as though for many, these feelings are unresolved, we believe in a higher being, we know what we don’t know, are comfortable not knowing, and choose not to press our views upon one another.”

    Overall, Canadians seem intermediate between the USA and Europe on the question of evolution and there is much work still to do here as elsewhere in improving understanding of the subject.

     

    Comments

    A bit of an anniversary for me as it was your write up on this last year that brought me to your excellent blog. I was googling on something or another and found your page last year on evolution acceptance in Canada. Thanks for the great work.

    T Ryan Gregory
    Many thanks :)
    I think when you say Canada, it mostly refers to "Southern Canadian Resident" and none of the "Northern Residents". I'm betting the "Northern Residents" are busy with sustaining themselves through harvesting what they can. I myself am one of those traditional harvestors. I do believe the Intelligent Being Named Jesus Christ created this universe, as suggested by the Bible, which was written by a group of men who write in a totally different direction, whom we have never seen until this turn of the century, and behold, they have belief identical to us. We have traditionally known or believed that there are unseen people looking down at us, and this unseen being loves the orphans, and said that we should treat orphans as our own. So, the invisible matter out there in the universe, was confirmed by the instruments which enhance our perception. I'm guessing that they the instruments will eventually come to confirm what we, some of the Inuit believes.

    Only very stupid people can believe in creationism................

    Only very stupid people can believe in creationism................

    I liked the article. Canadians often forget we have so many people who would abandon science and reason.

    However, your Angus Reid link for Canada seems to be dead:

    http://www.angus-reid.com/polls/index.cfm?fuseaction=viewItem&itemID=16178

    I don't usually post comments on the internet, but I feel compelled to do so after spending a couple of hours reading about evolution versus creationism.

    This issue, like most other issues that are debated in the public arena, points to the paramount importance of adequate eduction. Not only education of children in school, but also education of open-minded adults throughout their lives. [I dismiss non-open-minded persons, of course, because they only use newly acquired information to bolster their views, without ever entertaining the possibility that they may be wrong.]

    I am disappointed and surprised, to say the least, to discover the sheer number of people who are having difficulty reconciling their religious beliefs with the global scientific consensus. Inevitably, by adequately teaching scientific methodology, a student will understand what scientific inquiry can uncover about the material world, and what it cannot. To the degree that a person makes their religious beliefs independant of information about the material world, they can embrace both.

    Allow me to briefly illustrate. On the one hand, a person who believes that God created the universe and its natural laws, and then left no evidence of further divine intervention, is completely free to embrace all of the insight from the scientific consensus, as well as their sense of spirituality and even anthropocentrism. In fact, this is the case of many scientists (although they usually shy away from the word "God"). On the other hand, a person who tightly ties their beliefs to a set of facts about the material world, such as the existence of actual individuals named Adam and Eve who spawned the entire human population, cannot reconcile their religion and overwhelming scientific evidence (particularly DNA evidence), and are forced to choose. Beyong being a source of personal anguish, such a choice is inevitably a failure, because spirituality is probably a universally important component of the human psyche, but then again so is reason. Giving up either one will often mean opting between the lesser of two evils, which many people will do on the basis of which is more socially acceptable. This means that if you are put in this situation and you grow up, say in the Bible Belt, you are more likely to choose a version of hard-core creationism, and you will rationalize your views to the best of your ability.

    So what is the solution? In my humble opinion, the solution lies not in the content of curricula in public schools, but in the proper teaching of the scientific method. Such a teaching includes the NECESSITY of changing your mind when confronted with evidence which refutes your current working theory. It includes not twisting and forcing new information through a predetermined filter dictated by your current working theory. It includes accepting that all we have and all we can ever have is a current working theory.

    A scientist calls their current working theory just that, such as in "evolutionary theory", because their method forces them to change the theory when presented with compelling evidence which conflicts with the theory. In other words, if new compelling evidence were scientifically discovered which refutes the global scientific consensus on modern evolutionary synthesis, the theory of evolution will be changed, and even dropped altogether if necessary.

    What does the religious and/or spiritual person do? If they uphold their "faith", i.e. their belief, i.e. their theory, regardless of any new information, they are not participating in scientific inquiry. But what's wrong with that? It's ok to proceed in that manner, as long as they are aware of the distinction between that epistemology and scientific inquiry. Just as democratic constitutions protect the fundamental right of freedom of religion, this debate should not be used to demean or disparage the faithful.

    It does a disservice to science to attack people's spirituality, because spirituality is generally visceral and unshakeable. Such a conflict places many well-intentioned people at odds with science, a philosophically neutral process of acquiring insight, because of a lack of understanding of science's processes and objectives. When a person like Richard Dawkins writes books like The God Delusion, he polarizes the debate and discourages the often-slow process of letting people come around on their own, through their own inquiries, through letting go of certain preconceived notions one at a time, inch by inch.

    Isn't it likely that a sense of spirituality comes more naturally to humans than a purely reasoned approach towards the world? Aren't rituals, symbols, and notions of divineness and sacredness more likely to be older acquisitions, in evolutionary terms, than a mental process of meticulous and impartial scientific inquiry? It's important to remember that the modern scientific method is NEW. Historically speaking, science is in its infancy, whereas spirituality has had a very long time to take hold. Being sensitive to these predispositions is also pivotal in making any progress towards a better-informed public discourse.

    I take it back. Education is not the solution. A combination of education and patience is the only solution. When I was a tutor for basic college subjects, I found that I was least successful in teaching an idea when I would just start with the basics and work my way up, from the bottom up, as though I were giving a course to a class, only it happened to be a single student at a time. That just didn't work. The first and most important step is to listen to the person you are speaking to, to learn about their perspective as much as possible before entering into any dialogue. Only then can you get a feel for what you already agree on, how to present information in a customized and optimal way, etc. It sounds like it takes a lot longer, but in the long term, it's a breeze compared to the ramming-it-in approach (which doesn't even get the person to understand the information in most cases anyways, and they therefore tend not to retain it for very long). The right attitude will determine whether your listener will be disposed to accept or reject the information you provide. (Case in point, I thought that The Selfish Gene was a masterpiece, and I lost hope for mankind when I tried to read The God Delusion. ...but I got it back when I read other stuff, so no worries.)

    I certainly hope my rant will help readers dialogue better on this issue of evolution versus creationism.

    MB