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Evolution theory and religious beliefs: not necessarily in conflict

The latest survey to take the pulse of the public debate on evolution suggests that a majority of people see nothing wrong with believing in a god and accepting Charles Darwin’s work.

The survey, presented yesterday at the World Conference of Science Journalists in London by the British Council as part of its international program Darwin Now, asked more than 10,000 adults across Argentina, China, Egypt, India, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States about their knowledge and acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Across all countries, 70% of the adults surveyed felt somewhat familiar with Darwin and his work, with the highest levels of awareness being found in the United States and the United Kingdom (71% in both), Mexico (68%), and Argentina (65%). Seventy-three percent of the adults surveyed in South Africa and 62% in Egypt had never heard of Charles Darwin or of his theory of evolution, however.

Overall, knowing meant believing in evolution. Fifty-six percent of the people in all 10 countries who had heard of Darwin believed there is sufficient scientific evidence in support of Darwin’s theory of evolution. A more detailed analysis, however, revealed a complex picture. Although the majority of adults surveyed in India (77%), China (72%), Mexico (65%), the United Kingdom (62%), Spain (61%), and Argentina (57%) accepted the theory of evolution as scientifically founded, only 48% did so in Russia, 42% in South Africa, 41% in the United States, and 25% in Egypt.

Acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution didn’t necessarily correlate with a rejection of creationism. The three countries with the greatest proportion of people (43%) believing that life on Earth was created by a god and has always existed in its current form were the United States, South Africa, and India.

The country that showed greatest support for the idea that evolution without a God guided the development of all life was China (67%), followed by Mexico (42%), the United Kingdom and Spain (38%), Argentina (37%), and Russia (32%). In Egypt, however, half of the adults surveyed believed in the evolution of human life in a process guided by a god.

“Most encouraging was a diversity in perspectives internationally,” said Fern Elsdon-Baker, head of the British Council Darwin Now program, at yesterday’s press conference.

“We need to look into these cultural differences. It gives an indication of how to target our efforts in public engagement across countries” when it comes to talking about Darwin and evolution, added Peter Kjaergaard, a historian at the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies in Cambridge, U.K.

In spite of the cultural differences, what could be found in all of the 10 countries was acceptance of evolution and religion. In India, 85% of the adults surveyed saw nothing wrong with both believing in a god and accepting Darwin’s theory of evolution. The same pattern was found in Mexico (65%), Argentina (62%), the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Russia (54%), the United States (53%), Spain (46%), Egypt (45%), and China (39%).

These were “quite surprising results,” Elsdon-Baker said. There is “not necessarily a dichotomy.” This contrasts with previous studies and media reports in which a conflict between religious beliefs and evolution views is assumed from the start, Kjaergaard added. The representation of the debate in newspapers “doesn’t fit the general picture of the population throughout the world,” he said.