Charles R. Hogg III

Evolutionary Exceptionalism

I recently found an interesting graph comparing countries' understanding of evolution with their GDP. More GDP should mean better education, which should mean more people who understand basic scientific concepts (like evolution). That's more or less what the graph shows, but there's a huge outlier.

The USA massively bucks the trend: despite boasting the second-highest GDP, we have the second-lowest rate of accepting evolution. Does the United States truly stand out as much as it appears?

A few missing datapoints

In this dataset, the USA isn't just an evolutionary outlier; it's a geographical one, too. 32 of the 34 countries are European: all except for Japan and the USA. The omission of Canada, which is similar both culturally and geographically, is especially startling.

This suspiciously skewed distribution raises a question: has the author manufactured an outlier by leaving out all the similar countries? The answer is no, for at least two reasons.

First, consider the source. The data come from a 2006 Science paper which combined a variety of surveys from recent years. The 32 European countries come from the Eurobarometer survey 63.1. The remaining two countries correspond to the nationalities of the authors (two American and one Japanese). Thus, it seems more likely that the US and Japan were added to the diverse Eurobarometer data, rather than any countries being omitted.

Second, even if we do include Canada, it doesn't make the US any less of an outlier. Canadian belief in evolution is significantly higher than in the US (61% vs. 40%), while their GDP is somewhat lower ($44,500 vs. $54,800). Canada is well in line with the rest of the data.

Of course, there are many other countries in the world. It would be fascinating to get good survey data for them, to see whether the US is as exceptional as it seems. But among the countries we do have, the United States really does seem to stand out.

Are we just measuring education?

A friend suggested to me that maybe this has nothing to do with evolution in particular. Maybe this evolution score merely reflects lousy education in general. An intriguing suggestion!

To find out, I checked the 2010 OECD World Education Rankings, which The Guardian visualizes nicely here. The US indeed scores poorly for Mathematics, but puts up respectable numbers for Reading and Science. The full dataset contains 65 countries, including all but two from the evolution graph1. Can any of these explain the USA's outlier position?

While the US is a little low in Mathematics (middle graph), it's certainly not an outlier. And the other two scores -- Reading and Science -- are precisely in line with the rest of the data.

No matter how you slice it, America's dismal understanding of evolution can't be explained by its solidly mediocre education levels.

  1. Sorry, Cyprus and Malta.

Page source on GitHub