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What percentage of biologist accept evolution?
December 12, 2006 9:08 AM   Subscribe

What percentage of biologists accept [unguided, non-theistic] evolution? Citation needed.

In a recent email exchange with a colleague he asked "Is it possible to get from non-life to sapience and apperception through a blind, unguided evolutionary process?" I responded that the majority of biologists certainly think so, and now he has requested a citation for that. I'd like to humor the old boy, but I can't seem to find a good, clear source very quickly. Anyone know of one?
posted by Pater Aletheias to Science & Nature (29 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't know that anyone's done a serious survey of that question, but Project Steve might give some indication.
posted by jacobm at 9:13 AM on December 12, 2006


Subtract 1 from Francis Collins' Fabled Percentage, whatever that is, however he arrived at it.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:16 AM on December 12, 2006


Going by the numbers in comment #72797 the percentage not supporting evolution is probably vastly smaller than the error on any survey it'd be worth bothering to carry out.
posted by edd at 9:26 AM on December 12, 2006


Here's a link. Surveys were sent to the department head of 158 research university Biological Sciences departments asking:

"Regarding the issue of 'Intelligent Design theory' vs. current biological consensus on the mechanisms of evolution - is there a difference of professional opinion within your department that you feel could be accurately described as a scientific controversy?

Yes/No"

From 158 queries, the author received 73 responses. 71 (97.3%) responded "no", 1 responded "no, but..." (and his comment about why is on the site), and 1 responded "yes."

Frankly, I would say that 97.3% is low, considering that modern biology is predicated on evolution.
posted by The Michael The at 9:27 AM on December 12, 2006


Maybe you can use something from this page?
posted by teleskiving at 9:34 AM on December 12, 2006


Thanks, everyone! All responses are appreciated! The link The Michael provided will work very well, I think.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:47 AM on December 12, 2006


Why would the percentage matter? 1500 years ago all kinds of geniuses accepted that you could did up a Christian martyr's corpse 80 years after his death and his carcass would not only be as pretty as the day he died but it'd smell like lilacs too. And may I add that it's quite probable that in Germany in the 1930s a majority of all kinds of academics took Hitler and the Nazis as a good thing?

Scout around on the web a bit and you'll find old ads saying things like "9/10 doctors agree OUR cigarettes are GOOD for you!"
posted by davy at 9:57 AM on December 12, 2006


Regarding The Michael The's link: most proponents of theistic evolution would absolutely not consider themselves part of the "intelligent design" movement.
posted by transona5 at 10:00 AM on December 12, 2006


To follow up, Francis Collins sort of recoils in horror from the term. So rejecting intelligent design doesn't mean rejecting theistic evolution.
posted by transona5 at 10:02 AM on December 12, 2006


"Is it possible to get from non-life to sapience and apperception through a blind, unguided evolutionary process?" seems a little different from "What percentage of biologist accept evolution?", though. THe non-life to life part of evolution is still pretty much a complete mystery - there are some theories about electric storms or radiation but it's never been seen, and most biologists seem to presume it only happened once. There is research being done in the field of abiogenesis, and hopefully we'll better understand it eventually - but it's kind of a different branch of things than evolution.
posted by mdn at 10:10 AM on December 12, 2006


Davy, evolution on a small scale is a testable theory with independent verification. Macro-evolution is a theory that is based on hard evidence, from independent sources, and all signs point to one thing; in addition, it is re-confirmed by predictions from micro-evolution.

Indeed, 1500 years ago, people believed a martyr's corpse would be in tact. Then somebody dug it up, and it wasn't. The scientific method disproved that theory by using investigative methods.

The relative goodness of Hitler and the Nazis is a problem of history and historiography, both social sciences. They may have theories and results, but in the 1930's, those results were merely postulated. Only in the early 1940's could we deduce from the end-product of the experiment that, actually, fascism, especially when enacted by a psycopath, is a bad thing.

The cigarette ad is about money. You can pay people to say almost anything. Evolutionary biologists don't really have a financial stake in the debate; what company, exactly, is paying for evolutionary research? Creationism, on the other hand, has a number of fairly interested religious institutions that are more than happy to pay large sums of money to fund anti-evolution research. Which group has a conflict of interest?

The percentage matters when journalists give equal treatment to both sides of an argument for balance, when the debate about the general nature of evolution has been over for decades.

On preview: mdn, I don't think most biologists presume that biogenesis happened only once. My understanding is that the creation of life-like chemical compounds happened many many times over the first billion years of earth (which HAVE been succesfully created in the lab). Further, it's possible that the chemical compounds required to reproduce and save the data may have been born and disappeared any number of times. That's the obvious conclusion if you believe in evolution. RNA happened to survive and, eventually, give life to DNA.
posted by one_bean at 10:16 AM on December 12, 2006 [1 favorite]


Regarding The Michael The's link: most proponents of theistic evolution would absolutely not consider themselves part of the "intelligent design" movement.

That's a good point. Anyone have a survey link that filters for that?
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:25 AM on December 12, 2006


I would say "accept" is a very broad term. I think a lot of scientists might have quibbles or various interpretations of evolution, without rejecting it outright.

It's not necessarily a binary thing.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:55 AM on December 12, 2006


It really is a binary thing. I'm sorry I don't have a citation handy, but 100% of all biologists believe evolution is a fact. The number of scientists in any field who do not are lost in stastical margin of error.

There is no controversy. You're not going to be able have an intelligent conversation with your colleague if they really require a cite.

It is totally analogous to the Christian doctrine that eating babies will get you into heaven. Ask what percentage of Christians don't believe it. Ask for a citation.
posted by mzurer at 12:28 PM on December 12, 2006


Talk Origins will likely have something to help you out, Pater A.
posted by vetiver at 12:41 PM on December 12, 2006


The reason surveys like this are few and far between is the same reason surveys questioning physicists on their acceptance of whether massive objects tend to attract each other (i.e., gravity) are few and far between. It's just a non-issue.
posted by dmd at 1:54 PM on December 12, 2006


mdn makes a very important point. There is a big difference between the number of biologists who accept evolution and the number of biologists who accept explicitly unguided, non-theistic evolution. There's an even bigger difference between the number of biologists who accept evolution and the number of biologists who not only accept evolution but also believe that God played no part in abiogenesis.

In short, you are confusing evolution as a scientific theory (or, if you prefer to be more lax with your terms, fact) which explains certain observations about the natural world, with evolution as a metaphysical dogma or philosophy which can provide meaning to or a metanarrative about the natural world. The first is scientific. The second is not.

In other words: theistic evolution and non-theistic evolution are scientifically indistinguishable. Science answers "what" and "how" questions, but leaves "why" for the philosophers and theologians.

According to this 2006 study, only 41% of biologists at "elite research universities" (read the study to find out what that means) do not believe in God. Presumably the other 59% do believe in God or are agnostic. Similarly, according to this source (which you will presumably trust, although I cannot locate the original data) in 1998, approximately 35% of biologists who belong to the NAS believe in the existence of God.
posted by gd779 at 2:22 PM on December 12, 2006


mdn, I don't think most biologists presume that biogenesis happened only once. My understanding is that the creation of life-like chemical compounds happened many many times

hm, well, when I was in high school, the word was that all life evolved from the same original cell, or something, but maybe the current understanding is that life pops up from time to time. Is there any theory that different types of later life come from different "strains", so to speak? Or is there a kind of determinism to evolution that each original cell will follow the same route?

It really is a binary thing.

but we don't have to be dismissive of people who ask questions, or misrepresent the questions they're asking. the talk origins stuff I linked above is interesting reading and could help someone better understand the current thinking, but it's not as if asking to begin with is inherently stupid. The question of abiogenesis has really not been given all that much attention yet. I'm not suggesting we won't figure it out, but given that some percentage of scientists believe in a personal god etc, I actually kind of doubt 100% of scientists believe it is "possible to get from non-life to sapience through a blind unguided process". They may be wrong to imagine some kind of universal guidance or duality but I'd bet some scientists hold that view... although I suppose it is ipso facto impossible to address god scientifically so within their work that element is just not considered.

anyway. don't mean to derail, and maybe I've just been reading too much ancient philosophy lately, but I don't think it helps to presume that anyone inquiring into details is an agenda-driven fundie nuthead who'd deny the law of gravity if they thought it would get in the way of the rapture.
posted by mdn at 2:39 PM on December 12, 2006


From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creationism :

In 1987, Newsweek reported: "By one count there are some 700 scientists with respectable academic credentials (out of a total of 480,000 U.S. earth and life scientists) who ascribed to Biblically literal creationism."

That would make the support for creation science among those branches of science who deal with the earth and its life forms at about 0.15%.

Source: "Keeping God Out of the Classroom", Newsweek, June 29, 1987, pp. 23.


according to this source, approximately 35% of biologists who belong to the NAS believe in the existence of God.


No, that's wrong. 65% were disbelieving, 30% were doubting/agnostic, and only 5.5% believed in God.

Read more here:
http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/news/file002.html
posted by martinrebas at 2:39 PM on December 12, 2006


Probably the same percentage of physicists who accept the theory of gravity. Sorry, not trying to be snarky, but evolution is one of the basic tenets of modern biology and anyone who did not accept this fundamental theory would not be considered a biologist by other biologists.

As an aside, evolution and God are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
posted by emd3737 at 2:53 PM on December 12, 2006


65% were disbelieving, 30% were doubting/agnostic, and only 5.5% believed in God.

Good, you found the underlying data. Thank you.

Still, for Pater Aletheias' purposes, the bottom line is that approximately 45% of biologists who belong to the NAS (and 59% of biologists generally) believe that God might exist.

Although we cannot know what percentage of the above are strict deists who might believe that God, although existing, played no role in the creation of life, I think we can safely assume that the great majority are at least open to the possibility that God (or some entity or entities equivalent to a God, whatever your preferred nomenclature) played some role in the evolution of life. 45% and 59% are probably reasonable approximations, for Pater A's purposes.
posted by gd779 at 3:49 PM on December 12, 2006


Make that 35%, not 45%, obviously.
posted by gd779 at 3:50 PM on December 12, 2006


As an aside, evolution and God are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

how is that an "aside" to this question? The issue wasn't "evolution" but non-life to full rationality via atheistic evolution. I am not saying that guided evolution is actually true, but some portion of scientists may still agree with it. That human genome guy recently wrote a book about being a christian (scathing review), e.g., which is a far more extreme position than the inquiry put forth here (which could be wondering about a more deistic version of universal guidance).
posted by mdn at 4:38 PM on December 12, 2006


I disagree with gd779 and mdn's conclusions. Scientists may or may not believe in God, but all biologists believe in evolution. And by "evoltuion," I mean unguided, non-theistic evolution. Anything else is just watered-down creationism.
posted by emd3737 at 7:26 AM on December 13, 2006


"Anything else is just watered-down creationism."
posted by Mr. Gunn at 9:17 AM on December 13, 2006


"Anything else is just watered-down creationism."

I think I agree. The whole point of evolution is that speciation, etc. can be accounted for purely through natural biological mechanisms. Even if you believe in God, if you've accepted the theory of evolution, you believe that unguided processes can produce that sort of change. Some of the Intelligent Design folks have accepted a lot of evolutionary theory, but they still believe that God's intervention is still necessary for some stages. That's what distinguishes them from mainstream biologists.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:26 AM on December 13, 2006


Pater, I still think you're giving them too much credit. What distinguishes ID folks from mainstream scientists is that the ID folks are not scientists.
posted by mzurer at 10:44 AM on December 13, 2006


Anything else is just watered-down creationism

you may be right, but francis collins is a well-respected scientist who claims to believe evolution is "god's technique" or something of that sort, so whether or not your assessment is correct doesn't actually insure that all other scientists reach the same conclusion.

they still believe that God's intervention is still necessary for some stages. That's what distinguishes them from mainstream biologists.

Miraculous intervention is different from continual deistic power. Miraculous intervention does not make any scientific sense at all; it basically allows "then some magic happens" to be part of a "scientific" process. But scientists could believe that the driving force of evolution itself is some kind of universal consciousness without altering the mechanical aspect. They would just be looking for a philosophical explanation of the initial tendency toward organization and vitality.

I'm not saying it's the right theory, but just that on reflection I actually don't think it is incompatible with evolution. A personal god is incompatible with evolution, as far as I can see, unless he's not really a god, which really any "personal" god would fall short of anyway, so a "personal superconscious alien" could be compatible with evolution (ie, we're a science experiment someone's doing in another dimension or whatever).

But a deistic universalist mind/will a la schopenhauer or the prime mover or the hindu brahman etc is logically acceptable; whether it's necessary is metaphysics rather than physics, but seems a legitimate question when you really think about it (though I honestly don't know if it's the least bit answerable).
posted by mdn at 11:14 AM on December 13, 2006


Great survey, that CSICOP one.

Note that the questionnaire was sent to department heads, asking about the members of their departments. If we assume that the mean size of a department is 15, then that's two "evolution is scientifically controversial" among around 15×73 (about a thousand) scientists -- call it 0.2%.

(Of course any population is bound to have 0.2% adherents of any ridiculous theory.)

Let's be generous and say there are three times as many scientists as "yes" votes, which makes 6 "controversialists" -- then 99.44% of biological scientists believe there is no controversy.
posted by phliar at 4:26 PM on December 18, 2006


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