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Awesome or bogus? Gen X’s attitudes toward evolution

As the hundredth anniversary of the Scopes “monkey” trial of 1925 approaches, a new study argues that the attitudes of American Gen Xers toward evolution changed toward acceptance and away from uncertainty as they aged, using a longitudinal dataset based on periodic surveys of 5000-odd participants born in the heart of Gen X over a 33-year period, from middle school to middle age.

“Research on attitudes toward science typically uses a single survey or a series of surveys of different participants,” explained lead researcher Jon D. Miller of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. “Using the three-decade record from the Longitudinal Study of American Life enabled our study to investigate how attitudes develop and shift over formative decades in the same individuals.”

“Acceptance of evolution went from a plurality position between 38% and 44% to a majority position between 54% and 57%,” commented co-author Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education. “At the same time, as participants matured, their uncertainty about evolution reduced, from 37% when they were in high school to between 11% and 13% when they were adults.”

The data thus reflect stabilization and polarization by the time the participants became adults. In 2008, 2015, and 2019–2010, the percentages of the participants preferring definitely false, probably false, not sure, probably true, or definitely true in response to the prompt “human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals” were virtually unchanged.

The study also investigated what factors were associated with the participants’ attitudes toward evolution at three points during the study. As in a previous study by the same researchers, factors involving education tended to be strong predictors of the acceptance of evolution, while factors involving fundamentalist religious beliefs tended to be strong predictors of the rejection of evolution.

When the participants were in high school, their parents’ acceptance of evolution was the strongest predictor of their acceptance of evolution, while their parents’ fundamentalist religious beliefs were the strongest predictor of their rejection of evolution. Later, however, their own education and fundamentalist religious beliefs became stronger predictors of their attitude toward evolution.

“Our analysis of a unique longitudinal dataset allowed us to explore the development of attitudes toward a scientific topic in unprecedented detail,” Miller commented. “And understanding the public’s attitudes toward evolution is of particular importance, since

Robert Pennock
Robert Pennock

evolution is going to continue to be central to biological literacy — and scientific literacy — in the 21st century.”

The study, “The acceptance of evolution: A developmental view of Generation X in the United States,” was published in the journal Public Understanding of Science. Besides Miller and Branch, the authors are Belén Laspra and Carmelo Polino of the University of Oviedo, Robert T. Pennock of Michigan State University, and Mark Ackerman of the University of Michigan.