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Death Anxiety Shapes Views on Evolution

• March 30, 2011 • 2:00 PM

New research suggests people reject evolutionary theory because, as a way to think about life and death, it doesn’t provide the emotional solace we seek.

It may be the foundation of modern biology, but fewer than 40 percent of Americans say they believe in the theory of evolution. While frustrated scientists sometimes blame religion for this knowledge gap, newly published research suggests the key factor isn’t faith per se but rather a benefit it provides that Darwin does not: A sense that our all-too-short lives have meaning.

A Canadian study just published in the journal PLoS ONE finds a strong link between existential angst and reluctance to embrace the theory of evolution. A team of researchers led by University of British Columbia psychologist Jessica Tracy report reminders of our mortality apparently inspire antagonism toward this basic scientific precept.

Tracy and her colleagues use the framework of terror management theory, which is based on the seminal theories of anthropologist Ernest Becker. According to this extensively researched school of thought, humans buffer their fear of death “by construing the universe as an orderly, comprehensible, predictable and meaningful place, where death can be literally or symbolically transcended.

“For example, a sense of literal immortality may be provided by religious belief in an afterlife, and a sense of symbolic mortality may be provided by ‘living on’ through one’s accomplishments, offspring or cultural affiliations,” the researchers write.

Reminders of death tend to evoke “enthusiastic adherence” to our religious and political belief systems, since they are the mechanisms that promise us either literal or symbolic immortality. (This dynamic — the threat of annihilation by an enemy leads us to pledge allegiance to our nation or faith even more vigorously — provides another plausible explanation for the prevalence of war.)

As Tracy and her colleagues note, evolutionary theory, which views human life as the product of a lengthy chain of natural events, seems “existentially bleak” to many people. In contrast, the relatively new notion of intelligent design theory implies “there is a purpose to the human enterprise.”

Although there is little evidence to back it up, intelligent design has a strong emotional pull: It “may calm existential concerns through the implication of its assertion that human life was intentionally created, rather than resulting from seemingly random and meaningless forces of nature,” they write.

In five experiments, the researchers presented participants with a passage arguing for evolutionary theory and/or a passage arguing for intelligent design theory, then assessed their views of the concepts and the author of each statement. For each study, half of the participants were asked at the outset to imagine their own death, while the others were asked to imagine dental pain (a control condition chosen to elicit negative feelings but not life-threatening ones).

Most of the participants were college students, but one study featured 832 people living in the U.S. who were recruited through an online survey research company. Although not scientifically selected, it was a highly diverse group, in terms of income, age and education level.

Their responses were very much like that of the students. Those who had been contemplating their own mortality expressed relatively more positive reactions to intelligent design theory and its proponent, Michael Behe, and “significantly greater negativity” toward evolutionary theory and its proponent, Richard Dawkins.

“Individuals respond to existential threat by becoming more accepting of a theory that offers a greater sense of meaning … and/or less supportive of the theory that is the true mainstay of the scientific worldview, but seems to offer little in the way of existential comfort,” they conclude.

So are we emotionally predisposed to stay scientifically ignorant? Not necessarily, Tracy and her colleagues argue. In one of their experiments, featuring 269 psychology students, half of the participants read a passage by cosmologist and science writer Carl Sagan.

In it, he argued that “humans can attain meaning and purpose by seeking to understand the natural origins of life.” Even if we are “merely matter,” he wrote, “we can still find purpose, but it must be one that we work out for ourselves.”

Reading that passage produced the opposite result of the earlier studies. Among those who were exposed to Sagan’s notions, thoughts of mortality produced a negative reaction to intelligent design theory and a positive one toward evolution.

It seems the study participants were still looking for meaning in response to an existential threat. But after being told by a trusted source that scientific study can satisfy this longing, they found Darwin’s concepts surprisingly appealing.

So, the researchers conclude, resistance to evolutionary theory can be traced to its “apparent lack of an existentially compelling solution to life’s origins.” But their Sagan study suggests this barrier to acceptance isn’t entirely impenetrable.

As Viktor Frankl noted a half century ago, man is strongly inclined to search for meaning. As they ponder how to present their work to the public, scientists are well advised to keep this hunger in mind.

 

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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