Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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.

 

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

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.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.