How it was told
It was the 210th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth last week and debate still rages about his life’s work, On the Origin of Species.
Love it or loathe it, Darwin’s theory of evolution moved the dial forward in the scientific study of how humans and the rest of the animal kingdom have developed over time.
The naturalist pioneered the idea of natural selection and “survival of the fittest” to explain how animals change over time. But it remains a scientific theory that one-third of British people still don’t believe, according to a new study. The Puffin Books survey, coinciding with Darwin Day on February 12, also reported that half of the people polled were not certain that Darwin’s theory was correct.
It also suggested that 29 per cent of Brits didn’t know Darwin was famous for the theory of evolution and 14 per cent confused him with author Charles Dickens.
The survey was picked up by the Mail Online under the headline: “Almost a third of Brits STILL don’t believe Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, survey finds (and some have confused him with Charles DICKENS).”
Mirror Online also published the story as: “Almost a third of Brits STILL don’t believe Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.” Meanwhile The Sun’s version moved away from Darwin with: “THE APE DEBATE. Almost a third of Brits do not believe in evolution, new research has revealed.”
But have 33 per cent of British people really turned their backs on Darwin’s theory?
Like any scientific theory, Darwin’s work on evolution is subject to debate, and the main bone of contention seems to be that – wait for it – things have evolved in the 160 years since he published
The Sun’s headline can be disregarded straight away. While Darwin’s research may still be under the spotlight, the same cannot be said for evolution itself, which the scientific community generally agrees on.
Also to coincide with Darwin Day, an American think tank, the Discovery Institute, released footage of 19 scientists reading a statement that rejected the mechanisms of Darwinian theory – but they largely agree on evolution as a fact.
They pointed to the Dissent from Darwin list– a 1,000-strong register of academics who question Darwin’s findings, including six professors from Oxford University and eight from Cambridge University.
“Evolution is a real weasel word that means all sorts of things,” said Discovery Institute scholar John West. “If they mean small level changes within species, no one doubts that. If they mean a universal common ancestor, that’s the majority of the scientific community. Our statement focuses on mechanisms.”
But does that debate trickle down to the man on the street?
A similar survey to the Penguin Books poll, carried out by ComRes 10 years ago, reported that half of the British population did not believe in evolution, but it is clear that matters have evolved since then. Differences in opinion on Darwin’s theories have often revolved around religion. Some Christians have long since railed against the ideas, instead opting for a creationist view that says God made everything.
But Christianity in the UK is declining – dropping by 4.5m people between the 2001 and 2011 censuses – and a YouGov poll in conjunction with Birmingham’s Newman University played down links between creationism and Christianity in 2017.
That survey of 4,000 adults – including those who identify themselves as religious or spiritual – found that 71 per cent of British people accept evolutionary or theistic evolutionary accounts of the origin of species while only nine per cent opted for a creationist view.
With the influence of religion on attitudes to evolution exposed as weak and scientific consensus that evolution is fact, last week’s survey results should not be read as debunking the theory of evolution.