According to a study by the University of Massachusetts Amherst published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Similarly, across the world—in 19 Eastern European countries, 25 Muslim countries, and Israel—low belief in evolution was linked to higher prejudice within a person’s group, negative attitudes towards people from different groups and less support for conflict resolution.
The findings supported the hypothesis of lead author Stylianos Syropoulos, a Ph.D. candidate in lead author Bernhard Leidner’s War and Peace Lab, an associate professor of social psychology. They collaborated with co-first author Uri Lifshin from Reichman University in Israel and co-authors Jeff Greenberg and Dylan Horner from the University of Arizona in Tucson. The researchers hypothesized that belief in evolution would tend to increase people’s identification with all of humanity, due to common ancestry, and lead to less detrimental attitudes.
“People who perceive themselves as more animal-like are also people who tend to have more prosocial or positive attitudes toward outgroup members or people from stigmatized and marginalized backgrounds,” Syropoulos explains. “In this investigation, we were interested in examining whether the belief in evolution would also act in the same way, as it would reinforce this belief that we are more like animals.”
In eight studies from different regions of the world, researchers analyzed data from the American General Social Survey (GSS), the Pew Research Center, and three online crowdsourcing samples. In testing their hypothesis about the associations of different levels of belief in evolution, they took into account education, political ideology, religiosity, cultural identity and scientific knowledge.
“We found the same results every time, that is, believing in evolution is linked to less bias, no matter what group you’re in, and controlling for all those alternative explanations” , explains Syropoulos.
For example, religious beliefs, like political ideology, were measured separately from a belief or disbelief in evolution, the researchers note. “Regardless of whether one views religion as an important part of one’s life, belief in evolution is linked to less prejudice regardless of belief, or lack thereof, in God or a particular religion,” says Syropoulos.
Leidner adds, “This effect and this pattern seems to be present in all major political systems. It’s really a human phenomenon no matter where you are in the world.”
The researchers note that Darwin’s 19and Century theory of evolution has been cited for perpetrating racism, prejudice and homophobia, in part through the phrase “survival of the fittest”, used to describe the process of natural selection.
“There have been theoretical accounts that predict the opposite of what we found, so it was exciting for us to show that this is in fact not the case, that the opposite is true and that belief in evolution seems to have quite positive effects,” Leidner said.
The US-based study involved data from 1993, 1994, 2000, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018 – the years when the ESG asked Americans about their beliefs in evolution, as well as measures of attitudes towards immigrants, black people, affirmative action, LGBTQ people and other social issues.
Analysis of the data showed conclusively “that disbelief in human evolution is the most consistent determinant and predictor of prejudice relative to other relevant constructs,” the paper says.
In the Israel-based study, people with a higher belief in evolution were more likely to support peace between Palestinians, Arabs and Jews. In the study involving countries in the Islamic world, belief in evolution was associated with less prejudice towards Christians and Jews. And in the study based in Eastern Europe, where Orthodox Christians are the majority, a belief in evolution was linked to fewer prejudices towards gypsies, Jews and Muslims.
Syropoulos posits that a belief in evolution can widen people’s “moral circle”, leading to a sense that “we have more in common than things that are different”.
The findings also suggest that “changing education seems to have side effects that could lead to a better or more harmonious society,” adds Leidner.
The next step, the researchers say, is to study how evolution is taught in the classroom and work to develop models to study and reinforce the positive effects.