August 17th, 2006



On 11th August Science magazine, under the low-key heading "Public Acceptance of Evolution", published research by Jon D. Miller, Eugenie C. Scott and Shinji Okamoto which showed that only 14% of adult Americans think the theory of evolution is "definitely true" (around 40% give more qualified consent to the idea). In Europe and Japan, in contrast, around 80% of the adult population believes that human beings developed from earlier species of animals. (There's a more accurate graph than the New York Times one I've used here.)

In the days that followed, the story got picked up by National Geographic Magazine ("Evolution Less Accepted in U.S. Than Other Western Countries, Study Finds") and the New York Times ("Did humans evolve? Not us, say Americans") before spreading waves of amusement, despair and disbelief through the blogosphere ("Americans not developed from earlier species of animals").

The researchers, who found that American anti-Darwinism is growing quite quickly (from 7% of skeptics to 21% in the past 20 years), blamed "widespread fundamentalism and the politicization of science in the United States" for the difference between the US and Europe and Japan. But by most measures the US differs quite radically from other advanced nations. Back in the early 90s Bantam Books published "Where We Stand", a comparison of the US with other wealthy nations. In table after table, the US ranked either at the top or the bottom, revealing its fundamental difference from European nations. Here's a brief summary (based on this page) of the factors on which the US was either the lowest or highest ranking (it's probable that most of these differences have only become more extreme in the intervening 15 years). The US has the:

Lowest overall tax rates as a percentage of GNP
Highest purchasing power
Highest individual worker productivity (but in both cases, other nations have been catching up)
Highest percentage of families earning two paychecks
Highest average household debt (double next nearest, UK)
Lowest average household savings
Biggest trade deficit
Biggest current account imbalance
Lowest investment levels as a percentage of GDP
Highest inequality of income (Gini)
Highest disparity between CEOs' pay and other workers' pay
Lowest percentage of unionized workers
Smallest middle class
Highest percentage of people below the poverty level
Highest percentage of below-poverty-level children
Most deaths from malnutrition per million
Highest healthcare expenditure as percentage of GDP
Highest doctor's incomes
Lowest percentage of population covered by public health care
Highest infant mortality rate
Highest toddler death rates
Highest rate of death in 15-24 year olds
Highest premature death rate
Highest number of people who think healthcare system needs fundamental change
Highest percentage of single-parent families
Lowest percentage of girls who are still virgins aged 20
Lowest percentage of sexually active single 15 to 19-year olds using birth control
Highest teen pregnancy rates
Highest teen abortion rates
Highest rates of reported police brutality
Biggest percentage of its population in prison
Largest number of death row inmates
Largest percentage of houses with a handgun
Largest number of handgun murders
Highest murder rate
Highest rape rate
Highest armed robbery rate
Lowest percentage of people using public transport
Highest annual air miles per person
Lowest average price of gallon of gas
Most oil energy used
Most carbon dioxide per person released
Most carbon monoxide per person released
Most CFCs emitted
Most major oil spills
Most forests cleared
Most coal burned
Most debris inhaled per person per year
Most municipal waste produced per person
Least glass recycled
Least paper and cardboard recycled
Shortest paid vacations
Least news as percentage of all TV
Most manufacturing employee turnover
Most employees fired
Lowest voter participation levels
Lowest number of referenda (zero)
Largest number of political scandals

A more up-to-date account of fundamental differences between the US and Europe appears in The Economist magazine. In an August 3rd story headed "To Israel With Love", the magazine reports a gulf between American and European perceptions of the current war in the Middle East.

"A USA Today/Gallup poll conducted on July 28th-30th," the Economist says, "showed that eight in ten Americans believed that Israel's action [in Lebanon] was justified... Americans are far more likely than Europeans to side with Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A Pew Global Attitudes survey taken between March and May found that 48% of Americans said that their sympathies lay with the Israelis; only 13% were sympathetic towards the Palestinians. By contrast, in Spain for example, 9% sympathised with the Israelis and 32% with the Palestinians."

This, says the magazine, is because Americans have strong cultural affinities with Israel; the average American is much more likely to find something in common with the attitudes of Israelis than the attitudes of Europeans:

"Americans are staunch nationalists, much readier to contemplate the use of force than Europeans. A German Marshall Fund survey in 2005 found 42% of Americans strongly agreeing that “under some conditions, war is necessary to obtain justice” compared with just 11% of Europeans. A Pew survey found that the same proportion of Americans and Israelis believe in the use of pre-emptive force: 66%. Continental European figures were far lower."

The article points to the power of the AIPAC (Israeli) and Christian fundamentalist lobbies on the American political system, and says:

"The Christian right is also solidly behind Israel. White evangelicals are significantly more pro-Israeli than Americans in general; more than half of them say they strongly sympathise with Israel. (A third of the Americans who claim sympathy with Israel say that this stems from their religious beliefs.) Two in five Americans believe that Israel was given to the Jewish people by God, and one in three say that the creation of the state of Israel was a step towards the Second Coming."

Which brings us back to the refusal to believe in Darwinian evolution. Isn't there something tremendously dangerous in this combination of stubborn irrationality and tremendous geo-political power? Unrealpolitik, we could call it.