Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Evolutionary Biologists Flunk Religion Poll

In a follow-up to previous studies, Gregory W. Graffin and William B. Provine surveyed prominent evolutionary biologists to find out what they thought about religion. The results are summarized in the latest issue of American Scientst [Evolution, Religion and Free Will]. (Click on the figure to see a larger version where you can read the fine print.)
Our study was the first poll to focus solely on eminent evolutionists and their views of religion. As a dissertation project, one of us (Graffin) prepared and sent a detailed questionnaire on evolution and religion to 271 professional evolutionary scientists elected to membership in 28 honorific national academies around the world, and 149 (55 percent) answered the questionnaire. All of them listed evolution (specifically organismic), phylogenetics, population biology/genetics, paleontology/paleoecology/paleobiology, systematics, organismal adaptation or fitness as at least one of their research interests. Graffin also interviewed 12 prestigious evolutionists from the sample group on the relation between modern evolutionary biology and religion.

A primary complaint of scientists who answered the earlier polls was that the concept of God was limited to a "personal God." Leuba considered an impersonal God as equivalent to pure naturalism and classified advocates of deism as nonbelievers. We designed the current study to distinguish theism from deism—that is to day a "personal God" (theism) versus an "impersonal God" who created the universe, all forces and matter, but does not intervene in daily events (deism). An evolutionist can be considered religious, in our poll, if he calls himself a deist. ...

Perhaps the most revealing question in the poll asked the respondent to choose the letter that most closely represented where her views belonged on a ternary diagram. The great majority of the evolutionists polled (78 percent) chose A, billing themselves as pure naturalists. Only two out of 149 described themselves as full theists (F), two as more theist than naturalist (D) and three as theistic naturalists (B). Taken together, the advocacy of any degree of theism is the lowest percentage measured in any poll of biologists' beliefs so far (4.7 percent).

No evolutionary scientists in this study chose pure deism (I), but the deistic side of the diagram is heavy compared to the theistic side. Eleven respondents chose C, and 10 chose other regions on the right side of the diagram (E, H or J). Most evolutionary scientists who billed themselves as believers in God were deists (21) rather than theists (7).
When asked directly whether they believe in God, almost 80% said no. I wonder how many of them think of themselves as atheists as opposed to agnostics?

Here's the bad news. 79% of these eminent evolutionary biologists say they believe in free will (option A on the question). Even the authors of the study were surprised by that one.
We anticipated a much higher percentage for option B and a low percentage for A, but got just the opposite result. One of us (Provine) has been thinking about human free will for almost 40 years, has read most of the philosophical literature on the subject and polls his undergraduate evolution class (200-plus students) each year on belief in free will. Year after year, 90 percent or more favor the idea of human free will for a very specific reason: They think that if people make choices, they have free will. The professional debate about free will has moved far from this position, because what counts is whether the choice is free or determined, not whether human beings make choices. People and animals both certainly choose constantly. Comments from the evolutionists suggest that they were equating human choice and human free will. In other words, although eminent, our respondents had not thought about free will much beyond the students in introductory evolution classes. Evolutionary biology is increasingly applied to psychology. Belief in free will adds nothing to the science of human behavior.
There's one other surprise. 72% think that religion is part of evolution—it's an adaptation. One can only wonder what these evolutionary biologists think of themselves. Are they able to overcome their deterministic predisposition to God or are they mutants who lack the gene(s)? Maybe it explains why they believe in free will?

[Hat Tip: Denyse O'Leary]


  1. Kind of a good news, bad news thing. But in truth, most of these people are not any more competent to speak of the evolution of behavior and particularly of H. sapiens mind then, say I'm competent to speak of microspinduals or some other such molecular machinery. I mean, we're all biologists, so we all know about biology, but we are also all specialists. But when it comes to human evolution, well, few respect that as a specialty.

    Free will indeed.

  2. "Free will" is one of those ancient philosophical red herrings that is best simply ignored in the interest of clear thinking. If you chose your action "freely" (as if anybody can even state unambiguously what that means!) your action was still determined in a particular way, i.e. by whatever activity in your brain counts as the "choice". Saying this really gets you precisely nowhere.

  3. The problem is saying you *don't* have "free will" also gets you exactly nowhere. It's pretty boring either way.

    And I don't see how saying one has "free will" is "flunking a religion poll". Quite the opposite, because in many forms of Protestantism, predestination is the preferred myth.

  4. The problem is saying you *don't* have "free will" also gets you exactly nowhere. It's pretty boring either way.

  5. An animal placed in a situation of extreme pain will choose to leave if it can. If I am in a situation where I must choose - say, in the trolley problem - I will choose. It turns out that my choices are psychologically (and therefore most probably biologically, but maybe also or otherwise socially) constrained.

    The notion that "free will" means a totally unconstrained choice is something that we get from Christian theology, and it is incoherent. The idea ought to be instead that a free choice is one that is not constrained by anything other than our own internal states, and then it can be fully constrained.

    So it may be that Provine is thinking too much here - sure, if you are up on the philosophical literature you may be inclined to interpret this question thus, and deny there is free will, but in a court of law, for instance, a choice is free only if nobody else and nothing else but you determined the decision.

  6. While the authors of the paper have moved beyond Leuba's narrow definition of "personal God", I find their choices unsatisfying. I am a Christian, a regular church-goer, a convert from atheism to Christianity. I had a profound enough "conversion experience" that I could (but wouldn't) call myself "born again". But I suspect that I would come out as a solid atheist in their survey. I believe in some form of a God, but not a creator God, not a theistic miracle-working God, not an old man sitting on the clouds. And, having read Spong (and led a Sunday-school class on one of his books), I'd say I'm not all that odd. I'm also curious about where many Buddhists and Unitarian would come out on their spectrum.

    I find the authors assumptions about religion to be outdated and unsatisfying. But maybe I'm just weird. :)

  7. ian says,

    I find the authors assumptions about religion to be outdated and unsatisfying. But maybe I'm just weird. :)

    Well, "weird" may be too strong but you have to admit that being an atheist Christian isn't exactly normal. :-)

  8. The free will part threw me, too - I apparently do not have a definition of that term that resembles the definition used by current philosophers.

    The problem is saying you *don't* have "free will" also gets you exactly nowhere. It's pretty boring either way.

    Yeah, that. I have NOT been thinking about free will for 40 years (aside: what an odd thing to say the opposite), so I'm not surprised that any first-guess I might make in response to a question about it might qualify as a "flunk".

  9. If maggots can generate spontaneously, then thoughts can generate (arise) spontaneously in the human "mind."

    The maggots premise is false???

    What determines the thoughts and ideas?

    They just arise, and feely???

  10. trivia: Greg Graffin is also the longtime frontman and "song" writer of the intelligent punk-rock band Bad Religion

  11. It's worth pointing out that "free will" and "determinism" are not the same thing. The consensus so far seems to be that universe is not deterministic at the quantum level, and yet we still may not have free will. It's origins can be random or determined and still not "free". In any case (as John noted), the meaning depends on the context.

  12. Am I to understand that you do not think that predisposition to religion has evolutionary roots? Or at the least is an evolutionary side-effect as many believe?

  13. Trevor asks,

    Am I to understand that you do not think that predisposition to religion has evolutionary roots? Or at the least is an evolutionary side-effect as many believe?

    The fact that we are a thinking species has an evolutionary basis. Our complex brains evolved from the simpler brains of our ancient ancestors.

    We use our brains to create societies/tribes where cohesiveness and cooperation are beneficial to the group. Some of the strategies that we have tried over the past several hundred thousand years are things like treating women as inferiors, xenophobia, slavery, homophobia, and extreme brutality.

    Just because these behaviors existed in the past—and continue to exist today—does not mean that they have a genetic component. There is no gene that causes male chauvinism, for example. That's a behavior pattern that arose because it was useful in the past (perhaps) but we are abandoning it in the modern world.

    Similarly, the belief in common superstitions may have had a beneficial effect in binding the members of a tribe together but that does not mean that there's a gene for every kind of superstition. Furthermore, it does not mean that a predisposition to tribal cohesiveness and getting along with your neighbors has to be manifest in this particular way.

    Religion is just one of many different ways that we use to encourage bonding in our society. Patriotism is another and so are sporting events. We have a predisposition to form tribes but we do not have genes for religion or patriotism or NASCAR racing.

  14. I think that the relationship between free will and determinism is far more complex than the authors of the sutdy allow - a point that seriously undermines their work. As already pointed out, at the microscale the world is probably indeterministic but this provides no succor for free will. The more general point is that it seems quite likely that issues of free will and determinism are actually largely orthogonal. Behind the whole debate lie certain assumptions about the relationship between the mental and the physical that have dogged us for millenia.

  15. Someone should post Provine's arguments as to why Free Will is a *dangerous* ideology. He explained it in a debate with Phillip Johnson.

    It was logic at its worst, I must say. (I mean, I CHOOSE to say.)

  16. From the title, I was under the impression that prominent evolutionary biologists lacked an understanding of the basic tenets of major world religions. This however seems to be something altogether different. I don't see how anything is being flunked here. This is merely a poll of philosophical dispositions.

    1. It's very hard to cure the disease of irony deficiency. The first step is admitting that you have the disease. :-)