Research Shows Acceptance of Evolution Requires a Gut Feeling

01/25/2012 03:13 pm ET | Updated Mar 26, 2012

In a recent study at The Ohio State University, facts alone were not enough for one to accept the theory of evolution (read press release). Researchers studying pre-service biology teachers at two South Korean universities, all with an adequate understanding of the science behind evolution, discovered that facts had to correspond to one's gut feeling for the theory to be accepted.

Professor David Haury, who co-authored the study, which appears in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching, notes that the assumption has been that the acceptance of evolution is primarily a matter of providing a better education. This study shows that this may not be the case.

That an idea feels "true" or not, plays an important role in whether one accepts the validity of evolution. "Research in neuroscience has shown that when there's a conflict between facts and feeling in the brain, feeling wins," says Haury.

Students in this study were given questions that measured their knowledge level, acceptance of the central points and findings of the science on evolution, and their "gut" feelings about its veracity.

More knowledge of evolution did not automatically translate into acceptance.

This is not to say that education has no role in the acceptance of evolution. For example, the common mistake of defining the term "theory" to mean mere speculation, or an unproven idea, must be a barrier for convincing certain creationists. For that reason, in heated conversations one hears the rebuttal that "evolution is only a theory" far too often.

Teaching others the scientific definition of a theory -- as a well-substantiated explanation of a fact -- is still necessary; natural selection is the theory of evolution that explains the fact of evolution. Nevertheless, what this study shows is that, even when subjects are scientifically literate, there is more to it, something more primal or intuitive.

In particular, the research shows that it may not be accurate to portray religion and science education as competing factors in determining beliefs about evolution. For the subjects of this study, belonging to a religion had almost no additional impact on beliefs about evolution, beyond subjects' feelings of certainty.

In other words, what one knows must correspond to what one feels.

More studies in this area would be beneficial for several reasons. First, Haury finds that this approach could open the doors for teaching evolution in the classroom "without directly questioning religious views." What does he mean? Awareness of one's decision-making process is crucial. "Knowing that sometimes what their 'gut' says is in conflict with what their 'head' knows may help students judge ideas on their merits." This self-reflection can help us clear the wooded path created by our emotions, so that the facts can be considered.

Secondly, further studies could look at the United States. What would this study look like for creationists who would identify their gut reaction with the voice of God or the Spirit of God or something more mystical? How do these blurry lines between gut feelings and religious interpretations of those gut feelings affect the discussion in a different context? How could this factor of intuitive cognitions be studied?

And thirdly, as The University of Toledo Professor of Law Emeritus, Howard Friedman, notes on his blog Religion Clause, the year has only begun and there are already six anti-evolution bills introduced across several states. If the conversation (or debate) between evolutionists and creationists is to find any clarity, getting at the heart of what really rankles the religious person is paramount and timely.

That's my theory, anyway.