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An Evolutionary Explanation for Unscientific Beliefs

“Another theory is that humans were created by God,” announced my tenth-grade biology student as she clicked past PowerPoint slides of Darwin’s finches and on to images of a catastrophic flood. After her presentation, I carefully avoided inane debate and simply reiterated the unique ways in which science helps us make accurate predictions. I then prepared for pushback from parents and administrators. Sure enough, the next day the superintendent of the school district came to my classroom with some creationist literature that he was confident would change my mind on the whole theory of evolution by natural selection thing. It didn’t, but it did lead me to pursue a PhD in educational psychology in my search to explain how such beliefs could be maintained in modern times, particularly in the face of such strong counterevidence.

As it turns out, the theory of evolution by natural selection provides a strong explanation for how and why some people don’t believe evolution by natural selection has ever taken place. I initially thought the problem was a matter of knowledge and the standards people have for what constitutes knowledge, but eventually it became clear that holders of anti-scientific beliefs (from William Jennings Brian of the Scopes Monkey Trial to modern day conspiracy theorists) typically root their convictions in moral obligation.

To understand morality from an evolutionary point of view, one needs to realize that humans have always existed in groups. Often, these groups compete with one another, and this means group-level selection pressures have influenced individual traits, including psychological traits. For example, if two tribes come into conflict with one another, the tribe with members better able to cooperate will prevail. Thus, psychological phenomena such as empathy, concern for fairness and reciprocity, in-group loyalty, and respect for hierarchy have a selective advantage in contexts of group competition, and we immediately recognize the lack of these traits as psychopathy. In other words, most humans have innate tendencies that guide moral development—participating in fair exchanges and seeing moral violators punished are both inherently pleasurable, whereas witnessing injustice and suffering are inherently uncomfortable (just as sweet tastes are innately pleasurable and bitter tastes are innately aversive, even for infants).

Thus, what we consider moral and why we consider it moral are not arbitrary nor are they solely guided by social learning. Our moral intuitions are rooted in natural selection’s answers to social problems that have consistently arisen throughout our evolutionary past. Nonetheless, what we readily recognize as moral is dependent on a wide range of conceptual abilities that must be flexible enough to adapt to cultural contexts and be utilized correctly in specific social circumstances (for instance, empathy for an in-group member’s loss but pleasure in an enemy’s loss), so a significant part of our moral intuitions are dependent on learning and social experience as well.

This dynamic interaction of genes, culture, and learning is often referred to as gene-culture coevolution, which posits that as humans began to rely on the transmission of cultural knowledge for survival, cultural learning became a factor that interacts with genes to guide evolutionary outcomes. For example, Inuit people living in the arctic rely on complex strategies for obtaining food and shelter. The loss of even a small amount of this knowledge could be catastrophic, so the ability for an individual to learn (and for the group to teach) the necessary knowledge and skills is a selective pressure that has influenced Inuit genes and traits.

Scientists have a pretty good idea of when this cultural learning gained traction as a selective pressure. Paleontologists have found right-handed cutting and carving tools from about two million years ago. Handedness is a result of specialized functions for the left and right halves of the brain (brain lateralization), and brain lateralization is evidence of abstract language abilities, the foundation of cultural transmission. Thus, for about two million years, maybe more, gene-culture coevolution has influenced many of our learning biases, including providing psychological mechanisms by which cultural and social pressures can override firsthand experiences and rational thoughts.

Prior to science and accurate causal models for natural phenomena, cultures themselves evolved through trial and error, relying on superstition, myth, and tradition to perpetuate survival-enhancing knowledge and skills. In such circumstances, an ability to override rational thoughts in favor of conformity could have a reproductive benefit. We can see evidence of such conformity biases in neuroimaging studies—when participants change their opinions to match with others, the part of the brain involved in feelings of pleasure and happiness becomes more active. We’re also more likely to imitate and learn from high-prestige individuals, which is why high-prestige individuals are paid so much to market products (a phenomenon known as the “prestige effect”). Finally, in the most extreme cases, high-emotional arousal can completely shut down a person’s rational faculties. Why would an academic discussion of sediment layers on the earth’s crust catalyze a high-intensity emotional response from someone? Because it threatens their membership in their tribe, and our brains are wired so that our emotional faculties can shut down our rational faculties in the face of such a threat.

Which brings us back to anti-scientific beliefs. If you are a member of a group in which membership is dependent on maintaining certain beliefs, there will be nothing more emotionally arousing than threats to those beliefs, which are in effect threats to the integrity of your group and your membership in it. For millions of years the greatest threat to our ancestors came not from lions or snakes but from ostracism, which would have left them vulnerable to all sorts of harms. If you doubt that these psychological mechanisms exist, try using evidence to convince a creationist that evolution by natural selection occurs or a climate change denier that human-induced climate change is real, or a die-hard Cowboys fan that the Green Bay Packers are a better football team. Most likely you already have tried something like this, and you know very well that it is futile, enraging, and sometimes even traumatic.

However, there is hope. Emotions themselves do not drive moral intuitions or these in-group biases, and neurological evidence shows that brains are sensitive to moral relevance prior to emotional relevance. The brain is not evolutionarily wired for the “purpose” of emotions. The brain is wired to accomplish complex social goals, and it uses emotions as another source of information to that end. This is relevant in science education and communication because when rational explanations and evidence for one’s position are lacking (for example, in the case of creationism), proponents will default to reframing the debate as a moral one. Appeals will be made to moral foundations such as care, harm, justice, respect for authority, in-group loyalty, cleanliness, purity, or sanctity, either implicitly or explicitly. It is this moral framing that stimulates the emotional response, not the other way around; and this moral framing is designed to take advantage of some of our most deeply evolved psychological traits.

In conclusion, science communication and science education are done by humans, and each human is the result of millions of years of social selective pressures that have come to prioritize groupishness. As societies, we build conceptual domains of morality on the foundations of our evolved moral traits, and we have designed cultural tools and institutions in support of this process. Certain facets of our moral world and our ability to learn are innate, but the ways in which these moral tools are deployed are culturally constructed. We are responsible for creating our moral world using the vestigial remnants of our tribal pasts and the accumulated wisdom of our evolved moral intuitions. Ignoring this leads to failed science education and communication efforts and baffled science teachers and communicators.

Finally, astute observers might have noticed a recent trend toward moralized rationality in which scientists are readily framing issues in science as moral issues (e.g., GMOs, climate change, and vaccinations), and group membership and social standing are contingent upon taking a particular stance. This seems to be an inevitability of humans doing science. But, given the power of human social groups and their ability to think and act irrationally when riled by moral concern, it is also risky.

Brandon Bretl is a research fellow and PhD candidate in the department of educational psychology at the University of Kansas. His current research is focused on explaining how political ideology and other cultural factors influence cognitive development during adolescence. You can follow him on Twitter @BrandonBretl


  1. The brain is wired to accomplish complex social goals, and it uses emotions as another source of information to that end.

    If genetic variation is selected for its ability to enhance biological fitness (i.e., ability to survive & reproduce), and if our beliefs/behavior are adaptive; it therefore follows that, to the extent our cognitive faculties create/cause our beliefs/behavior, the brain has been selected (“wired”) to produce beliefs/behaviors that enhance evolutionary fitness within a given environment.

    when rational explanations and evidence for one’s position are lacking (for example, in the case of creationism), proponents will default to reframing the debate as a moral one.

    So… you’re saying progressive positions lack rational explanations and evidence? Yes, that’s been my experience as well.

  2. As a teacher of Critical Thinking one of the most telling conversations I ever had went like this:
    Me: Critical Thinking is a valuable subject because the skills you learn will help you to see where popular opinions are wrong and often repeated arguments are weak, allowing you to make up your own mind about issues.
    Student: But I’ll lose all my friends!

  3. try using evidence to convince a creationist that evolution by natural selection occurs or a climate change denier that human-induced climate change is real
    Or for that matter, try convincing Greta Thunberg the world will not end in twelve years.

    But let’s look at irrational rationally. One should view defending creationism or taking an unscientific radical position on environmentalism for what it is, cultural shorthand. A way of reducing vast complex issues into simple battles.

    William Jennings Bryan was not an unsophisticated bible-thumper. He was a visionary cultural critic who understood that Darwinism had the potential to unleash everything from rapacious capitalism to eugenics and the rise of communism and eventually Nazism - and he was absolutely and unabashedly correct.

    The same with environmentalism, an overwrought, though rational, reaction to unfettered materialism. While the basic science of greenhouse gases is well documented, global warming hysteria is based on a religious certainty that goes far beyond the facts. Like the battle for creationism, it is simply a great tool to rally religious zealots.

    In short, I agree with the author - but if one is going to criticize unscientific beliefs, it might be polite to begin with one’s own.

  4. Fair enough, but the author could have chosen bilateral examples, such as:

    Try to convince a warmist that the Australian fires were the result of arson or that the California fires were the result of bad management of undergrowth or that the 1930s were hotter than anything after (in the U.S.) and in order to mask that fact, past temperature data have been “adjusted.”

    Better still: try to convince a leftist that only two XX chromosomes make a woman.

    Other than that, very interesting article.

  5. This is a welcome topic, but it unfortunately struggles with its understanding of evolutionary biology. In particular it makes a common error by invoking group selection:

    For example, if two tribes come into conflict with one another, the tribe with members better able to cooperate will prevail.

    No, that’s not how it works. Sure, the more cooperative tribe will probably prevail, but that doesn’t necessarily lead to selection for cooperation because there is gene flow between the two tribes. Before conflict, there were probably individuals moving between the tribes, but even if there weren’t, after one tribe conquers the other, it generally mates with the loser’s women, introgressing the “loser genes” into its own population. Even if it doesn’t, it will soon share genes with both loser and winner tribes alike, regressing back to the mean for cooperation. For group selection to operate, there has to be 1) virtually no gene flow between groups – unlikely since it would usually result in massive deleterious inbreeding – and 2) enough different groups competing for natural selection to escape the random fluctuations of genetic drift associated with small population sizes (here, the number of groups, not the sum of their individuals, is the effective population size for predicting evolutionary trajectories). In practice, these conditions are extraordinarily rare in nature, and non-existent in humans. Cooperative behaviors are instead selected because they confer a selfish benefit on cooperative genes via kin selection.

    Another problem with the thesis that “unscientific beliefs” can be explained by literal natural selection is that it would require that the people that hold these beliefs are highly genetically distinct from those that do not, and have been for many generations. As an evolutionary biologist from the deep South (like my hero E.O. Wilson), I find this hard to swallow.

    On the other hand, cultural evolution, at least somewhat independent of biological evolution – i.e., in the realm of memes and not genes – could have a role in sustaining unscientific beliefs. I’ve written about this elsewhere, and also have a piece in press (happy to send a pre-pub draft to interested parties) on how to use this understanding to more effectively teach evolutionary biology in highly religious areas.

  6. Imagine a Metrolectual rushing through a mall at Christmastime shrieking, “There is no such thing as Santa Claus!”

    While one can certainly argue they are correct, is it wise to do that?

    Do we truly understand the myth of Santa Claus and do we truly understand the costs and benefits of shattering that myth?

    Knowledge may be transmitted through science - but what transmits wisdom?

    If it is wise to refrain from shouting, “there is no such thing as Santa Claus” in a mall, why is it then not wise to refrain from challenging creationism in places where the belief is fundamental to how people view themselves and their relations to others?

  7. Why is it “not wise to refrain from challenging creationism in places where the belief is fundamental”?

    Well, perhaps because it is unethical to treat grown adults like children.

    We lie to children about Santa to make Christmas a bit more magical (especially for those of us who don’t buy the Christmas miracle shtick).

    But adults need to live in the real world, especially when it comes to fundamental understanding of how nature operates. Wrong ideas have bad consequences. The fact that many American doctors didn’t believe in evolution in the 1960’s may be a contributing factor to the oversubscription of antibiotics. Those who understood evolution warned early on that eventually pathogens would evolve immunity to antibiotics- but doctors oversubscribed them anyway. Now we face a serious threat from superbugs.

    It is a mark of respect for others that you challenge their wrong beliefs. To ignore nonsense like creationism is a form of condescension- rather like pretending that Santa is real so as not to upset children.

  8. Ah, Christians. The punching bag for every article written about anti-scientific beliefs. I’ll give you a better example of anti-scientific belief that flies in the face of what we know.

    Here is a simple set of questions that will guarantee the listener will turn off her brain and become anti-science in a jiffy:

    • Do genetics have any effect on a person’s biology?
    • Does biology affect physical and/or mental ability?
    • Does biology have any bearing on expressed gender or sex?
    • Are there any biological components to racial identification (skin color, eye shape, etc)?
    • As a group distribution (not at an individual level), do all races share equal ability in physical endeavors (running, weight lifting, etc)?
    • As a group distribution (not at an individual level), do all races share equal ability in mental endeavors (math, science, programming)?
    • As a group distribution (not at an individual level), do genders share equal ability in physical endeavors?
    • As a group distribution (not at an individual level), do genders share equal ability in mental endeavors?

    The answer to these questions are obvious and uncomfortable. However, the side that pretends to worship science is the one rejecting it in this case.

    Note: variability within groups is almost always greater than variability between groups, meaning race and sex do not determine an individual’s ability. However, when pushing anti-scientific programs that categorize groups of people, it is unscientific to ignore data about group distribution.

  9. “To ignore nonsense like angiogenesis is equally condescending.”

    I would say the two are different. Angiogenesis is a hypothesis about how life may have begun in the original conditions on earth 3.8 billion years ago. So far, the hypothesis is yet unproven: But that doesn’t make it “nonsense”…
    Creationism, on the other hand, is unprovable by definition, given that it posits a supernatural cause of a natural event, and is therefore beyond the bounds of any rational explanation.

    This is as good a definition of “nonsense” as it is possible to make.

  10. First you have misquoted Ray who wrote: “the same way, to ignore nonsense like abiogenesis, is equally condescending.”

    He did not write “angiogenesis”.

    “Creationism, on the other hand, is unprovable by definition, given that it posits a supernatural cause of a natural event,…”

    Yet according to science living organisms arose from non living material and original matter was created from nothing. Are these not super natural explanations?

  11. Where are the scientists in the last half century who have used evolutionary theory to place “their group” “on top”? The most controversial research I’m aware of is IQ research, mostly done by European-derived people, all of whom acknowledge that “their group” is not by any means “on top”.

    Plus I really get sick of people using the term “eugenics” as a blanket perjorative for the study of genetic variation in humans. It’s a gross misuse of the term; my suspicion is that HBD people would in general be more skeptical of “eugenics” than the general population.

  12. It was autocorrect that replaced “abiogenesis” with “angiogenesis”, which I didn’t notice.

    The idea that living organisms arose from non-living matter is not a supernatural belief, because it posits natural law and natural causality as leading to life, which is itself reducible to chemistry. Vitalism is a dead idea. Nor is the idea of the big bang supernatural. The origin of matter is posited to be the consequence of natural law too. There is nothing supernatural about quantum mechanics.

    However, the door remains open for a kind of higher level creationism, in that we are probably never going to be able to explain why natural laws exist in the first place. Any scientific explanation ultimately rests on nature. Within that framework, we can explain the genesis of life and the creation of the universe, at least in theory. But why the universe is constructed in such a way as to allow for existence itself will remain a mystery.

  13. The big bang may be the natural consequence of eternal inflation. The notion is that quantum fields can spontaneously move from one energy level to another, creating a burst of energy which creates both space and time as it expands. In this model, the laws of nature arise spontaneously, with the constants of nature being set by initial conditions.
    The notion of the multiverse is that there are 10 to the 500th possible ways of configuring these laws, so that most universes are untenable for life. Many are just composed of black holes, or endlessly dissipating clouds of gas. The fine tuning problem points to the problem of getting all of these laws of nature to combine to create a stable universe composed of stars and planets. The multiverse solves this problem by positing so many universes that some will work.

    But why it is possible to have quantum fields that can spontaneously decay to create universes may be beyond our science. If so, it will always be possible to believe in the supernatural as the ultimate cause of everything. The proximatecauses, however, remain the purview of science. Creationism fails because it confuses those two levels of explanation.

    As for the first cells, right now the problem is to find a way to go from the synthesis of amino acids, which happens quite easily, to the creation of an RNA- DNA mechanism for encoding and replicating information. So far, the most interesting work is being done investigating undersea thermal vents in which complex chemistry occurs in a high energy level environment in which chemical reactions can become precursors to functioning cells. Other than that, no one is sure. But hypothesizing supernatural intervension at this level seems premature, given our recent 8nterest in this area. We may not know for the next hundred years.

  14. I don’t know whether this is addressed to me, but I’ll take a shot.

    What you are positing is an epistemology based on evolutionary fitness: something is true because it is adaptive. This is suspiciously close to pragmatism, the theory that things are true because they’re useful.

    But that begs the question of whether this doesn’t just get it backwards: things arent true because they’re useful; they’re useful because they are true.

    The hope of the Enlightenment was that human reason was sufficient to discover the truth about the natural world, and banish superstition. How ironic that when we have almost conquered some diseases, like measles, people would re-assert their irrational beliefs by becoming anti-vacers. Human reason is frail, and subject to confirmation bias and irrational emotion- look no further than the feminist insistence, for example, at a “pay gap” that has been debunked a dozen times.

    But the hope remains that the Enlightenment thinkers were right, and that reason can prevail, and that truth exists. If not, then civilization is built on quicksand.

  15. I think something that could help you wrap your head around this is the concept of sampling bias. Even if the chances of a universe capable of supporting life were 1 in 10^5000000, being alive, your chance of living in a universe capable of supporting life is 100%. Your perspective radically changes the odds because you can only exist in a universe capable of supporting life.

    As @AsenathWaite explains , it is the same process, just given more time and/or environmental pressure. Every intermediate state is better adapted to its changing environmental niche than the previous state.

    It is not “coordinated random changes,” but rather the interplay of two distinct mechanisms: 1) random genetic mistakes, and 2) environmental pressure. Most genetic mistakes will decrease an organism’s ability to survive, but some small minority will increasing fitness for the organism’s specific environment.

    I think this is an important point. Life as we know it could not have originated before the Big Bang, so at some point life must have formed out of non-living components, whether it was designed or not @RayAndrews. The Urey experiments demonstrated that the spontaneous generation of the building blocks of life are easily formed in conditions common on ancient Earth. The question becomes: what additional factors allowed the assembly of these components into a proto-life form? Looking at viruses, that appear alive in some ways but not others, can expand our conception on intermediate states between “not alive” and “alive.” Abiogenesis does not require a bacteria be produced in a test-tube from sterile conditions.

    Yes. Einstein’s ideas about gravity were untestable at the time, but as technology has allowed, we have tested them nearly a century later.

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