The Fight Over Evolution Isn't Actually All That Important

| Mon Jun. 11, 2012 2:04 PM EDT

I'm not especially trying to pick on Andrew Sullivan here, but today he echoed a meme that I now feel like I've heard a million times and that really, really needs some pushback. He's responding to Gallup's latest survey about evolution, in which 46% of Americans say God created humans in their present form sometime in the past 10,000 years:

This chart is a useful tonic to anyone feeling optimistic about bringing the country together....I'm not sure how many of the 46 percent actually believe the story of 10,000 years ago. Surely some of them know it's less empirically spported than Bigfoot. My fear is that some of that 46 percent are giving that answer not as an empirical response, but as a cultural signifier. That means that some are more prepared to cling to untruth than concede a thing to libruls or atheists or blue America, or whatever the "other" is at any given point in time. I simply do not know how you construct a civil discourse indispensable to a functioning democracy with this vast a gulf between citizens in their basic understanding of the world.

Come on. This 46% number has barely budged over the past three decades, and I'm willing to bet it was at least as high back in the 50s and early 60s, that supposed golden age of comity and bipartisanship. It simply has nothing to do with whether we can all get along and nothing to do with whether we can construct a civil discourse.

The fact is that belief in evolution has virtually no real-life impact on anything. That's why 46% of the country can safely choose not to believe it: their lack of belief has precisely zero effect on their lives. Sure, it's a handy way of saying that they're God-fearing Christians — a "cultural signifier," as Andrew puts it — but our lives are jam-packed with cultural signifiers. This is just one of thousands, one whose importance probably barely cracks America's top 100 list.

And the reason it doesn't is that even creationists don't take their own views seriously. How do I know this? Well, creationists like to fight over whether we should teach evolution in high school, but they never go much beyond that. Nobody wants to remove it from university biology departments. Nobody wants to shut down actual medical research that depends on the workings of evolution. In short, almost nobody wants to fight evolution except at the purely symbolic level of high school curricula, the one place where it barely matters in the first place. The dirty truth is that a 10th grade knowledge of evolution adds only slightly to a 10th grade understanding of biology.

Now, I think evolution should remain in high school texts anyway. Why? Because it's true. Biology is a science, and evolution is one of the pillars of modern science. For me, that's a cultural signifier every bit as much as a literal reading of the Bible is for 46% of the country. But you know what? I could spend an entire day arguing politics and economics and culture with a conservative and never so much as mention evolution. It's just not that important, and it doesn't tell us much of anything about our widening political polarization. We should keep up the fight, but at the same time we shouldn't pretend it has an epic significance that it doesn't. I'm not optimistic about anyone or anything "bringing the country together," but not because lots of people choose to deny evolution. Frankly, that's one of the least of our problems.

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