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When it comes to evolution, Kiwis think more like Scandinavians than Americans

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Nine out of 10 New Zealanders said in a recent survey that they believe humans evolved from primate ancestors.

Do you agree that “humans evolved from earlier primate ancestors over millions of years”? If the answer is yes, then you’re not alone – have a party with the nine out of 10 New Zealanders who think the same.

That’s the proportion of 11,000 people who answered in the affirmative when surveyed in April by students John Kerr and Samantha Stanley and me.

I’ve asked this question before, in a 2011 survey of political attitudes, and the percentage of believers then was eight in 10. So, we’ve either become a bit more scientific in our leanings over the past eight years or people who believe in evolution are more likely to answer a survey about science than politics.

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Either way, it’s a big proportion of the population, up there with Scandinavians, when they’ve been asked the same question. In 40 years of surveying Americans, however, no more than half the population agree with the proposition.

Between the US and Europe, the basis for this belief also differs. In the biggest international study of its kind, University of Michigan researcher Jon Miller collected surveys from more than 30 countries. In both the US and Europe, people who strongly believed in a “personal” god, and who engaged in frequent religious practice, were much less likely to endorse evolution, but the relationship between religiosity and evolution belief was about one and a half times stronger in the US.

Importantly, and completely unsurprisingly, political beliefs are also part of the foundation for Americans’ beliefs about evolution, but not Europeans. Unsurprisingly, the link between one’s religion and one’s politics is also half as strong again for Americans. The way Americans vote is intertwined with their religion.

Kiwis might like to think of themselves as more secular than Americans, but our politics and religion are still important predictors of our acceptance or rejection of evolution. Indeed, it’s not so much that being religious in New Zealand means you’re less likely to accept evolution at face value, but rather the more irreligious you are, the more accepting you are. Similarly, the more politically left you lean, the more pro-evolution you will be, in general. But even here, the balance between the two is important: irreligiosity is more than twice as strongly predictive of pro-evolution attitudes than being a lefty. In part, this is because our social and economic politics are rather more independent than those in the US, where Americans march much more in lockstep because their political system means they have to.

MMP may have its naysayers, but it does mean we have different combinations of political herbs and spices. For supporters of the Labour and Green parties, being socially liberal is strongly correlated with being economically left wing, whereas  National Party backers tend to be socially moderate and economically right wing. But Act Party supporters, the most economically rightist, are almost socially liberal. NZ First’s followers are fascinating for being the only people who tend towards both social and economic conservatism.

In trying to come up with an explanation for what we think of evolution, then, these two flavours of politics almost cancel out: social conservatism goes with greater religiosity and thence less positivity about this notion of evolution, and being economically right wing (weakly) predicts endorsement of evolution.

I don’t want to think about that one too closely, because it’s not hard to find examples of belief systems where free-market anarchy holds hands with ethnocultural supremacy, and the argument that white people are more evolved and civilised than other folk.

What does this mean? Why should anyone care? If nothing else, it says we have more in common with countries such as Norway and Denmark than the US. It’s up to you to decide whether this is a good thing.

This article was first published in the June 22, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.