Eurocentrism in Evolutionary Discourse? … Let’s Hope Not!

27 Mar

Eurocentric Undercurrents in a Discussion of Evolutionary Belief Versus National Wealth


Jerry Coyne shares a fascinating graph from Calamities of Nature on his WEIT blog, “Belief in Evolution Versus National Wealth.” I know it’s being portrayed as a kind of call to arms of the peoples of the rest of the world to rise out of their religiously-minded ignorance and embrace a modern, scientific worldview and cultural mindset … and so it naturally demonstrates this as a haves and have-nots issue … But I find it, in some respects, surprisingly narrow-minded and Eurocentric.

So the rest of the world, besides Western Europe, is lower on this scale and lower on the totem pole of human worth for not embracing the Darwinian evolutionary worldview?  … I know that’s not what the stats are actually conveying here; but from the way in which this information is being described and presented, that’s what it looks like it’s saying and what follows in the implications arising from it. … That’s what it seems like this model is saying from such a presentation.

However:  You can believe in evolution and even Darwinian Natural Selection without being an enlightened, modern, well-to-do Westerner.

Non-Westerners, and Eastern Europeans, are not backwater yokels. They may or may not believe in evolution, and some of them many actually be religious.  But that does not make them second class human beings.  I’m fairly sure that’s not what’s really being said here through the post and via the original graphic; still that is what’s coming across from reading it.

These kinds of hierarchical scales of ‘betters’ and ‘lessers’ rub me the wrong way a lot of times for the way they can so easily be misconstrued and for fostering bad, ideological ideas in that light.  They may have their merit and contain a great deal of good information regardless; but they also strike me as being a bit ethnocentric if not specifically stipulated to say they are in no way condoning a so-called superiority of the West.

But without actually saying it, there’s no way to tell and this ends up looking like an implicit endorsement of a Western European, ethnocentric and indeed Eurocentric, worldview.

That’s no help at all in discussions like this of evolutionary change and how we approach the idea of it as societies  … just more bad press for evolutionary theory and scholarship.


Evolution vs. wealth

From Calamities of Nature comes this unprofessionally drawn but most enlightening graph of the relationship between national wealth (gross domestic product) and belief in evolution, with each dot representing a country (dots from similar regions have the same color).

The points are not all independent, of course, because geographically contiguous countries have similar religions (ergo similar feelings about evolution) and similar degrees of wealth.  Still, it shows what I’ve mentioned several times before: northern Europe has high national wealth and high belief in evolution; eastern Europe has the opposite, even though many of those countries were once Communist, and the poorer you are, the less likely you are to accept evolution.

The positive relationship suggests that countries that are wealthier, and whose inhabitants are doing better, have less impetus to be religious, and hence less need to reject evolution.

Most striking to Americans is our status as an outlier: our acceptance of evolution is much lower than our GDP would indicate. This is probably the result of other factors that make American society, while wealthy, more socially dysfunctional: greater income inquality, lack of social support like national health care, and so on (see Greg Paul’s work on the strong negative relationship between societal “success” and religiosity).

I’m not a sociologist, of course, so my take is at best superficial, but more and more data show that religion takes hold when society fails to fulfill certain fundamental needs of its members, making them  less secure and more likely to grab for the supernatural.  While the U.S. is a wealthy country, it is very low on Greg Paul’s “successful society scale,” and we have inordinately high levels of income inequality, also a sign of social insecurity.

I’m not a Marxist, but data support Karl’s famous statement, ”Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.”


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