Do Americans reject evolution because it’s a “bad story”?

Have a gander at the lucubrations of a professor who has too much time on his hands. Tom Bartlett, a senior editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, interviewed me this week about one academic’s theory on why so many Americans reject evolution.

The theory was floated by Dan McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University—and head of his department—who specializes in “narrative psychology.” It’s described (and handily refuted by yours truly) in a piece at the Chronicle’s Percolator column: “Is evolution a lousy story?”  The theory:

Dan McAdams offers one possible, rarely discussed reason: Maybe evolution is a lousy story. Actually, McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, doesn’t think evolution is a story at all. There is no protagonist, no motivation, no purpose—all crucial elements in a narrative, whether it’s Frog and Toad Are Friends or Fifty Shades of Grey.

He mentioned this idea recently during a presentation at the Consilience Conference,which also drew researchers from biology, economics, and literary studies. Afterward, a seemingly annoyed audience member questioned McAdams’s apparent criticism of evolution, countering that it’s in fact a wonderful, elegant explanation of life. McAdams agreed that it’s wonderful and elegant. He just doesn’t think it’s a story.

McAdams’s research focus is narrative psychology—specifically, the development of a “life-story model of human identity.” As he writes in his book The Redemptive Self,“People create stories to make sense of their lives.” When you think about it, we tell stories to make sense of pretty much everything. The problem is that evolution doesn’t fit neatly into the narrative box. As McAdams puts it: “You can’t really feel anything for this character—natural selection.”

The biblical story of creation, in contrast, couldn’t be richer. Talk about drama! Characters who want things, surprising reversals, heroes, villains, nudity. There’s a reason it outsells On the Origin of Species, and it may be why scientists haven’t had more success at moving the needle of public opinion.

Only someone who is completely ignorant of the facts about evolution-rejection in the U.S. could hypothesize that this rejection stems from evolution being a flawed narrative. That’s completely bogus.  The reason evolution is rejected is because it has implications that are inimical to religion: evolution rips away from the human psyche the idea that we’re the goal of God’s creation, and evolved by precisely the same process as did squirrels and dandelions. Yes, the Bible is a narrative that’s more widely accepted by Americans, but that’s because that narrative tells us things we want to hear.  Evolution is also rejected by many Muslims, but the Qur’an is no improvement as narrative over evolution, and is far worse than the Bible.

I talk about the reams of evidence implicating religion in the Chronicle article, much of it taken from my paper that will shortly appear in Evolution:  “Science, religion, and society: the problem of evolution in America.” I’m correcting the galley proofs now, and am told it will be freely accessible to all when the corrected manuscript is published online shortly. (I’ll let you know when.)

Let me just quote one thing from the paper: it’s a verbatim statement from a  2007 Pew Forum piece by David Masci, in which he analyzes the conflict between religion and science:

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of [American] people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.

Note the reasons: belief in Jesus and God, religion in general, and “lack of evidence.”  Nobody says “evolution just isn’t a good story.”  Based on the above and much other evidence I cite in the paper, I told Bartlett that Professor McAdams didn’t know whereof he spoke.

In light of that, Coyne doesn’t think evolution’s failure as a thriller is the real issue. The only person who could conclude that, Coyne says, is “someone who hasn’t looked at the facts about why evolution is rejected.”

Indeed, read more about the ludicrous “narrative theory,” and why at least one literary Darwinist accepts it, in the Chronicle piece.


  1. Posted May 6, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne, I’m an avid reader of your blog and look forward daily to your many and varied posts.

    I am unfamiliar with Dr. Dan McAdams’ work. However, he appears to have proposed a testable hypothesis. Your premise that “Only someone who is completely ignorant of the facts about evolution-rejection in the U.S. could hypothesize that this rejection stems from evolution being a flawed narrative” is very likely false: it’s been well-established in the literature that people do not consistently make economically rational decisions, and that presenting factual evidence often serves only to reinforce people’s existing counter-factual views (respondents then attribute their reinforced opinion to “lack of evidence” on the other side.)

    In my opinion you have too hastily flamed down a potentially valuable piece of work: Whether or not Dr. McAdams’ hypothesis bears fruit, it is nonetheless directly on point to the problem of how and why the majority of our species comes to believe in the supernatural.

    • Filippo
      Posted May 6, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

      Let’s grant that Professor McAdams is simply and solely remarking that evolution does not readily lend itself to “storytelling.” I look forward to hearing him further hold forth on the influence of religion.

      There is obviously a certain per centage of humans, however nominal it may me, who don’t require the window dressing of storytelling, who don’t have to be “entertained” in order to be engaged.

      Does this just reflect the current state/stage of human evolution? Some (no doubt greater rather than lesser number of) centuries or millenia from now, shall we reasonably anticipate that humanity will just a little less “bear the stamp of our lowly origin” (Darwin) and be a little more rational and a little less in need of being “entertained” and rescued by someone else from “boredom”?

      What are “economically rational decisions”? Do economists have a monopoly on “rational” decision-making?

      No doubt economists and Wall Street analyst-types wailed and railed about the owner of Malden Mills in Massachusetts, not being “economically rational” in being financially supportive of his employees after the mill burned down some years ago.

      Years ago the local high school band was selling oranges to raise funds. One local omniscient redneck Philistine had sampled them and took it on himself to announce to anyone who came within earshot, to-wit: “Them oranges ain’t no good!” (From my experience there are lots of redneck fruit experts.) They did not meet the exacting standards of the highly discriminating, self-regarding redneck palate.

      Upon examining them myself, I was reasonably persuaded that they were edible but not particularly enjoyably so.
      Nevertheless, to his shocked surprise, I bought a unit (of whatever size they were – a half-bushel?). He presumed to repeat his evaluation to me, as if his initial assessment hadn’t taken with me. I told him words to the effect that nevertheless I WOULD purchase a unit. (I didn’t tell him so, but I did not owe him an explanation.) I was bound and determined to support that marching band, even if (as my my grandfather used to say) “it hair-lipped the Devil.”

      Whether I bought oranges, or simply decided to donate some money to the cause, either way, do I correctly gather that mine was not an “economically rational” decision? (It never occurred to me at age 19 to itemize it come income tax filing time.)

      I submit that there are certain decisions in Life – involving solidarity and sympathy with and support of others – where “economically rational decision” – making has no bearing.

      • Filippo
        Posted May 6, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

        It occurs to me to ask: is “economic rationality” relevant to the decision to join the military and go in harm’s way to possibly be killed or maimed for life? I gather that “economic rationality” was relevant for the principals of, for example, Bain Capital, who accordingly opted not to so go in harm’s way.

  2. Posted May 7, 2012 at 1:12 am | Permalink

    I just came across this article which seems to lend some credibility to McAdams thesis, albeit from quite a different context:


    Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, says science backs up the long-held belief that story is the most powerful means of communicating a message.


    • Posted May 7, 2012 at 3:36 am | Permalink

      And it’s worth considering the fact that virtually all young children are exposed to religious stories and other forms of religious indoctrination, whether from their parents or other sources. Children are even more susceptible to stories and other forms of indoctrination than adults are, and that’s why religious zombies put a lot of planning and effort into “Sunday School”, religious children books, videos, and other types of brainwashing agendas. Anything implanted in a young mind is really hard to discard.

  3. Notagod
    Posted May 7, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    There seems to be a number of people thinking the makeup an evolution story is a good idea. I think it is a horrid idea but have any of you thought about what story you would have told? Have you even looked to see if there are already any children’s book that tell evolution as a story? Does the story you want told compromise facts about the processes of evolution or would you compromise facts about the organisms that have been produced while retaining the true processes? Do you realize that the christians are trying to do exactly that, that is, make up evolutionary stories?

    Dr. Coyne is an educator, do you want him to teach biology as a story? Do you want all the organisms dressed up in Star Wars outfits?

    If some story did succeed, so now everyone believes evolution in the way that story characterizes evolution, aren’t the educators left with the same problem of deconstructing a false story in order to get students to know the truth? And wouldn’t the christian stories still persist? So aren’t you just compounding the problem?

    My thought is that this story concept is a veiled attempt to take the heat off the real problem, christianity, and place the blame on something else, to be determined as it is created. And wouldn’t it be great for the christians if they could get atheists on their side to do it?

    • Filippo
      Posted May 7, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Permalink


      Do we want to “entertain,” or educate, inform, enlighten?

    • Posted May 8, 2012 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

      Yes it has been done. There is a very good series of picture books:

      Born with a Bang
      From Lava to Life
      Mammals that Morph

      I’ve bought all three for my kids, and I see them as most appropriate for the age group they were in at the time. And frankly necessary as I cannot prevent my kids from being exposed to the Christian stories.

      In the Same Vain the
      “Here comes Science” album by They might be giants, is a great counter to catch evangelist jingles.

      Tailoring your explanations to the age of your audience is normal, and perfectly effective. what you do is give them the simple version first, and then present more
      sophisticated versions as refinements to the knowledge.

  4. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 7, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    If he had just said that religion generally has narrative-qualities and that evolution does not insofar as religion postulates an anthropomorphic quality on the universe, this would have some credibility. But it would be a further explanation of what we already know about the conflict of science and religion. But to put this forward a new/alternative explanation is odd.

  5. Posted May 7, 2012 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Who said that the evolution story has to be “false”?

    I brought up the TV show Cosmos and the Ken Burns documentaries because they’re presented in a story telling sort of way. They’re very popular, yet not “false”. Real facts can be presented in interesting and even entertaining ways.

    Some people want nothing but cold, hard, technical facts but most people find that boring and way too complicated. I’m not saying that a story telling approach is the only thing that should be employed but if done properly it could really help to educate the masses and get them more interested in science and the subject of evolution, and it would be especially effective with children.

    • Notagod
      Posted May 7, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      That approach has been used for a long time, I assume that isn’t what McAdams is interested in.

      Richard Dawkins Magic of Reality is a more recent example from a GNU atheist. There are lots of example so if that is what McAdams is referring to he must be clueless.

      Christianity IS the problem, the herders obviously see evolution as not supportive of the jesus tale and want to suppress the truth.

  6. greyhound1405
    Posted May 7, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Five fingers

  7. Posted May 7, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I cannot help but wonder what McAdams would say to the notorious John Angus Campbell, of DI fame. He has a talk (which I heard before his affiliation with the DI was obvious or, likely, in existence) _Why Was Darwin Believed_, which makes the case that Darwin was believed because of his use of appropriate rhetorical strategies and techniques, including some familiar in the religious scene. At the time I heard it, my only real exposure to the “rhetoric of science” stuff was through a bunch of vaguely “postmodern” stuff, so I took it as more of the same. But now I realize there was likely more going on there. In any case, now we’ve got two people, supposedly experts in language and word usage (admittedly from different perspectives) with semi-duelling claims …

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