Nature 461, 1173-1174 (29 October 2009) | doi:10.1038/4611173b; Published online 28 October 2009
Darwin and culture
A new series of essays traces the astounding variety of reactions to the theory of evolution.
The public reception of scientific ideas depends largely on two factors: people's ability to grasp factual information and the cultural lens through which that information is filtered. The former is what scientists tend to focus on when they give popular accounts of issues such as climate change. The assumption is that if they explain things very, very clearly, everyone will understand. Unfortunately, this is an uphill battle. The general public's average capacity to weigh facts and numbers is notoriously poor — although there is encouraging evidence that probabilistic reasoning can be improved by targeted education early in life (see page 1189).
Even more crucial, however, are the effects of the cultural lens. Over the coming month, Nature's Opinion pages will explore particularly vivid examples of these effects in the world's widely divergent reactions to Charles Darwin's ideas about evolution in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (see page 1200).
In England, for example, the Church reacted badly to Darwin's theory, going so far as to say that to believe it was to imperil your soul. But the notion that Darwin's ideas 'killed' God and were a threat to religion was by no means the universal response in the nineteenth century.
Darwin's theory reached the world at a time when many people were looking for explanations for social, political and racial inequalities, and in many parts of the world were wondering how to improve their lot in the face of Europe's global imperialism. So from Egypt to India, China and Japan, many religious scholars embraced Darwin's ideas, often showing how their own schools of thought had anticipated the notion of evolution. Against the threat of Western imperialism and Western charges of 'backwardness', it was to their advantage to highlight the rationality of their creed.
In China, Darwin's ideas were seen as supporting Confucians' belief in the perfectibility of the cosmic order. Evolutionary theory also became fodder for political movements of revolution and reform, and eventually laid the groundwork for communism. Latin American politicians initially reacted to Darwin's ideas by attempting to entice white Europeans to emigrate and intermarry with local populations, believing that this would 'improve the stock'. But after two world wars had made European culture look less impressive, Latin America began to see its racial diversity as an advantage, and moved towards a social view that favoured a homogeneous blend of cultures.
In nineteenth-century Russia, meanwhile, a tendency to distrust rabid, dog-eat-dog capitalism helped incline naturalists away from a view of evolution that emphasized competition between species. Instead they embraced a 'theory of mutual aid', an account that focused on the role of cooperation in ensuring survival in a harsh environment.
The lesson for today's scientists and policy-makers is simple: they cannot assume that a public presented with 'the facts' will come to the same conclusion as themselves. They must take value systems, cultural backdrops and local knowledge gaps into account and frame their arguments accordingly. Such approaches will be crucial in facing current global challenges, from recessions to pandemics and climate change. These issues will be perceived and dealt with differently by different nations — not because they misunderstand, but because their understanding is in part locally dependent.
Darwin once said: "But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy." Researchers and policy-makers would do well to mimic his humility when presenting science, and remember how people's minds truly work.