Why Those Who Understand Evolution are Less Likely to be Bigots

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So I saw this study the other day titled “Bigotry and the human–animal divide: (Dis)belief in human evolution and bigoted attitudes across different cultures,” and to be honest I almost gave it a pass: like, sure, I get it, dumbasses who don’t understand evolution are also giant racists. Sure. News at 11. 

But I’m really glad I decided to go back and take a second look, because I found something much more interesting than “this confirms my own personal beliefs about how terrible religious fundamentalists.” I mean, yes, it did also confirm that in a way but in another way it articulated something else I’ve suspected for some time but I didn’t realize there was active research happening on it. In essence: animal rights lead to human rights. I know, you were NOT expecting me to go there. That’s what I do, I like to keep you on your toes! Smash that subscribe button, pound that thumbs up, obliterate my patreon if you want some more zany mind fucks.


These researchers took survey data from about 64,000 people in 45 different countries across eight separate studies and found an association between bigotry and a lack of understanding of evolution (the researchers call it a “belief” but when talking about obvious facts like evolution, or the color of the sky, or how cute my dog is, I personally prefer to talk about understanding over belief). What kind of bigotry exactly? Well, quoting from the study abstract:

“…low belief in human evolution was associated with higher levels of prejudice, racist attitudes, and support for discriminatory behaviors against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ), Blacks, and immigrants in the United States (Study 1), with higher ingroup biases, prejudicial attitudes toward outgroups, and less support for conflict resolution in samples collected from 19 Eastern European countries (Study 2), 25 Muslim countries (Study 3), and Israel (Study 4). Further, among Americans, lower belief in evolution was associated with greater prejudice and militaristic attitudes toward political outgroups (Study 5).”

So far, we’re still in that area of “confirming why I don’t get along with religious fanatics, right? They don’t understand evolution AND they’re bigots! But! Here’s where it gets interesting:

“Finally, perceived similarity to animals (a construct distinct from belief in evolution, Study 6) partially mediated the link between belief in evolution and prejudice (Studies 7 and 8), even when controlling for religious beliefs, political views, and other demographic variables, and were also observed for nondominant groups (i.e., religious and racial minorities). ”

So in Study 6 they controlled for religion AND observed that they could lessen the link between understanding evolution and bigotry by looking at how subjects saw humans as similar to animals. The researchers wrap up by saying “Overall, these findings highlight the importance of belief in human evolution as a potentially key individual-difference variable predicting racism and prejudice.”

What’s this all mean? Well, this is just one more study to add to a pile of research that suggests that when people see nonhuman animals as part of our shared history, when we relate to those animals, when we acknowledge our similarities with them, when we see them as sentient beings who deserve respect, when we see nonhuman animals as being in some way equal to ourselves, we’re also more likely to view other HUMANS as sentient beings who are equal to ourselves.

If you’ve paid any attention to any lesson about any era of world history, you will know what a common way to engender hatred against a group of humans is to portray them as animals who are beneath us “real” humans. Philosopher David Livingstone Smith wrote about the history of dehumanization and its necessity to genocide in “Less Than Human,” describing situations like Nazis referring to Jewish people as “untermenschen,” Hutus calling Tutsis “cockroaches,” slavers referring to Africans as soulless apes. Humans have an innate psychological aversion to murdering one another, but they can overcome that by telling themselves that the humans they’re murdering or subjugating aren’t REALLY humans at all. They’re something less than.

Now, what if there were a group of humans who understand that humans are NOT the pinnacle of four billion years of evolution? That we are another mere step along a path, no better or worse than the step before or the step after? And what if they fervently *believed* that in fact there is no animal whose life is worth less than a human?

This is a strict hypothetical, because this group does not exist: even the strictest vegan enlists a hierarchy of value. We have to do that because otherwise at this point in our history we simply couldn’t survive, whether it’s slapping a mosquito that bites you, killing the insects trying to feed on our crops, or pulling up and eating those crops themselves. All life on Earth exists on a spectrum and we all make a judgment call on what life is morally okay to snuff out so that our life can continue on.

But if there were such a group that values all life as equal, then it would be far more difficult to dehumanize another human. Are they an ape? A cockroach? Well, what’s wrong with apes and cockroaches? All beings have value.

Hell, I recently read Siddhartha and Hermann Hesse basically makes the same argument for inanimate objects. Siddhartha couldn’t even dehumanize someone by calling them a rock. Rocks are cool as shit! That’s my Spark Notes of Siddhartha by the way. You’re welcome.

We may not have many Siddharthas on the planet, but we do have a lot of humans who exist along the spectrum somewhere in between “all molecules have worth” and “only humans matter.” And understanding evolution may be a key step in the “right” direction – that is, the end of the spectrum where humans tend to have a big picture view of their place in the universe, where their own ego is kept in check, where they aren’t necessarily the chosen people made in God’s own image and given the Earth and all its inhabitants to name and rule over.

That’s why things got interesting in that sixth study: someone might not understand evolution because they were never taught it, but they might still see nonhuman animals as something similar to humans, and sure enough that idea DID make them less likely to be bigoted toward other humans. This directly backs up previous research, like this study from 2010 in which researchers found that subjects who saw less of a stark divide between humans and animals were less likely to hold prejudices against immigrants. In a follow-up, they found that subjects who read scientific editorials stressing how humanlike some animals could be were then more likely to “see immigrants (a human outgroup) as significantly more “human”, a process we call re-humanization. But it also boosted their empathy for immigrants and their sense that immigrants share much in common with Canadians (the host society), and reduced their prejudices against immigrants.”

The lead researcher of that study cited psychologist Scott Plous of Wesleyan University, who wrote “the very act of ‘treating people like animals’ would lose its meaning if animals were treated well.” While “speciesism” is clearly very different from racism and sexism and other forms of bigotry against humans, Plous writes that “many of the psychological factors that underlie speciesism serve to reinforce and promote prejudice against humans. These factors include power, privilege, dominance, control, entitlement, and the need to reduce cognitive dissonance when committing harmful acts.”
As always, you can find a link to the transcript for this video in the box below, and in that transcript I provide links to all the studies and editorials I’ve mentioned here. I mention that because I know that once I read that initial study, I fell into a really interesting rabbit hole reading about the various connections between animal welfare, empathy for our fellow humans, and our understanding of humanity’s place in the universe. Oh, and read Siddhartha! It’s really great! You can even read it for free, right now, thanks to Project Gutenberg but ONLY if you’re in the United States and some other countries where the copyright has expired. Gotta be careful of copyright lawyers, those rats. Oh wait…

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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