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What is the effect of thinking about your mortality on your willingness to accept evolutionary theory? In a new study just published in PLoS ONE, researchers Jessica Tracy, Joshua Hart and Jason Martens report that, throughout four different studies, reminding subjects of their mortality made them more prone to reject evolutionary theory, and/or accept claims of Intelligent Design.

The researchers suggest that the manipulation altered subjects’ search for meaning with their lives, making them more prone to accept a more teleological approach to life.

The abstract reads:

The present research examined the psychological motives underlying widespread support for intelligent design theory (IDT), a purportedly scientific theory that lacks any scientific evidence; and antagonism toward evolutionary theory (ET), a theory supported by a large body of scientific evidence. We tested whether these attitudes are influenced by IDT’s provision of an explanation of life’s origins that better addresses existential concerns than ET. In four studies, existential threat (induced via reminders of participants’ own mortality) increased acceptance of IDT and/or rejection of ET, regardless of participants’ religion, religiosity, educational background, or preexisting attitude toward evolution. Effects were reversed by teaching participants that naturalism can be a source of existential meaning (Study 4), and among natural-science students for whom ET may already provide existential meaning (Study 5). These reversals suggest that the effect of heightened mortality awareness on attitudes toward ET and IDT is due to a desire to find greater meaning and purpose in science when existential threats are activated.

Although the study itself is interesting, I specifically dislike the way in which evolutionary theory (ET) is named in equal terms as belief in Intelligent Design, here entitled “Intelligent Design Theory” (IDT). This juxtaposition may give the impression that ET and IDT are comparable in many respects. Well, as any scholar knows, they are not. And the signal value of putting them on equal terms, even in a research paper not judging their content, is unwarranted.


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