Investigations of evolution knowledge and acceptance and their relation are central to evolution education research. Ambiguous results in this field of study demonstrate a variety of measuring issues, for instance differently theorized constructs, or a lack of standardized methods, especially for cross-country comparisons. In particular, meaningful comparisons across European countries, with their varying cultural backgrounds and education systems, are rare, often include only few countries, and lack standardization. To address these deficits, we conducted a standardized European survey, on 9200 first-year university students in 26 European countries utilizing a validated, comprehensive questionnaire, the “Evolution Education Questionnaire”, to assess evolution acceptance and knowledge, as well as influencing factors on evolution acceptance.
We found that, despite European countries’ different cultural backgrounds and education systems, European first-year university students generally accept evolution. At the same time, they lack substantial knowledge about it, even if they are enrolled in a biology-related study program. Additionally, we developed a multilevel-model that determines religious faith as the main influencing factor in accepting evolution. According to our model, knowledge about evolution and interest in biological topics also increase acceptance of evolution, but to a much lesser extent than religious faith. The effect of age and sex, as well as the country’s affiliation, students’ denomination, and whether or not a student is enrolled in a biology-related university program, is negligible.
Our findings indicate that, despite all their differences, most of the European education systems for upper secondary education lead to acceptance of evolution at least in university students. It appears that, at least in this sample, the differences in knowledge between countries reflect neither the extent to which school curricula cover evolutionary biology nor the percentage of biology-related students in the country samples. Future studies should investigate the role of different European school curricula, identify particularly problematic or underrepresented evolutionary concepts in biology education, and analyze the role of religious faith when teaching evolution.