Zeroing In: On notions and numbers in the news

What's Not Evolving Is Public Opinion

By Scott Keeter
Sunday, October 2, 2005

What do most Americans believe -- that God created the universe in seven days, or that life on earth evolved over billions of years? If you think the question was settled in a Tennessee courtroom in the early 20th century, think again. Evolution and creationism have actually been running neck and neck in the origins of life sweepstakes in recent times. And now a third, more complicated contender -- "intelligent design" -- has entered the fray.

Last week, arguing a violation of separation of church and state, a group of Dover, Pa., parents went to federal district court to challenge the local school board's decision requiring that intelligent design be taught in science classes alongside evolution. It was the latest in a long series of legal battles, beginning with the famous Scopes trial of 1925, over the teaching of evolution in the public schools.

Wondering how the American people's opinions on the subject have been affected by the public debate, the Pew Research Center recently took a look at polls conducted by our organization, Gallup and many others over the last 20 years. What we found was that the public has relatively settled views on evolution and creationism -- perhaps surprisingly, roughly equal numbers accept one or the other. Among those who endorse evolution, however, many believe that a supreme being had a hand in the process. Moreover, most Americans want students to be exposed to a diversity of viewpoints on the issue. Public opinion on all of these points has been steady over the past two decades.

Regardless of how questions are posed, polls consistently find that 40 to nearly 50 percent of the public accepts a biblical creationist account of life's origins, while slightly more accept the idea of evolution. For example, in a recent Pew poll, 42 percent agreed that "humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time," while 48 percent believe that "humans and other living things have evolved over time."

Even though it used different wording, a Gallup Poll last year found virtually the same split: 45 percent agreed that "God created human beings pretty much in the present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so," while 51 percent thought that "humans developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life." Gallup first asked that question in 1982, and found 44 percent choosing the creationist option and 47 percent endorsing evolution.

Polls are less consistent on the newer notion of intelligent design, however. In contrast to "young Earth" creationists, who contend that God created all life in its present form sometime in the past 6,000 to 10,000 years, intelligent design's proponents assert that what they propose does not necessarily have religious implications. Most accept the notion that humans evolved, but they argue that Darwin's theory of natural selection is inadequate to explain the vast complexity of life. It's best explained, they say, by the action of what they describe as "an intelligent agent," though not necessarily a sacred one.

But polls show that intelligent design is a mystery to most Americans: Only 17 percent of respondents tell Gallup that they are "very familiar" with it. Still, in a strongly religious nation, the concept is appealing. Polls find that many people who accept evolution also believe that God or a higher power guided or shaped the evolutionary process in some way.

In Pew's poll, people who said that life evolved were then asked if life "evolved due to natural processes such as natural selection" or whether "a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today." Of those accepting evolution, nearly four in 10 (or 18 percent of the overall sample) said that evolution was guided by a supreme being. Gallup found even greater support among evolutionists for God's role. Just over half of Gallup's survey respondents said that "humans developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life," but most who express this view (38 percent of the public overall) say that "God guided this process." Just 13 percent of the public said that "God had no part" in the evolutionary process.

But here's the kicker: Although neither evolution nor creationism is accepted by a sizable majority, upwards of two-thirds of the public over the past 20 years has supported teaching both accounts of the origins of life. Even among proponents of natural selection, a majority wants students to be exposed to creationism. And a large minority of Americans -- around 40 percent in both the Gallup and Pew polls -- says that creationism should be taught instead of evolution.

None of the many polls that ask about teaching the origins of life, however, probe deeply into what respondents mean when they say that a particular approach should be taught. Should standardized science tests now include sections on both evolution and creationism? Should science teachers say that both theories are equally true? Would those who favor teaching creationism or intelligent design be satisfied if it were discussed elsewhere in the curriculum and not in science class? Depending on how the district court -- and perhaps higher courts -- rule in the Dover case, it may be important to ask these tougher questions.

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Scott Keeter is director of survey research at the Pew Research Center in Washington.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company