Sunday, June 3, 2007

Public Opinion on Evolution

As a follow-up to my previous post on why so many Americans doubt the theory of evolution, I thought it would be useful to look at some recent work by the Pew Research Center and the Gallup Poll. The research reinforces my point that Americans are very uncomfortable with evolution. Here are some highlights form Pew:

The American people have never fully embraced evolution, which is not surprising given the religious nature of the country. According to an August 2006 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 42% of all adults, and 65% of white evangelicals, say that humans and other living things have existed in present form only. In other words, life did not evolve, but was created in its present state.

Moreover, among the 51% who say that they accept some sort of evolution, 21% say that these changes were guided by a supreme being. Only 26% accept the idea that life evolved through natural selection, as Darwin and his successors have argued. And while substantial majorities of most religious denominations say that scientists agree about evolution, only a minority (43%) of white evangelicals subscribe to that view.

Given the high level of opposition to evolution and the prominence of religious conservatives in the Republican Party, no one should be surprised that three of 10 Republican candidates at the May 3 debate came out against Darwinian thinking. Indeed, it may be surprising that more candidates did not raise their hands as well.

Read it all.

One possible reason for this American distrust of evolution is that the creation science forces have done a very effective job in convincing the American public that there is serious debate on the validity of evolutionary theory within the scientific community. There is none, but nearly a third of all Americans think there is scientific diagreement. Notably, nearly 42% of all Evangelicals think there is such a debate. Other polling is consistent with this result, in a November 2004 Gallup poll, respondents were asked: “Just your opinion, do you think that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is: a scientific theory that has been well supported by evidence, or just one of many theories and one that has not been well-supported by evidence, or don’t you know enough to say?” Only 35% of Americans indicated a scientific theory supported by evidence, whereas 35% indicated that evolution was just one among many theories, and 29% answered they didn’t know. A similar result was found when the same question was asked by Gallup in February 2001.

Indeed, Gallup has been following the American public's views on evolution for several years and has found very little change. Interestingly, in 1997 Gallup asked this same question to scientists and found greatly different results. Only 5% of the scientists thought that God created man in his present form (versus 44% of the American public) and 55% of the scientists that that man evolved with God playing no part in the process (versus 10% of the American public). Interestingly, almost identical percentages of scientists and the general public accepted the middle theistic evolution ground (man evolved, but God guided the process).

Clearly, there is a disconnect between scientific views of evolution and that held by the general public. As I noted in yesterday's post, ignorance of the scientific evidence may be part of the explanation, but I think that the American public is very uncomfortable with what evolution means for the nature of God's actions in the world.

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