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Polls Apart on Human Origins

By George Bishop

 

Taking American public opinion polls at face value, one would think the country’s scientific establishment faced a never-ending culture war with a Christian army of biblical creationists. “Almost Half of Americans Believe Humans Did Not Evolve” wrote Frank Newport in a June 5 press release by the Gallup News Service. A year earlier, on July 6, 2005, the Harris Organization reported that “Nearly Two-Thirds of U.S. Adults Believe Human Beings Were Created by God.” Other press releases have told us, “Most Americans Tentative About Origin-of-Life Explanations.”

What are we to believe? Is the great majority of American adults as firmly opposed to Darwin’s theory of evolution as the polls have been telling us for years? Or is public opinion on this matter not nearly as settled as many analysts and social scientists have widely assumed? And does the “reality” of public opinion on this subject depend, as with so many other topics, on how the question is asked? Let us take a closer look at the received wisdom.

 

For nearly a quarter of a century, the Gallup Organization has been painting a pretty familiar portrait of what Americans believe about human origins—and a fairly religious one, at that. Ever since Gallup began asking the question in July of 1982, a remarkably sizable and stable plurality of Americans (44-47 percent) has claimed they believed in the biblical creationist version of human origins that “God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” Another whopping percentage (35-40 percent) has avoided this biblical literalist alternative but nonetheless endorsed the theistic supernatural idea that “man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, including man’s creation.” Only a very small percentage (9-13 percent), however, has accepted the Darwinist, or naturalistic, position that “man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process.”

Taken as a whole, these monotonously familiar findings would seem to indicate that the American public long ago made its mind up about the fundamental question of human origins, and that it was not likely to change that mind any time soon.

This turns out, however, to be a rather premature conclusion. As with so many other poll topics, what the American public believes about human origins looks now to be much more sensitive to how the question is asked than many observers have so far surmised. Indeed, a conspicuous example turned up in a September 2005 poll conducted by the Gallup Organization itself, in which the wording of its standard question on human origins was changed, evidently to specify more precisely the exact meaning of the creationist or biblical alternative. Presumably this experiment in wording, shown in Figure 1, was done because of suspicions that the standard question was exaggerating the “true” percentage of believers in the Genesis version.

 

 

But, alas, the numbers in Figure 1, comparing the results with those for the standard question, tell another tale of unintended consequences. The percentage endorsing the Darwinist alternative was essentially unaffected by the change in wording. But, unexpectedly, Gallup’s more precise way of putting the biblical alternative attracted a significantly higher percentage of respondents than it ever had—in fact, a clear creationist majority! At the same time, this manipulation in wording noticeably decreased the percentage selecting the theistic evolutionist position to less than a third (31 percent)—its lowest point in nearly a quarter-century of polling. Furthermore, the difference in the percentage choosing the biblical creationist versus the theistic evolutionist alternative in the Gallup poll tripled, rising from 7 percent in a November 2004 asking of the standard question to 22 percent in the version asked in 2005.

That, surely, was not the intention of the intelligent designers of this experiment. If nothing else, Gallup’s telling experiment of unintended consequences suggested that Americans’ beliefs about human origins were not quite as stable and psychologically structured as nearly everyone had been assuming for years—a finding replicated in spades in a number of other recent polls on the human origins issue.

 

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