A press release from a third poll conducted by Harris Interactive during the same general time period (June 2005) generated yet another image of what Americans thought about the human evolution issue. According to the headline, “Nearly Two-Thirds of U.S. Adults Believe Human Beings Were Created by God.” Beating its polling competitors to the punch, the question asked in the Harris Interactive survey, shown in Figure 3, included an explicit response alternative that tried to capture the “intelligent design” position that had become the focus of national attention in the Dover, Pennsylvania trial of 2005.
Framed in this new mode, nearly two-thirds of American adults said they believed in the biblical literalist position that “human beings were created directly by God.” Over a fifth endorsed the naturalistic claim that “humans evolved from earlier species.” But, curiously, only one out of ten chose the “intelligent design” proposition that “human beings are so complex that they required a powerful force or intelligent being to help create them.” Because this intelligent-design alternative was presented immediately after the option that “human beings were created directly by God,” many respondents may well have interpreted it as implying a godless “powerful force” or “intelligent being,” and thus chose to avoid the implication that they did not believe in God by selecting, as a default, the biblical creationist option.
Furthermore, when asked directly in the Harris survey, “Do you think human beings developed from earlier species or not?” 38 percent said yes, suggesting that the American public might be more accepting of the concept of evolution than the responses to the initial Harris question about human origins would indicate, especially if God were not explicitly mentioned and the word “evolved” were not used.
Another piece of evidence for this question-framing hypothesis comes from responses to a third question asked in the same Harris Interactive survey: “Do you believe apes and man have a common ancestry or not?” Asked in this more scientifically correct way, nearly half of American adults (46 percent) said “yes” to the idea of a shared ancestry—down from what it was in a 1996 Harris survey (51 percent), but still fairly impressive, given all the press releases over the years telling us how favorable the public has been towards the biblical creationist account of human origins.
One final piece of evidence from Harris for Americans’ unexpected receptivity to evolutionary thought showed up in respondents’ reactions to the statement, “Darwin’s theory of evolution is proven by fossil discoveries.” Nearly half (46 percent) agreed, either strongly or somewhat, with this supposedly controversial claim in religious-minded America—hardly what one would expect from reading the Gallup polls.
Results from an NBC News poll on beliefs about human origins raise even more doubts about the American public’s supposed great resistance to the theory of evolution. Taking special care to clarify what respondents meant when they said they believed in the biblical account of creation, the NBC interviewers asked them the question shown in Figure 4:
With the question posed in this manner, 44 percent said they literally believed that “God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh as described in the Book of Genesis.” Only 13 percent thought God was just “a divine presence in the formation of the universe.” But amazingly, some might say, a third (33 percent) of the respondents chose evolution as the best explanation of human life on earth— roughly triple the average percentage (10.6 percent) reported in the Gallup polls over the past twenty to twenty-five years.
As if all this were not enough, questions on human origins in a CBS News poll provide further evidence that even very minor alterations in how the question is asked can make a noticeable difference in portraying what Americans supposedly believe.
With one version of the question asked by CBS (Form X), a majority of Americans appeared to subscribe to the creationist view that “God created human beings in their present form.” But with the other version (Form Y), which added the more specific description, “within the last ten thousand years,” the seeming majority endorsing the biblical creationist position evaporated.