Adding yet another messy complication to the mix, the NORC General Social Survey in 2004-2005 included an exact wording of the original Gallup question on human origins. Surprisingly, this replication elicited a noticeably smaller percentage of respondents (42 percent) who said they believed that “God created man pretty much in his present form within the last 10,000 years” as compared to more recent Gallup replications in 2004 and 2006 (45-46 percent). Just 12 percent of the respondents in the NORC-GSS appeared, as in most previous Gallup polls, to endorse the evolutionist position that “man has developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. God had no part in this process.” But, curiously, when asked in the very next question whether they believed that it was either definitely or probably “true” that “Human beings developed from earlier species of animals,” nearly half said yes!
This figure suggests there may be three to four times as many American adults who accept the basic premise of the theory of evolution than is typically indicated by the standard Gallup question on human origins.
Furthermore, various polling organizations have asked this last question, which is an exact replicate of the item currently asked in the National Science Foundation project, Public Attitudes and Understanding of Science and Technology (PAUST). With one notable exception (2001) and minor variations in wording, the trend, shown in Figure 7, looks remarkably stable.
On average (using the median), the percentage endorsing the proposition that “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” has hovered around 45 percent for the past twenty years. How different an impression of the American public this gives us as compared to the standard Gallup polls of the same era—a result most likely due to differences in mass media coverage favoring press releases via the commercial medium of the Gallup News Service.
Yet another permutation of the question by the Democracy Corps Poll in October 2005 pitted a PAUST-like alternative about human origins—“Humans evolved from earlier species”—against a Gallup-like creationist alternative, “God created humans in their present form.” Presenting these polar alternatives, however, made the American public look lopsidedly creationist, with 60 percent choosing the biblical stance.
As a final installment, consider the variation of the human origins question asked by the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in its Life Sciences Survey of September 2005. In this case, the question, shown in Figure 9, made no mention whatsoever of the origin of “human life,” referring instead to the origin of “biological life”:
This sanitizing of the question made but a modest difference. Including a mention of God produced results resembling earlier Gallup polls on human origins, with more than four out of ten respondents telling interviewers they believed “God directly created biological life in its present form at one point in time.” Only about a fourth of them, however, subscribed to the theistic-evolutionist notion that “Biological life developed over time from simple substances, but God guided this process.” A notable portion also thought that “biological life developed over time from simple substances, but God did not guide this process.” So, by characterizing it as “biological life” rather than “human life,” the VCU experiment may have reduced, somewhat, resistance to the theory of evolution.
All of this goes to show how easily what Americans appear to believe about human origins can be readily manipulated by how the question is asked. As we have seen, depending on the wording of the question the percentage of apparent biblical creationists can vary from as little as 42 percent to as high as 64 percent; the percentage of theistic evolutionists or believers in “intelligent design” from as much as 41 percent to as little as 10-18 percent; and the percentage of Darwinist or naturalistic evolutionists, from as low as 10-13 percent to as high as 33-46 percent.
What are we to conclude from these messy results about something as supposedly fundamental as Americans’ religious beliefs about the role of God in creating human life? Are Americans poles apart on this perennial “culture war” question, as some would have us believe, or merely polls apart? American public opinion on this matter would seem to be a lot more malleable than we have heretofore suspected.
George Bishop is professor of political science and director of the Graduate Certificate Program in Public Opinion and Survey Research at the University of Cincinnati.