Polls Apart on Human Origins
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.
The polling results presented here, together with those in Figure 1, tell rather different stories about what Americans believe regarding how human beings came to be; indeed, they are, as we say, “polls apart.” Consider the results of the July 2005 Religion and Public Life Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center (Figure 2).
Unlike the Gallup Organization’s standard question on human origins, which many respondents might well interpret implicitly as a question about their belief in God, the questions asked in the Pew poll did not explicitly mention God. First of all, respondents simply had to indicate whether they thought that “humans and other living things have evolved over time,” or whether they believed that they “have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” If they thought humans evolved over time, they were then asked to say whether they thought this was due to “natural processes such as natural selection” or because “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.”
Asked in this way, 42 percent of respondents said they believed humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, a figure not that different from what Gallup reported in response to its standard question in 2004 and 2006 (45 percent and 46 percent, respectively), in which the wording of the creationist option was somewhat similar. But the Pew estimate of those choosing the biblical creationist position (42 percent) differed notably from that discovered in the Gallup poll of September 2005 (53 percent), in which Gallup reworded its description of the creationist alternative to link it more exactly to “the way the Bible describes it.”
The Pew Center questions also produced rather different estimates of those believing in the alternatives to the creationist position. Approximately twice as many respondents in the Pew survey endorsed the naturalistic or Darwinist option as did those given the godless-evolution alternative in the Gallup polls. Even more striking, less than one out of five respondents in the Pew poll chose the theistic-evolutionist position of human beings evolving under the guidance of God, as compared to nearly a third (31 percent) in the September 2005 Gallup survey and 36-38 percent in the 2004 and 2006 Gallup polls.
A journalist, politician, or public policymaker looking at one or the other of these conflicting poll results would thus reach a rather different conclusion about what Americans really believed about the origins of human life. Examining the Gallup results of September 2005, for example, he or she would most likely think a clear majority of Americans subscribed to the traditional Christian, biblical version of the creation of human beings, that roughly another third believed God had a major role in the process, and that only a very small minority thought humans evolved without any kind of God involved in the process.
In contrast, the same observer spotting the results of the Pew survey might well conclude that, while a definite plurality of Americans appeared to accept the conventional biblical position on human origins, this figure is somewhat lower than what the Gallup Organization has been reporting for the past couple of decades. More importantly, he or she would most likely notice from the Pew survey that the American public has evidently become much more receptive to the idea that human evolution has occurred through the Darwinian process of natural selection, with over a fourth of Americans now choosing that option, as compared to just 10-12 percent selecting the naturalistic position in previous Gallup polls. Like so many other experiments with the wording of survey questions, the two polls create two different looking publics; two different social realities.
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.
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.
Note on the Pew Study
Just before being asked this sequence of questions about human origins, respondents in the Pew poll were asked to indicate whether or not they believed in God, a universal spirit, or a higher power and, if yes, whether they thought God, the universal spirit, or this higher power was responsible for the creation of life on earth. Of those who believed in God (85 percent), 92 percent thought God was responsible for the creation of life on earth; 6 percent did not believe this; and 2 percent said “don’t know.” And of those who did not believe in God, but did believe in a universal spirit or higher power, 45 percent said this universal spirit or higher power was responsible for the creation of life on earth; 45 percent did not believe it; and 9 percent didn’t know. So, contextually speaking, respondents were certainly primed to think about the role of a God, a universal spirit, or higher power in answering the subsequent questions about human evolution—a potential bias that cannot be ruled out in the absence of a controlled experiment.
Bishop, George F. 1998. The religious worldview and American beliefs about human origins. Public Perspective 9 (5): 39-44.
———. 1999. Trends: Americans’ belief in God. Public Opinion Quarterly 63:421-34.
———. 2005. The illusion of public opinion: Fact and artifact in American public opinion polls. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005.
Scott, Eugenie C. 2004. Evolution vs. creationism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Witham, Larry A. 2002. Where Darwin Meets the Bible. Oxford: Oxford University Press.