Third of Americans Say Evidence Has Supported Darwin's Evolution Theory

by Frank Newport

Almost half of Americans believe God created humans 10,000 years ago

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- Some 145 years after the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species, controversy about the validity and implications of his theory still rages. Darwin personally encountered much resistance after his book was published in 1859. Seventy-nine years ago, the famous Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee brought the issue of exactly where human beings came from into sharp public focus in the United States. Indeed, as recently as this month, a court case in Cobb County, Ga., dealing with the treatment of evolution and creationism in school textbooks received nationwide publicity. November's National Geographic Magazine asked on its cover: "Was Darwin Wrong?" and then proceeded to devote 33 pages to answering that question.

Darwin might be surprised to find such debate still raging nearly a century and a half after he published his book. He might also be surprised to find that even today there is significantly less than majority agreement from the American public that his theory of evolution is supported by the evidence.

Gallup has asked Americans twice in the last three years to respond to the following question about Darwin's theory:

Just your opinion, do you think that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is –  [ROTATED: 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 about it to say?

Supported
by evidence

Not supported
by evidence

Don't know
enough to say

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2004 Nov 7-10

35

35

29

1

 

 

 

 

2001 Feb 19-21

35

39

25

1

Just a little more than a third of the American public is willing to agree with the "scientific theory well supported by evidence" alternative, while the same percentage chooses the "not well supported by evidence" alternative. Another 30% indicate that they don't know enough about it to say or have no opinion. There has been essentially no significant change in the responses to this question since 2001.

What do we make of these responses? To be sure, most Americans are not scientists, and it's probable that the last formal exposure to biology and evolution theory for many came decades ago in high school or college -- if then. Confronted with this question asking for thoughts about a scientific theory, it's perhaps surprising that even more did not choose the "don't know enough to say" alternative.

Yet, this is not just any theory. It is one of the most basic theories in science today, and most biologists and other scientists believe that the theory is so well supported by data that it is a basic part of the scientific firmament. As National Geographic stated in its November cover story: "The evidence for evolution is overwhelming."

Thus, it is of great interest to the scientific community to find that the public appears just as willing to say that the theory of evolution "has not been well supported by the evidence" as it is to say that it has been well supported.

Certainly, as noted, some of this skepticism about the scientific validity of Darwin's theory comes from a lack of basic training or knowledge of science. But there's more to views of the theory of evolution than just scientific knowledge. The highly controversial aspect of the theory -- the one that caused such an uproar when Darwin first promulgated it almost a century and a half ago -- was that it implied a contradiction with the story of man's creation as told in the book of Genesis in the Bible.

Creationism

The recent Gallup Poll found strong presumptive evidence that this implication of the theory of evolution for the origin of mankind may be driving some of the lack of public belief in the theory.

The poll shows that almost half of the U.S. population believes that human beings did not evolve, but instead were created by God -- as stated in the Bible -- essentially in their current form about 10,000 years ago:

Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings -- [ROTATE 1-3/3-1: 1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process, 2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process, 3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so]?

Man developed, with God
guiding

Man developed, but God had
 no part in process

God created man in
present form

Other/
No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2004 Nov 7-10

38

13

45

4

 

 

 

 

2001 Feb 19-21

37

12

45

5

1999 Aug 24-26

40

9

47

4

1997 Nov 6-9

39

10

44

7

1993 Jun

35

11

47

7

1982

38

9

44

9

Forty-five percent of Americans agree that God created man in his present form about 10,000 years ago. (This time frame was included in the question when it was originally framed in 1982 because it roughly approximates the timeline used by biblical literalists who study the genealogy as laid out in the first books of the Old Testament.) 

About half of Americans agree with the two alternatives that are compatible with evolution -- that human beings developed over millions of years either with or without God's guidance in the process.

These views on the origin of man have essentially not changed over the last 22 years. Although there has been minor fluctuation in the percentages choosing each alternative across the six surveys in which the question has been included over the years since 1982, the basic patterns have remained remarkably constant. Indeed, the percentage of Americans who choose the "10,000 year" alternative has varied only within the narrow range of 44% to 47% across the six surveys (and two decades).

Biblical Literacy

Although 45% of Americans believe that humans were created by God pretty much in their present form at one time 10,000 years ago -- a view that corresponds to the account of creation as presented in the Bible -- only 34% of Americans believe that the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word:

Which of the following statements comes closest to describing your views about the Bible -- the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word, the Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, or the Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man]?

                                                                                                                                               

Actual

Inspired

Fables

No opinion

%

%

%

%

2004 Nov 7-10

34

48

15

3

 

 

 

 

2002 Dec 9-10

30

52

15

3

2001 Feb 19-21

27

49

20

4

1998 Jun 22-23

33

47

17

3

1993 Jun 18-21

35

48

14

3

1991 Nov 21-23

32

49

16

3

1984 Nov

40

41

12

7

1984 Sep

37

46

12

5

1983 May

37

43

11

9

1981 Dec 11-14

37

42

11

--

1980 Jul 29-Aug 2

40

45

10

6

1978 Apr 18-May 1

38

45

13

6

1976 Aug 24-27

38

45

13

5

Forty-eight percent of Americans believe that the Bible was inspired by God, although is not to be taken literally, while 15% say that the Bible is an ancient book of "fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man." 

Gallup has been measuring these attitudes using this question since 1976, and there has been little substantive change since. Indeed, the current views of the American public on the issue of biblical literacy are remarkably similar to what was recorded in August 1976, almost 30 years ago.

The discrepancy between the 45% who believe that man was created by God 10,000 years ago, and the 34% who believe the Bible is literally true suggests that there are some Americans whose belief in the "instant" creation of humans is not necessarily based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.

A segmentation of Americans based on their responses to the questions about creationism and biblical literacy finds that a quarter of Americans can be considered to be true literalists -- believing not only in the literal interpretation of the Bible, but also in the creationist view of the origin of humans. Another one in five believe in the creationist explanation, but not in biblical literalism. Nine percent believe in biblical literalism but not creationism, while the largest group -- 46% -- neither believe in biblical literalism nor the creationist explanation for the origin of humans.

Belief in a Literal Bible and in Creationism

% of Population

Characteristics

Biblical literalists and believe that humans were created in present form 10,000 years ago

25%

Women
Age 30 and older
No college degree
Conservative
Republicans
Weekly church attendees
Protestant

Believe that humans were created in present form 10,000 years ago, but not biblical literalists


20%

18- to 29-year-olds

Biblical literalists but do not believe humans were created in present form 10,000 years ago

9%

High school or less

Not biblical literalists and also do not believe that humans were created in present form 10,000 years ago

46%

Men
East and West Coasts
Urban
College graduates
Higher income
Liberal
Independents
Seldom, never attend church
Catholics

It is not surprising to find that the biblical literalists who believe that God created humans 10,000 years ago tend to be more religious and Protestant. Given the recent emphasis on the importance of religion in the Nov. 2 presidential election, it is of interest to note that this "true believer" group tends to be more Republican than the sample average. This group also skews toward those who do not have a college degree.

At the other extreme, the roughly half of Americans who tend to reject biblical literalism and creationism are much less likely to attend church, tend to have higher levels of formal education, and to be political independents. 

The Demographics of Support for Darwin's Theory of Evolution

Here is the breakout of support for Darwin's theory (that is, those who say that it is a scientific theory well supported by the evidence) within subgroups:

Subgroup

% Who Believe that Darwin's Theory of Evolution
Is a Scientific Theory Well Supported by the Evidence

Postgraduate education

65%

Liberal

56

College graduate

52

West

47

Seldom, never attend church

46

Catholics

46

50- to 64-year-olds

44

Men

42

East

42

18- to 29-year-olds

41

Independent

40

Democrat

38

Moderate

36

 

 

SAMPLE AVERAGE

35

 

 

Nearly weekly church attendance

35

30- to 49-year-olds

34

Some college

32

Women

30

Republican

29

Midwest

29

Protestant

28

South

27

Conservative

26

Weekly church attendance

22

Age 65+

21

High school or less

20

The same basic patterns are found here as reviewed in reference to the creationist and literalism question. Belief that Darwin's theory has been well supported by the evidence is strongest among those with the most education, liberals, those living in the West, those who seldom attend church, and among Catholics. 

The lowest levels of belief that Darwin's theory is supported by the scientific evidence is found among those with the least education, older Americans (many of whom say they are unsure about the theory in general), frequent church attendees, conservatives, Protestants, those living in the middle of the country, and Republicans.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,016 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 7-10, 2004. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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