For decades now, the Gallup Poll has surveyed Americans about their belief in evolution and creation. Year in and year out, the numbers seem to remain constant: about 40-45% of Americans appear to be Young-Earth creationists (YEC). The exact phrasing of the question is as follows:
Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings: human beings have evolved over millions of years from other forms of life and God guided this process, human beings have evolved over millions of years from other forms of life, but God had no part in this process, or God created human beings in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.
For decades about 44% of the respondents agree to the last answer (YEC), another 37% chose the first answer (theistic evolution, ID creationist), and only 12% favor the second answer (non-theistic evolution). Gallup wrote these questions decades ago before there was much understanding of how the framing of a question can bias the answer, and for decades, they have kept the question the same so comparisons remain consistent. But social scientists know that polls can be very misleading, especially in the way the question is framed to force certain responses. For example, the Gallup poll only gives us three possibilities, and load two of the answers with “God”, which is an obvious bias right from the start. In addition, there is good evidence to suggest that human evolution is the real sticking point, and that most people don’t care one way or another if non-human creatures evolve or not. What if we asked people what they thought about specific scientific ideas, independent of emotional issues like “God” and “humans”?
As Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) pointed out:
In 2009, Pew stripped away the religious issues and explicit reference to the age of the earth by asking people if they agreed that “Humans and other living things have evolved over time due to natural processes” or alternatively “existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” Six in ten opted for evolution.
In 2005, when the Harris Poll asked people “Do you think human beings developed from earlier species or not,” 38% agreed that humans did develop from early species, but in the same survey, 49% agreed with evolution when asked: “Do you believe all plants and animals have evolved from other species or not?” So explicitly mentioning human evolution led to 11% of people switching from pro-evolution to anti-evolution. In a 2009 survey, Harris asked a Gallup-like question, in which only 29% agreed that “Human beings evolved from earlier species,” but in a separate question from the same poll, 53% said that they “believe Charles Darwin’s theory which states that plants, animals and human beings have evolved over time.” Placing the issue in a scientific context, with no overt religious context, yields higher support for evolution.
The National Science Board’s biennial report on Science and Engineering Indicators includes a survey on science literacy which, since the early 1980s, has asked if people agree that “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” About 46% of the American public consistently agree with that option, about the same number who back the middle option in Gallup’s surveys.
Clearly, people respond to these subtle shifts in how the question is framed, taking a harder stance toward human evolution than to the idea that animals and plants evolve, and stepping away from evolution if it is pitched in opposition to religion. Pollster George Bishop surveyed the diversity of survey responses in 2006 and concluded: “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.”
In 2009, Bishop ran a survey that clarifies how many people really think the earth is only 10,000 years old. In survey results published by Reports of NCSE, Bishop found that 18% agreed that “the earth is less than 10,000 years old.” But he also found that 39% agreed “God created the universe, the earth, the sun, moon, stars, plants, animals, and the first two people within the past 10,000 years.” Again, question wording and context clearly both matter a lot.
For more evidence that the number of true young-earthers is fairly small, consider another question from the survey run by the National Science Board since the early ’80s. In that survey, about 80% consistently agree “The continents on which we live have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move in the future.” Ten percent say they don’t know, leaving only about 10% rejecting continental drift over millions of years. Though young-earth creationists often latch onto continental drift as a sudden process during Noah’s flood (as a way to explain how animals could get from the Ark to separate continents), they certainly don’t think the continents moved over millions of years. This question puts a cap of about 10% on the number of committed young-earth creationists, lower even than what Bishop found. More people in the NSB science literacy survey didn’t know that the father’s genes determine the sex of a baby, thought all radioactivity came from human activities, or disagreed that the earth goes around the sun.
This is a very different picture than the Gallup polls suggest. Most people don’t regard continental drift as controversial (YECs must deny its existence), don’t have any problem with the evolution of non-human animals and plants, or an earth more than 10,000 years old. On average, this suggests that the true YECs are only about 10% of the American population (31 million people), another 25% prefer creationism but not necessarily a young earth. That’s about 35% creationists total, not 45% as Gallup suggests. About 10% of Americans (another 31 million people) are non-theistic evolutionists, another 33% or so lean toward evolution, giving us about 35% evolutionists, not 12% suggested by Gallup. The remaining third in the middle also seem to accept evolution, but believe God or gods were involved somehow. Thus, about 65% of Americans seem to accept evolution in some form, not the 55% that Gallup suggested. The wording of the poll makes all the difference.
Yet another set of polls seem to confirm that the number of YECs is much smaller than Gallup suggests, and is also declining. A combined CBS/YouGov poll showed that between 2004 and 2013, the number of people accepting the statement “Human beings evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years, and God did not directly guide this process” jumped from 13% to 21%. Meanwhile, the percentage of people agreeing with the statement ”God created human beings in their present form within the last ten thousand years” dropped from 55% to 37% over the same interval (2004-2013). According to the analysis:
The demographics of the respondents is fairly predictable. Fewer women (37%) accept some form of evolution than men (56%) and fewer women (13%) tend to identify themselves as non-religious than men (20%). Older respondents favored creationism, while respondents under the age of 30 favored evolution, whether guided by a deity or not. The largest number of strict evolutionists was among this youngest age group, which tells us that insisting on keeping science in science class is working. Unsurprisingly, only 5% of Republicans agreed that evolution happens without a deity guiding it. The additional 30% of Republicans who agreed evolution is a thing believe that their god directs it. Democrats (28%) are closely followed by political independents (26%) in their acceptance of non-divine evolution, while an additional 25% and 21%, respectively, think God drives the evolution train. This means that more than half of non-Republicans accept evolutionary science. Among Republicans, 55% believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old and a god created human beings in their present form. The respondents most strongly denying evolution were Muslims, with 64% believing young-earth creationism and 36% uncertain. None of the respondents identifying as Muslim would admit that they accepted evolution. Protestant (59%) and the various Orthodox churches (53%) tied for the next largest group of evolution deniers. The strongest supporters of evolution? Believe it or not, it isn’t the religiously unaffiliated. All of the Buddhists polled accepted evolution, although 13% of them said a deity guided it. Agnostics (85%) accept evolution, 17% of whom say God guided it. The remaining 15% aren’t sure. The atheist respondents throw a curve to the poll, though. Two percent of those identifying as atheist also claim to be young earth creationists. Since 48 atheists responded to the survey, that means one person in there somewhere is either very confused or clicked the wrong radio button.
Other demographics spread pretty much as we might expect: the more educated the respondent, the less likely to believe in creationism. The coasts, made up mostly of blue states, are more accepting of evolution than the mostly-red Midwest and Southern states. People identifying as white were more likely than Hispanics to accept evolution, while only 6% of black people participating in the poll did. The percentage of respondents who favor teaching creationism in public schools (40%) followed the same trends among the different groupings of respondents. Younger people opposed teaching creationism in larger numbers (42%), as did Democrats (29%) and Independents (31%). The more educated respondents disapproved of creationism in public schools more strongly than the less educated.
In short, not only are the polls skewed by the way questions are written, but the trends are positive. YECs are nowhere near as numerous as Gallup suggested, their numbers are declining rapidly, and the YECs are older and dying off. In nearly other developed nation in the world—Canada, northern Europe, Japan, etc.— creationism has no influence on public policy. This is striking contrast to the U.S., where (despite the fact that YECs are a small minority according to these polls), creationists form the majority of the House science committees, and are the majority of GOP presidential candidates in the past two elections. I don’t expect to see the end of the YEC threat in the U.S. in my lifetime, but the times, they are a changin’.