Friday, July 08, 2005


I'm going to poke around in the numbers of this Harris Poll finding that "Nearly Two-thirds of U.S. Adults Believe Human Beings Were Created by God". Then I'll draw some broader conclusions. If you don't care about the numbers, click here to skip down to the "What Next."

[A] new national survey shows that almost two-thirds of U.S. adults (64%) agree with the basic tenet of creationism, that "human beings were created directly by God."

At the same time, approximately one-fifth (22%) of adults believe "human beings evolved from earlier species" (evolution) and 10 percent subscribe to the theory that "human beings are so complex that they required a powerful force or intelligent being to help create them" (intelligent design). Moreover, a majority (55%) believe that all three of these theories should be taught in public schools, while 23 percent support teaching creationism only, 12 percent evolution only, and four percent intelligent design only.

These are some of the results of a nationwide Harris Poll of 1,000 U.S. adults surveyed by telephone by Harris Interactive® between June 17 and 21, 2005.

Other key findings include:
  • A majority of U.S. adults (54%) do not think human beings developed from earlier species, up from 46 percent in 1994.
  • Forty-nine percent of adults believe plants and animals have evolved from some other species while 45 percent do not believe that.
  • Adults are evenly divided about whether or not apes and man have a common ancestry (46 percent believe we do and 47 percent believe we do not).
  • Again divided, 46 percent of adults agree that "Darwin’s theory of evolution is proven by fossil discoveries," while 48 percent disagree.
Factors such as age, education, political outlook, and region appear to guide views on this debate.<
  • In general, older adults (those 55 years of age and older), adults without a college degree, Republicans, conservatives, and Southerners are more likely to embrace the creationism positions in the questions asked.
  • Those with a college education, Democrats, independents, liberals, adults aged 18 to 54 and those from the Northeast and West support the belief in evolution in larger numbers. However, among these groups, majorities believe in creationism.
  • Despite the significant numbers who believe in creationism, pluralities among the demographic subgroups examined still believe all three concepts (evolution, creationism, and intelligent design) should be taught in public schools.

We've talked about how to interpret polls before. Polls aren't there to tell you what to do, they're there to assess what the public knows and how they feel. Like it or not, a majority of the country (especially the older people, less educated people, and conservatives) want to see creationism (including IDC) taught in schools.

That doesn't mean we should, it means we should think more seriously about what people want and why they want it.

In looking at the poll numbers, there are a couple interesting things that can guide us in understanding the problem.

For the most part, the country is evenly divided, and the numbers pretty much match between different questions (similar proportions are dubious about fossil evidence, universal common ancestry, common ancestry of apes and humans) except for the question: "Do you think human beings evolved from earlier species or not?" Only 38% did think so, while 46% think that humans and apes share a common ancestor. I find that split fascinating and incomprehensible.

Long-term, we need to get the concerns about the evidence for evolution way down (29% strongly disagree that "evolution is proven by fossil discoveries," and only 15% agree strongly). That will help.

Better questions would help, too. I'm not sure how I'd answer if asked whether fossils "prove" Darwin's theory of evolution, but that's a question for another day.

Today, 75% of the people polled wanted some sort of creationism taught in schools. You don't fight that long-term. There's a solid majority – 55% – that support teaching both evolution and creationism.

Now, there's no way of assessing strength of interest here. We don't know how many people said they supported teaching it all out of a sense of vague fairness. But 2 times as many people want creationism taught alone as want evolution alone.

What next?

What's necessary is rechannelling concerns. If people want creation stories taught in school, fine. Let's have a philosophy course, or a comparative religions class for every senior. Let's not send students out into the world without an understanding of the breadth of the world's philosophies. Let science minded people run for school boards with a platform strongly pushing for a required philosophy course. Let students discuss the Torah, Plato, the Tao, Buddha, the New Testament, the Koran, Kant, Marx, Smith, Nietzsche, and Popper. Let them read Paley or Aquinas and discuss metaphysics. Let them read Darwin or Gould and discuss what science can tell us about human nature. That'd be a great class, and a great way to tie all the loose ends of their education together, bringing science, history and literature together and show how to use the tools they've been given. Parents would be glad to see their kids thinking about morality, and even discussing creationism.

And scientists need to get themselves together and get teachers to understand what they're doing. And teachers and scientists need to be explaining how science works and where it stands to parents.

It's disturbing that a significant part of the population believes humans were created de novo, but also believes that all life has a common ancestor. Both can't be true. The poll shows that 22% believe humans evolved normally (10% think God may have loaded the dice), while 46% believe humans and apes have a common ancestor, and 49% think all plants and animals have a common ancestor. There's clearly a problem people have with humans evolving, so we need to do better at discussing what unites humans with the rest of the natural world, and also how our evolution has set us on a different path than other life.

This poll tells us where our weaknesses are, and that's how we fix them.