March 11, 2000
Poll Finds That Support Is Strong for Teaching 2 Origin Theories
Evolutionary Biology Begins Tackling Public Doubts (July 8, 1998)
By JAMES GLANZn overwhelming majority of Americans think that creationism should be taught along with Darwin's theory of evolution in the public schools, according to a new national survey. Some scientists characterized the seemingly contradictory findings as a quixotic effort by the public to accommodate incompatible world views. But in some ways, even as Americans continue to argue over what students should be taught about human origins, the poll offers encouragement to both sides in the debate.
The survey's results were released yesterday by the People for the American Way Foundation, the liberal civil rights group that commissioned the poll, which was conducted by DYG Inc., the polling and research firm in Danbury, Conn. The survey involved extensive interviews with 1,500 people drawn representatively from all segments of society across the country. In results emphasized by the foundation, the survey found that 83 percent of Americans generally supported the teaching of evolution in public schools.
But the poll, which had a statistical margin of error of 2.6 percentage points, also found that 79 percent of Americans thought creationism had a place in the public school curriculum -- though respondents often said the topic should be discussed as a belief rather than as a competing scientific theory.
As for evolution, almost half the respondents agreed that the theory "is far from being proven scientifically." And 68 percent said it was possible to believe in evolution while also believing that God created humans and guided their development.
"You can read the poll as half-empty or half-full," said Daniel Yankelovich, chairman of DYG. He suggested that the public's sense that creationism and evolution are compatible "translates in a pluralistic society and public to there being a place for both." Or, he said, the poll's results might reflect a postmodern feeling that no single view can provide complete understanding of most issues -- as Mr. Yankelovich put it, "the attitude, 'Well, you never know, hey.'"
People on all sides of the issue seemed to find something to like in the study. Dr. David Haig, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, said that he was "cheered that the majority of people are happy for evolution to be taught in the schools," though he added that "it is logically inconsistent both to believe in the theory of evolution, that humans did descend from animals, and to believe the opposite, that they were created in their present form."
Dr. James B. Miller, a senior associate at the program of dialogue on science, ethics and religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said, "Part of what it shows is that there is broad public support for the teaching of evolution in the public school science classes, and that for many people, this does not represent any conflict with their religious views."
Dr. Duane T. Gish, a vice president of the Institute for Creation Research, a California group that supports the teaching of creationism, also said he was generally pleased with the results. Dr. Gish maintained, though, that creationism should be taught as a scientific alternative to evolution theory, a position that most poll respondents did not take.
The debate that was started 75 years ago in the Scopes trial and reignited last year when the Kansas school board voted to remove most references to evolution from state education standards, shows no sign of cooling.
Last month, a charter school in Rochester drew criticism when officials there said creationism would be taught as an alternate theory to evolution. Just yesterday, The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio reported that a group called the Young Earth Creation Club objected to the inclusion of evolution in new science standards set by the state's school board.
Despite scientific evidence of an Earth that is billions of years old and fossils that indicate one species evolving into another, the strictest creationists believe in a literal reading of Genesis: that the universe, Earth and all the planet's species were created a few thousand years ago in essentially their present form.
Only about a third of the respondents in the poll, though, defined creationism this way. Others said they understood it more loosely as referring to God's having created humans, but not necessarily as described in the Bible. People unclear on the exact meaning were read a definition based on the looser version and were told that creationism was sharply in conflict with standard evolutionary theory.
The poll did not offer other, more nuanced views of divine intervention, like the idea that God infused humans with a soul and otherwise allowed evolution to take its course. Working from its definitions, the poll revealed a nation that is in many ways widely fragmented in accommodating two powerful elements of American public life.
The results indicate that about 30 percent of Americans believe that creationism should be taught as a scientific theory, either with or without evolution in the curriculum. At the other end of the spectrum, 20 percent believe that evolution should be taught in science class without any mention of creationism.
Most respondents, though, took the middle road, saying that evolution should be taught as a scientific theory, while creationism should also be discussed -- as a religious belief rather than a scientific theory.
"When you put it in terms of human evolution, you're referring to the hottest button of a hot button issue," said Molleen Matsumura of the National Center for Science Education in El Cerrito, Calif. "Even then, there was a great deal of support for evolution."
The survey found little variation in responses by geographic region. But it did determine that young Americans, 18 to 24 years old, and Americans with relatively high education levels were more likely to support teaching evolution and less likely to favor teaching creationism.
Dr. Steve Abrams, a veterinarian and member of the Kansas school board who voted to change the state's standards, said the survey's overall results "would seem to be consistent" with opinion in Kansas. But he objected to a question asking respondents' opinion of the Kansas board's action, saying it did not describe the action accurately. The question said the board had voted "to delete evolution from their new state science standards" and asked respondents if they supported or opposed that action. But, Dr. Abrams said, "what we did was to allow local boards of education to decide how they want to deal with evolution. We did not encourage the teaching of creationism at all."
A researcher at DYG said that while the question necessarily condensed a complex and divisive issue into a short sentence for the survey, the firm stood behind the wording as impartial and accurate.
The answers to that Kansas question seemed to indicate that most Americans disagreed with the board's decision. While praising the survey in general, Dr. David W. Moore of The Gallup Poll also maintained that the Kansas question was poorly worded.
More generally, though, Dr. Moore said the results of the survey showed how much public opinion had changed from the days of the Scopes trial, when "most people probably rejected evolution because they just couldn't believe that human beings descended from apes." Now, he said, it seems unlikely most people would object to that proposition, "so long as scientists are not saying that God had no part in the evolutionary process."