New Poll on Evolution Acceptance Finds Troubling Trend

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The latest poll is out charting evolution acceptance in the United States. Many of the findings are mirrored closely by earlier polls: acceptance still tends to vary by education (positively correlated), gender (males score higher) and age (negatively correlated). Nothing earth-shattering there that we haven’t seen before. One trend, however, stands out like a sore thumb in Pew’s latest: Republican resistance is increasing.

The Pew Research Center conducts their polls via telephone interview. In 2013 researchers phoned 1,983 adults aged 18 and up and asked a battery of questions (full questionnaire here) relating to the unifying theory of biology. (The margin of sampling error was +/- 3.0 percentage points set at a confidence interval of 95%.)

The last such poll by Pew was taken in 2009. In four years, the overall numbers have barely budged. When presented with the proposition, “Humans and other living things have evolved over time”, the 2013 poll found a 60/33 split between accept/reject, compared with the 2009 poll’s 61/31 split. In terms of brass tacks, one-third of the American public still does not accept the scientific understanding of human origins.


pew poll - overall acceptace of evolution

6 in 10 Americans accept evolution.


Continuing the trend from 2009’s poll, the group most likely to reject evolution is evangelicals, followed closely by black Protestants, according to the study. Nearly two-thirds of those who identify as white evangelical Protestants chose the proposition, “Humans existed in present form since the beginning”. By contrast, just 15% of those identifying as white mainline Protestants responded in this way, down from 23% in 2009.

This particular data point contrasting is telling as it could indicate that the fundamentalism so prevalent in evangelical circles has grown more and more out of vogue, associated as it is with antiscience conservatism and rigid dogmatism, mentalities the rest of Protestant Christianity is working to distance itself from. Given enough time and rebranding efforts, the “mainlines” could become the dominant voice of American Christianity as they wrest control from the evangelicals who so frequently flail their way into the national spotlight.


pew poll - evolution acceptance by religion

Note the contrast between evangelical and “mainline” Protestants.


The Catholic community on the other hand, comprising some 78 million Americans, remains unshaken. 68 and 53% of white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics, respectively, affirm evolution over against the fixity of species by special creation.

Evolution, Politicized

Once we drop political valence into the beaker, the numbers take an interesting turn. What this latest poll reveals with clarity and urgency is an escalating partisan gulf standing over this question. While Democrat acceptance of evolution has remained more or less steady since 2009, Republicans are even less likely to accept evolution, dropping from 54% to 43%.


Partisan divide over evolution (Pew 2013)

The Republican party lead the way in evolution denial.


By any account, that’s a staggering and troubling swing. Those 11 points represent a sobering blow to the Pollyannas who contend that fewer and fewer will succumb to the siren song of unreason as logic and facts seep into the water supply. Such estimations tend to omit all of the intricate reasons people uncritically hold beliefs and at any rate can only be made in complete neglect of the recent polling data.

Dissecting these new results to unearth an explanation sensitive to the various interlocking parts will require more granular analysis, but one possibility is that party numbers are shifting in rapid fashion. Those who formerly identified as ‘moderate’ Republicans may have moved off into other territory, changing their status to either Democrat or independent. Admittedly, the data do not grant this conclusion exclusively, given that there is no corresponding uptick in the Democrat and independent figures, but it would surprise me if it doesn’t shoulder at least some of the explanation here. Last election’s GOP ticket was bubbling over with members who not only denied evolution, but global warming as well as forays into stem cell research, and who wore their unsophisticated religiosity on their sleeve. Those deserted to the middle may have had their fill of the mania and jumped ship to saner waters.

Another, less sanguine sketch of events sees the Republican party as stumbling upon an ideological accomplishment, to use the term impossibly loosely. The previous season’s GOP nominees delighted in broadcasting a tribal-esque message to the American peoplea message of identity, of what it means to be a ‘true’ Republican. Embedded in this transmission was the insistence that creationism entails the true and proper accounting of the diversity of life on earth and that belief in evolution is something to be doubted, distrusted, even challenged. Many, it would appear, have heeded the call. Perhaps the fence-sitters, fueled by their opposition to all-things-Obama, have doubled down, forged stronger affinities with their political party, and jumped headlong into the anti-scientific leanings of their representatives. 

If correct, the fusion of the GOP with an antiscience platform is approaching completion, to an extent that the two have reached a sort of Dark Age synonymy.

America the Outlier

Even so, we should resist the tendency to trap ourselves in a cultural airlock when thinking through these issues. The divide over evolution in America runs deeper than party lines; after all, 27% of Democrats and 28% of independents reject the theory as well, and those numbers haven’t moved appreciably in decades. A most debilitating picture starts to materialize when we place America within a global context. A 2005 study published in Science gauged evolution acceptance across 34 countries. The U.S. ranked 2nd to last, ahead only of Turkey. America is largely an aberration on the global scale and, far from waning in strength, the multifront efforts to keep it that way show no signs of dissipating.

What could possibly account for why the scientific consensus on evolution continues to be doubted by an American populace completely dependent on science and technology for its way of life? Barring some epidemic of collective psychosis (unlikely), the answer it seems to me, albeit proximate and not ultimate, is that the respondents dismissive of evolution aren’t nearly informed enough on comparative genomics, paleontology and biostratigraphy, human and non-human vestigiality, embryology, biogeography and, last but far from least, biblical studies to competently answer the questions they were asked. And against these salvos of scientific and historical inquiry, there is no armor like ignorance.


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