Pew Poll: American evolution-acceptance holds steady, partisan divide widens

January 1, 2014 • 5:22 am

UPDATE by JAC: Dan Kahan of the Cultural Cognition Project of Yale Law School has further analyzed this survey and finds some problems with it: some data are missing in both the summary and the full report, and this makes it impossible to determine whether the pro-creationist tendencies of Republicans reflects a shift in ideology or merely a transfer of creationist Democrats into the G.O.P. or a move of evolutionist Republicans into the Democratic Party. I haven’t had time to analyze this in full, but what disturbs me is the big disparity between the Pew and the Gallup Polls.  I don’t know which one gives the correct data about Americans, but one thing I’ve noticed is that Pew polls always give results more favorable to liberal religion than Gallup Polls. (In this case, Pew shows far less acceptance of both creationism and theistic evolution than does Gallup.) If Pew releases more data I’ll try to give an update.

h/t: Carl Zimmer, Matthew Cobb



by Greg Mayer

The Pew Research Center and the Gallup Poll are two large American polling operations that periodically include questions about the acceptance of evolution in their polls of the American public. Jerry reported back in April on the results of the last Gallup Poll, and two days ago the Pew, as part of its “Religion & Public Life Project“, released its latest results (press release; exact questions with answers; report). The overall result is little different from their previous survey on this question in 2009, which was 31/61 for reject/accept evolution.

Pew evolution2013-1

As expected, religion had a large effect on evolution acceptance: white evangelical Protestants are decisively anti-evolution while white mainline Protestants even more decisively accept evolution; in fact, acceptance is slightly higher among the latter than among the “unaffiliated”. “Unaffiliated” people include the non-denominationally religious as well as the non-religious.

Pew evolution2013-2

Also among what must be considered expected results are the following, as summarized by Pew:

Younger adults are more likely than older generations to believe that living things have evolved over time. And those with more years of formal schooling are more likely than those with less education to say that humans and animals have evolved over time.

The results by age bode well for the future (we may be able to say of creationism, “this too shall pass”), while the results by educational attainment suggest that education is not entirely powerless against superstition.  [JAC: An alternative explanation is that it is largely those who accept evolution that seek or are successful in higher education.]

As you can see in the table below, Pew actually asked two different questions, one about “humans and other living things”, the other about “animals and other living things”. Each version was asked of about half of the total sample (about 4000, so 2000 for each version). The results are largely the same, although evolution acceptance is slightly higher for the “animal” version. [JAC: As Greg notes the differences are small; still, in 4 of 4 age groups, acceptance of animal evolution is higher than of human evolution. That is almost significant using the sign test, showing that people are probably less likely to think that our species evolved than did other species. ]

This shows the effect of exact phrasing of survey questions on the results obtained (an effect highlighted in a New York Times article on a different subject from Monday: see the 3rd and 4th paragraphs).

Pew evolution2013-5

The Pew release highlights the divergence in views along political party lines:

There are sizable differences among partisan groups in beliefs about evolution. Republicans are less inclined than either Democrats or political independents to say that humans have evolved over time. Roughly two-thirds of Democrats (67%) and independents (65%) say that humans have evolved over time, compared with less than half of Republicans (43%).

The size of the gap between partisan groups has grown since 2009. Republicans are less inclined today than they were in 2009 to say that humans have evolved over time (43% today vs. 54% in 2009), while opinion among both Democrats and independents has remained about the same.

Differences in the racial and ethnic composition of Democrats and Republicans or differences in their levels of religious commitment do not wholly explain partisan differences in beliefs about evolution. Indeed, the partisan differences remain even when taking these other characteristics into account.

Pew evolution2013-4

Back in April, Jerry noted this partisan divide in the Gallup data. Gallup had Republicans favoring creationism by a 22 point spread (58% creationism to 36 % evolution), while Democrats favored evolution by a 10 point spread (51% evolution to 41% for creationism), and independents favored evolution by a 14 point spread (53% evolution to 39% for creationism). In the Pew data, the comparable figures are Republicans with a 5% spread for creationism, while Democrats favor evolution by a 40% spread and independents favor evolution by a 37% spread. There is thus a large divergence between the Pew and Gallup data, with Pew showing Democrats, Republicans, and independents all much more favorable to evolution than do the Gallup data. Why might this be so?

To get at this question, let’s first unpack the Gallup data. Like Pew, Gallup asked about “human” evolution, and thus this part of the poll does correspond to what half the Pew sample was asked (and whose responses are the ones given in the colored graphs above). Gallup, however, gave respondents three choices: humans developed over millions of years without God guiding the process, humans developed over millions of years with God guiding the process, or humans appeared just as they are within the last 10,000 years. We may roughly call these three possibilities naturalistic evolution, theistic evolution, and creationism. Gallup has asked this same question going back to 1982:

Gallup evolutionNaturalistic evolution (the lower line) varies from 9 to 16%, with some hint of an upward movement; theistic evolution (middle line) varies from 32 to 40%, with not much hint of a trend; and creationism (the upper line) varies from 40 to 46%, again without much evidence of a trend.

Even though Pew’s first question only had two choices, we can find comparable data to Gallup in the Pew poll by looking at one of their follow-up questions. Respondents who accepted evolution were asked by Pew if they thought evolution was due to naturalistic processes or guided by a supreme being. This divides the Pew respondents into three groups based on what they accept, just like in the Gallup poll: naturalistic evolution, theistic evolution, and creationist. The results are these:

(The religious breakdown in the original Pew table has been omitted, so that the overall result, which is comparable to the Gallup results, is emphasized.)
(The religious breakdown in the original Pew table has been omitted, so that the overall result, which is comparable to the Gallup results, is emphasized; the full table is given below.)

For those who were asked the “animals” version of the question, the theistic/naturalistic breakdown was 24/35, again slightly less religious than those asked the “human” form of the question. So for the most recent polls, Gallup (2012) and Pew (2013) give the following breakdown for the American public as a whole:

Naturalistic evolution:   Gallup  15% ; Pew 32%

Theistic evolution:   Gallup 32% ; Pew 24%

Creationism:   Gallup 46% ; Pew 32%

Even allowing for a what is perhaps a random uptick of creationism in the latest Gallup poll (see Gallup graph above), there is a striking difference between the results of the two polls.

There are a number of differences in the wording of the questions that might account for this. First, Pew suggested that one of the naturalistic processes might be natural selection. Perhaps hearing the name of a familiar evolutionary mechanism encouraged more people to choose this response, as opposed to the Gallup phrasing, in which the absence of God was emphasized, and no natural mechanisms were mentioned in the naturalistic evolution choice.

Second, the time frame of the Gallup question on human evolution was “within the last 10,000 years”, while Pew’s asked about “since the beginning of time”. At first, I thought the Gallup anti-evolution response was the more extreme choice: in April, Jerry equated it to young Earth creationism (YEC), which is indeed associated with the 10,000 year figure. However, the Gallup question asked only about humans, so a respondent who is generally accepting of evolution, but thought that something special happened fairly recently in human evolution (ensoulment?), might have selected this answer. Thus, someone who put a high premium on human uniqueness, but would otherwise be a theistic evolutionist, might have chosen what on the face of it appears to be a YEC response in the Gallup poll.

Also, the Pew phrasing, “Humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time” may have been too strong for some varieties of creationists, who believe that a certain amount of change has occurred in some animals, and that humans have ‘degenerated’ since the fall of Adam in the Garden, leading some of them to not pick the ‘creationist’ response. However, the alternative response in the Pew poll explicitly uses the phrase “Humans…evolved”, which I think few creationists, of any stripe, would have chosen.

None of these suggestions about how the wording may have shifted the responses seems fully convincing to me, and in the end I’m not really sure why the responses diverge between the two polls.

And finally, let me leave you with the full table of responses by religion to Pew’s follow up question on evolutionary processes. I would point out here that the “unaffiliated” are by far the group most strongly favoring naturalistic evolution, even though white mainline Protestants are slightly more accepting of evolution overall.

Pew evolution2013-3

(For the latest Pew poll, the margin of error was about 3%.)

50 thoughts on “Pew Poll: American evolution-acceptance holds steady, partisan divide widens

  1. The US is falling way behind the rest of the West in education because of their religious right wing. They will eventually pay the price for it, if they can’t reverse this trend.

    1. Sadly, true. Our public education system has been pushed into a race to the bottom as right wing politicians denigrate all things public, demean teachers, push anti-science curricula, and do everything they can to privatize everything.

      1. No more so than in my state. In his quest to capture the presidency, our governor (the one with a biology degree from Brown) seems determined to make sure Louisiana becomes the least scientifically literate, and most socially regressive state in America.

        1. It is hard to call a winner in the worst governor competition. We’ve got Scott Walker; you’ve got Bobby Jindal. We could swap the two and I doubt either of us would see an improvement.

  2. While I have many friends who are theists, none dismiss the ToE as fact, but, as an avowed non-theist, I may be an anathema to them.

    Still, when I consider those who disbelieve ToE, I wonder if they may be correct, at least intellectually.

    1. What is that supposed to mean? You wonder whether the theory of evolution may be intellectually incorrect? What is the evidence makes you find it incorrect?

      I wrote an entire book on why it’s true, so I’m interested in hearing this.

      1. Equally puzzled by Gordon Hill’s comment. I don’t think that Gordon should dismiss a scientific truth that directly employs about eight million people worldwide in agricultural and health research without some hint at the reason for his doubts! I worked in labs for years, and everything in life since that time has confirmed the bases of my research work.

  3. If the wording of questions were to account for the gleaming disparities between Pew and Gallup polls, would this not suggest that too many people are alarmingly confused about what they know, think or believe?

    Furthermore, has the startling possibility that co-evolution is not following a universal monotonic time function been considered? Poll data for white evangelical Republicans would indicate that evolution has left them behind; the “creationist uptick” even hints at a sign change implying a regression in time.

  4. I’m amazed by all the catholics who don’t accept evolution, after all the Pope accepts the facts of evolution, and it is official catholic policy. So, of course, does the Archbishop of Canterbury and naturally the majority of protestants in the UK (and indeed throughout Europe as a whole) but news of this doesn’t seem to have crossed the Atlantic. This is very odd, and I still haven’t seen a satisfactory explanation. Of course they are all deluded in thinking there is a god, but that’s a side issue really.

    1. Official Catholic “acceptance” of evolution is a sort of charade. They insist that god controls the process and magically alters events along the way. That is not the ToE that science provides. It is an attempt to distract from the obvious incompatibility of science and religion.

    2. Many Catholics are raised as such but don’t really understand what they are supposed to believe. A large portion of my family are Catholic & they post the most annoying things on FB. I let most pass but one was that irritating anti atheist meme that went around that disparaged evolution and the big bang so I pointed out that atheism was about neither of those FACTS. At the time I was surprised because the RCC “accepts” evolution but I also remembered other discussions with Catholics who insist that all the things in the bible that are nasty aren’t true because they “weren’t taught that” and that Christ never said the whole “only through me” stuff or the “I’ve come to set brother vs brother” stuff (I’m paraphrasing).

      These folks also tend toward woo. The most recent experience was a FB post about if you have blue eyes you are kind, etc. I pointed out that it was the mutation affecting the OCA2 gene in our chromosomes that happened 6-10,000 years ago & linked to an article. It seemed heavy handed because this is way beyond their interest or understanding but I thought I needed to point out a naturalistic reason instead of this stupid woo crap for the others who read those posts.

    3. Despite the bland assurances that the central authority of the Pope and the rest of the Church hierarchy leads to a harmonious and consistent understanding of ‘what we believe’ when it comes to Catholicism (unlike the unruly Protestants of course, who have predictably gone all over the map once left adrift to form their own interpretations of scripture!), Catholics too seem to go all over the map. This is more or less winked at as long as the laity still identify with being Catholic and follow enough of the rules lest they seem extreme.

      Looks like Young Earth Creationism isn’t ‘extreme.’ It cements faith and establishes the believer as reliably conservative and likely to stick to the status quo. In the United States ‘creationism’ seems to be thrown in to the same category as being ‘pro-family’ and against modern deterioration and decay. A lot of people are lazy and look for package deals and are hazy on the details. If you want to be considered an “X” sort of person, then follow the program and people will know who you are and what you stand for. So will you.

      Being against evolution is a sort of gang tattoo. If you can wear it and still remain loyal to the Church, then the Catholic hierarchy won’t care. The ones who know better will look fondly down on it and wink. It’s what the Little People need for comfort and it increases faith — rather like belief in angels or miracle sightings of Jesus on toast.

  5. Among the striking details in the new poll data is the uptick in the #s of republicans who are thumbs down on evolution. The discussion over at the Pandas’ Thumb is that this could reflect movement between political parties. That is, there are moderates leaving the republican party for the democratic or independent parties.

    1. Perhaps they are trying to create a meaner, leaner, and dumber Republican Party. Of course, they are all about authority, so when the higher-ups denigrate evolution, you go along.

  6. “The overall result is little different from their previous survey on this question in 2009, which was 3/61 for reject/accept evolution.”

    Typo? If not, there have been amazing changes in just 4 years!

  7. What interests me is how females lag behind males in acceptance of evolution. They also lag behind in atheism too. As a female, I am concerned for my sisters….why is this? It can’t be that women are less educated because I believe (but I could be wrong) that studies show an uptick in female academic achievement. Is it that they are not taught science because their families don’t expose females to these things (when I was growing up, I loved reading Scientific American but even at a young age, I noted that it was in with “man magazines” – cars, hunting & skin mags).

    What is up with the women!!!!

    1. I remember seeing data from a few years back about the number of Masters degrees earned by black men vs. women. Fully TWICE as many black women earned them. A decade or so ago, my college was 60% female. Men are falling behind in academic achievement and I’m curious about how this will play out.

    2. That’s exactly what I noticed first too. It is somewhat worse in atheism in fact. Atheist Alliance International ran a kind of a census some months back of people around the globe who self-identify as atheist/ agnostic/ unbelievers. Admittedly the figures are skewed as it the data is generated by atheists who are online, and predominantly English-speaking. But the figures come out as 25% female.

      Education just doesn’t explain it.

      Culture has a lot to do with it. Look at any online journal / forum / newspaper; and the “Woman’s” section is filled with fashion, cosmetics, diets and brainless wittering about celebrities.

      1. I’m pulling this completely from my ying-yang region, based solely on anecdotal evidence, but I suspect the male to female ratio of evolution acceptance/atheism is a direct correlation with adolescent/youth indoctrination in obedience to authority.

        All children receive this indoctrination to some degree, of course, but male adolescents are less discouraged when they display independence/rebellion than are females, and some parents are more strict toward (perceived weaker/require greater degree of protection) females than their male siblings, as well.

        It seems to me this difference between the genders is therefore quite unlikely to be down to some innate intellectual capacity, and more likely due to training that in time becomes a habit of unquestioning obedience to authority.

        An awful and dangerous habit that critical thinking skills may correct. Of course, the most severe indoctrination in the habit is likely to occur among the group (blind faith religionists) most biologically indisposed toward critical thinking and predisposed to reward obedience to authority. Particularly male hierarchical authority. I could well be completely wrong about all this, I know. If someone corrects me, it will be a good New Year’s Day — I will replace a wrong notion with one that is more accurate.

        1. That occurred to me as well when I saw the atheist stats for females. It would be an interesting line of study to see if a correlation could be found in whatever variables are in play.

    3. From what I’ve seen in ‘women’s’ forums and venues, there’s a lot of propaganda about how women are more “spiritual” and thus less worldly and more open-minded than men are. It’s an underlying theme to many narratives about what it is to be a woman. Being religious and believing in ‘woo’ is shoved into the same category as being a good listener, a kind friend, a sensitive citizen, and a nurturing mother. Women are supposed to think of people first and foremost and strive not to be judgmental, cold, or materialistic. Promote “hope.” Skepticism is therefore framed as a kind of bullying if it’s expressed as anything other than a personal choice.

      At least, this is the standard playbook for the liberal religious (which includes the ubiquitous spiritual-but-not-religious.) I daresay it’s similar for the more traditional, only without the mandate that a womanly woman approves of all forms of spirituality. She can approve of only a few if she wants.

      Cultural, then — with a possible underlying genetic component triggered or not triggered by culture. My guess.

      1. Yes, the good listener, people first ideal of womanhood. It drives me crazy so much that I find myself rebelling against it completely. I’m so tired about hearing about how women are such good nurturers as if men can’t possibly be kind. I feel like saying, “yeah well you haven’t been on the inside of the woman gang then!”.

        I’m sure this has girls, the more conformist and apt to please girls, eschew both critical thinking and science because those things are shown as cold and unfeeling and nice girls don’t do cold and unfeeling.

        Ugh! It makes me hulk out!

        1. Me too.

          There are several “Women’s Expos” which regularly come to my area — I just saw an ad for one this morning. There are some speakers and classes I’d enjoy. But there’s also an enormous amount of supernatural nonsense — reiki masters and reading your “angels” and such rubbish. If I go and ignore it all I will be frustrated that I didn’t ’empower’ myself to fight the good fight and will stew over it later. But of course if I do get into debates — no matter how gently or tactfully — I will also be frustrated and will stew over it later. Then I will be out for blood* — which has its pluses and minuses and is work. Easiest not to go.

          But I’m grumpy now. Those Expos are supposed to make you unstressed.


        2. “Hulk smash!!”

          (Is it “The Incredible Hulk,” or “The Inedible Bulk”? Is it “The Mighty Thor of Asgard,” or “The Mighty Bore of Jazzgard”? Marvel would put out such occasional parodies. Re: MAD Magazine’s “Mr. Schlock” and “Captain Quirk.”)

          1. Ha ha! Did you watch Hulk on TV like I did yesterday? There was some weird synchronicity after I wrote that & then Hulk was on TV.

  8. Many thanks for excellent comparison of the Pew&Gallup data. Very helpful to weave some of this into the first lecture of my Evolution course this semester

  9. “[JAC: An alternative explanation is that it is largely those who accept evolution that seek or are successful in higher education.]”

    Carts and horses, surely. Evolutionary theory (like Newtonian mechanics) is not self-evident. It requires a person to have some pre-existing knowledge about how biological systems actually work before the penny drops. Hence the primacy of educational level.

  10. You can’t conclude that creationism will die out.
    It could be that people start to reject evolution as they become older. Maybe when death comes closer, fear of it rises and people become more religious.
    It could also be that people who accept evolution die younger.

    1. There is little evidence for the “old folks get religion because they fear death” idea. To the contrary, people tend to maintain their perspective on religion that sets in earlier in life. That’s why current trends are so bad for religion in western countries. Young people are abandon it in droves.

      Nor is there any evidence I’m aware of that indicates that atheists (or people who understand evolution, in general) die early. The opposite seems more likely given the high representation of believers (compared to atheists) in prison.

    2. We’ve seen cases where people become more religious as they age (having already been religious) and there are cases where people get religion in later life (though I suspect going from atheist to religious is rare) but I don’t know that this necessarily corresponds with a rejection of evolution. Those who reject evolution, were probably leaning strongly to the fundamentalist side of things already. I just have never heard of a group of people large enough to be measured who had a life long acceptance of evolution suddenly saying, “that’s it, I don’t accept evolution anymore. God did it all and the earth is 6000 years old to boot”.

  11. My doorbell rang today. It was two Jehovah Witnesses. I did not want to start the new year curtly dismissing them, as no doubt they very often experience, and, I wanted to sharpen my skills of congeniality and of rational, critical analysis. (There was a time in my church-going youth when I would have quaked and quailed when confronted with religiosos so confident in the efficacy of their religious opinions. In my older age I know a thing or two.)

    (I admit that I mildly resented their calling on me on New Year’s Day, when they knew folks would likely be at home. Don’t they know that today, and the next several days, are devoted to the new religion, reflected as it is in football bowl games?)

    We spoke outside on the front porch 30-40 minutes. I was constantly monitoring my demeanor, volume, facial expressions, vocal inflections, loudness. (Didn’t want to appear to be “rude.” Hope that that wasn’t too “accommodationist” of me. ;:) They said that they didn’t want to keep me, didn’t want me to get cold. (I was fine; I think they were getting a bit chilled.) Told them I’d be willing to talk to them again, on the front porch (and not inside where it’s warm). I think that twice will be it, as they will surely see by then that I am not persuaded by their claims and underlying tenuous premises, and will go seek greener, more gullible pastures elsewhere. I trust that I did not prevent them from meeting their quota of visits/converts today.

    1. Oh no, they’ll be back. They will see you as someone that has potential for saving. This is what a former Jehovah’s Witness told me and advised that the best response is to politely tell them no thanks.

      But, if you want to chat with them, they will give you the opportunity. Better be ready with some literature to ask them to take as well for next time. 🙂

      1. My only experience (fortunately, I think) with Jehovah’s Witnesses was when I was in graduate school. A pair woke me from a sound sleep one Saturday morning (the department had had a party the night before, so I was a bit disheveled). They said they wanted to talk to me about evolution, of all things. I told them I was a biologist, so I doubted it would be worth their time or mine. They turned and left and never came back.

      2. “This is what a former Jehovah’s Witness told me and advised that the best response is to politely tell them no thanks.”

        Yea, verily, it would be easy enough for them to attempt to lay a guilt trip on me and accuse me of “stringing them along.”

        Perhaps it will be a quite cold day next time they catch me at home. We will stay and confab on the front porch outside, but I will otherwise strive to pour “hot coals of kindness” on them, as “The Book” says.

    2. I’ve known more than a few Jehovah’s Witnesses who honestly started questioning their faith while out on these evangelical missions. My mother was one of them.

      Remember, JWs are not a monolithic block and they’re out there knocking on doors for all sorts of reasons — and their doing so doesn’t mean they’re the most convinced. The ones who don’t immediately run away from an atheist (the pros looking only for conversion stats) are likely to be in for a big surprise.

      For one thing, they’re sheltered. They hear one thing in their church. And then, when they go door-to-door, 90% or more of the people who want to ‘debate’ religion with them are other Christians who think the JWs are the wrong kind of Christian.

      I’ve discovered this several times. I remember one nice couple who kept asking me if I believed the Bible was the word of God, apparently both unclear on the meaning of the word “atheist” and unprepared for a discussion which wasn’t going to involve dueling Bible verses. They seemed to think I was eventually going to say “why, yes” and allow them to get back on track.

      1. Since I live in an area where religious discussions seldom take place in public (Wisconsin), talking to JWs also gives me an opportunity to check and see what real life religious people think about things. I ask questions and am often surprised by their answers. One of them assured me that he estimated that about 80% of all modern scientists — including biologists — had now bailed ship on evolution and no longer believed it. He was sincere.

        That’s one explanation then for why Creationists may be so comfortable with rejecting modern science. Some of them don’t realize that they are.

        You might learn as much as they do. But not the way they expect.

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