The Gallup organization has conducted its annual poll of Americans’ acceptance of evolution (results here and here). It’s based on a sample of 1,028 adults surveyed in May of this year. They’ve been taking this poll, asking the same questions, since 1982, which makes it the longest-running regular poll on U.S. attitudes towards evolution.
Actually, as you’ll see from the question below, it’s really a survey of attitudes about human evolution. As most of us know, it’s possible for many people to accept evolution for other creatures, but with an exception for humans. In that form of theistic evolution, our species (or hominins) were either created directly, had our evolution facilitated by God-tweaked mutations, or had some metaphysical apps installed by God: usually a soul and, as Francis Collins puts it, “The Moral Law.”
I don’t mind Gallup asking the question this way, for if you don’t accept naturalistic evolution of humans, you don’t accept naturalistic evolution at all. (In addition, that’s the question they’ve been asking for 30+ years, so the results are comparable across decades.) For those who claim that the proper study of mankind is man (I’m not one of these), the correct account of our origins is crucial to understanding ourselves. Regardless, I don’t see how those who require our own species to have involved God’s intervention can be regarded as allies against creationism, especially when, as you see below, 42% of them not only see human exceptionalism, but our creation in the present form in the last 10,000 years.
But the news this year makes me mildly optimistic. Although the pure young-earth creationists are at 42%, and have historically hovered between 40% and 47%, I discern a trend towards an acceptance of pure naturalistic evolution. In the last 32 years the proportion of respondents accepting that for humans has risen pretty steadily from 9% to 19%: more than a doubling! Granted, it’s still a minority view, but its increase is, I believe, keeping pace with the decline of religiosity in America. (It’s religion that prevents people from accepting evolution, and we must await the decline of faith, which is slow, before we get much evolution-acceptance.)
Further, the young-earth creationists have fallen 4% since last year (maybe a blip), and the theistic evolutionists have fallen by 7% over the last two years. I’d say that that’s a cause for optimism.
Gallup has also made three points about the data above (to see the raw data from earlier years, go here):
- Religiousness relates most strongly to these views, which is not surprising, given that this question deals directly with God’s role in human origins. The percentage of Americans who accept the creationist viewpoint ranges from 69% among those who attend religious services weekly to 23% among those who seldom or never attend.
- Educational attainment is also related to these attitudes, with belief in the creationist perspective dropping from 57% among Americans with no more than a high school education to less than half that (27%) among those with a college degree. Those with college degrees are, accordingly, much more likely to choose one of the two evolutionary explanations.
- Younger Americans — who are typically less religious than their elders — are less likely to choose the creationist perspective than are older Americans. Americans aged 65 and older — the most religious of any age group — are most likely to choose the creationist perspective.
There’s not much new here, but look at the large effect of religion on accepting evolution. I’m always surprised that people question this (it’s something the National Center for Science Education likes to play down), but “belief in belief” is so strong that it keeps people from admitting the palpably obvious. What’s heartening is that the people who reject creationism most often are the younger ones. Those, of course, are also the people most likely to lack formal religious affiliation—the famous “nones.”
And, for those who claim that science and religion are compatible, here’s another figure from this year’s poll:
The folks at Gallup put it a bit carefully:
. . . few scientists would agree that humans were created pretty much in their present form at one time 10,000 years ago, underscoring the ongoing discontinuity between the beliefs that many Americans hold and the general scientific consensus on this important issue.
The mills of rationality grind exceeding small, but they grind surely. I’m a bit sad that I won’t see the U.S. become secular—which means that evolution will no longer be an important issue—in my lifetime, but at least I see some progress. And that’s enough for me.
29 thoughts on “New Gallup poll: acceptance of evolution rises slightly, creationism falls”
The Gallup page says the confidence intervals are +/-5 percentage points, but the curves don’t bounce around that much between successive years. Any statisticians here care to give odds on how many years till naturalistic evolution beats theistic evo? I’ll put ten bucks on 2016, but I’m an optimist (could be a couple of years longer). Even with the eye of hope, I can’t see any trend in the YEC line.
How are the ratings for Cosmos?
That would affect my bet.
Yea, John, but whatever the confidence interval, the slopes of the lines are moving in the right directions! As with most good ideas here in the US, things move with glacial to nearly geologic rapidity. Snakes in the fossil record still look like snakes. Sometimes it seems as though attitudes change at about the same rate…
Some crude polynomial graph-fitting suggests 2022, but I’m not betting more than a cup of coffee on that.
I would be hard pressed to stick an actual figure to that question. One major problem with coming up with one would be that these trends we see in the poll data, aggregated across the US, do not necessarily translate directly to the same trends at a state level. Gallup is generally interested in national themes, but they also do some analysis that is more stratified by state (at least with regards to more socioeconomic items). The picture of what’s really going on is often far more complex when we consider analyzing things at that level of magnification. As far as I know, they don’t have robust data about science literacy or religiosity at the state level.
I would suspect the trends we see in the national level data would not translate well across all states. For example, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the gap between acceptance in naturalistic vs. theistic evolution were already closed in states like Washington or New York. But by the same token, I would expect the picture to look far more bleak in places like, well, Missouri.
According to the national data above, it appears the gap is closing. But I have a hard time believing we can extrapolate that trend much further into the future. Perhaps acceptance of naturalistic evolution continues to gain ground in Washington and New York, but is it gaining ground at all in Missouri? If we could do an analysis at the state level, then maybe we could see if a significant portion of the country is continuing to accept naturalistic evolution, or if it is just happening in a few highly populated, educated, and/or liberal states. Unfortunately, without this level of analysis, it is entirely possible that the acceptance gap is widening in many states. And as a result, the national gap may not close much more than it has already.
I’m not a statistician, but I am more pessimistic. I don’t think we’ll see such a turnaround before 2030, and it might be as late as 2042, another 30 years ahead. The sheer slowness of the change so far makes me think that the narrower gap in the last two years is just noise, not a sign that the trend is accelerating. Especially when the most troubling data are the consistent percentages of full-blown creationists over the last three decades.
On the other hand, since the strongest factors against acceptance of evolution are religiosity, less advanced educational attainment, and the age gap between religious grandparents and irreligious grandchildren, though, I’m confident the turnaround is (practically) inevitable, and it’s simply a question of how soon it will be. Given the past trends toward irreligiosity and the increasing public availability of information and discussions on the issue, the main priority seems to be to keep educating as many people on the issues of evolution, human origins, and science’s capabilities as possible, and presume the current will overwhelm resistant eddies in the long run.
Of course, I’d be happy to be proven wrong in this instance, and it happen much faster than I predict.
I suspect that this is going to follow more of a “phase change” theme. It’ll continue being relatively stable until something causes a widespread shift in attitudes.
Witness gay marriage — something inconceivable not that long ago now become inevitable.
“Certainty is a very overrated quality. Certainty is what most people prefer to truth, and it cannot be kept from them.”
— John Barnes
If you haven’t yet read Barnes’ excellent novel “Candle”, I highly recommend it!
It’s a speculative future history of a devastating epidemic of brain viruses known as the War of the Memes, in which the One True Church of Ecucatholicism battles to the death with Cybertao and all the rest for the minds of humans. Four stars!
The question “Do you think the theory of evolution is consistent or inconsistent with your religious beliefs?” strikes me as badly worded. Answering “consistent” would likely capture theistic and non-religious atheistic evolutionists.
Yes. Also, what if you don’t have any religious beliefs? It also doesn’t distinguish among “is the content of evolutionary theory consistent with the content of your religious belief” and “are the two views equal in veracity” or “can these two views be held at the same time, and this holding be considered consistent”. An atheist who wants to indicate that they consider religious beliefs incompatible with science as a whole has no way to put this view across unambiguously.
Donald Prothero, on his blog…
…points out that the way Gallop asks the question is somewhat flawed, and the numbers may be a bit better than the Gallop Poll makes them to be.
The problem with the Gallop Poll is essentially they started asking the question before it was clear how much framing the question can skew the results, and to maintain continuity on their figures from year-to-year they have left the questions unchanged. So the results they keep getting are still skewed by the initial badly-worded questions.
Other polls, with better questions, show the situation is not as bad as Gallop makes them to be. But they are still bad…just not quite as bad.
Annoyingly, Prothero is an accommodationist it seems. He makes an inappropriate between evolutionistic creationists and others. “bout 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.”
His “Real Creationists” is a No True Scotsman.
My 2nd sentence would be much more distinct if the missing “distinction” had been in place. :-/
Just for kicks: there are 3 interesting scenarios. 1. Acceptance of science beats creationistic evolution. 2. Acceptance of science beats all creationism. 3. Jerry’s dream of little creationism.
Only 1 and 2 can be extracted by “futuristic extrapolation”. I should plug the numbers into a statistics program, but I have time for a estimate without worrying about the errors and nonlinearities.
[E.g. it can be no effect here given the +/- 5 % uncertainty, or because as the economists say there is no elasticity among the underlying groups. Or the putative effects, including that the fairly rigid “undecided” pitch in with better understanding of science, could tip the balance much, much faster. Prediction is hard.]
The recent uptick in science acceptance is ~ 5 %/6 years or 1 %/y. Similarly the creationist evolutionists go down 1 %/y. (Supporting that there is a substitution.)
So science acceptance beating evolutionary creationism could happen when 19 % becomes 25 %, or ~ 2020. And science acceptance beating creationism could happen when 19 % becomes ~ 50 %, or 2045.
Speaking of evolutionary creationists, the archetype catholic church has now moved on their irish orphanage for unwed mothers, where ~ 800 unreported deaths in this century have been uncovered, mostly children. They have asked their irish church to cooperate with investigators. Want to bet they moved on that but not their global pedophile protection service because a) the latter goes to the top and b) the orphanage had female staff?
Oh, and they stuffed the bodies in a sewer tank, making a lie of “every sperm is sacred [and a human after touching an egg in inappropriate places]”. Going to show how creationists of all kinds are so charming.
Ahem. That would be “deaths in the last century” naturally. It’s scary enough without a truly massive death rate.
Right away when I read that the neglected children, denied not only respect from moment of birth to their more-or-less engineered premature death, were meted out as a final indignity worse than simply no last respects as human beings; the fact they ever existed was deliberately obliterated. The children were finished with as one might dispose of vomit. My thought was that this is the ultimate illustration of the hypocrisy, the core rot in the root of right-to-life philosophy of too many zealots, carried to a macabre extreme.
“Actually, as you’ll see from the question below, it’s really a survey of attitudes about human evolution.”
I guess it’s hard for some folks to let go of that last reservation. Even my beloved Wallace, co-father of Evolution, couldn’t give up on the divine spark idea for human intelligence.
Gallup left out two words here:
“The percentage of Americans who accept the creationist viewpoint ranges from 69% among those who [claim to] attend religious services weekly to 23% among those who seldom or never attend.”
It’s important to bear in mind that self-reports of church attendance are notoriously unreliable.
Self-reporting weekly church attendance is still a reasonable proxy for religiosity, as long as we understand that religiosity measured in this way is not about holding to a system of sincere, thoughtful, or internally consistent beliefs.
It would be interesting to know if liars about church attendance are more or less likely to accept evolution than actual regular attendees, but as far as I can see, that would be impossible to measure in an ethical way.
One quibble with Dr Coyne’s analysis:
The title says: “… acceptance of evolution rises slightly…”
The rise is from 15% to 19%, or a 26% increase !!! This is not “slight” (depending on whatever statistical metric one might employ). In fact, 19% is the highest percentage ever recorded for individuals who accept evolution as stated.
That perspective on growth isn’t very useful. Imagine somebody starts a new religion wherein Elvis is a three-headed alien squid baby and the Third Coming of Jesus Christ. After a year, he converts a single person to the new faith; that’s a 100% increase! They then go out the next year and convert 200 others — a 1000% increase! It’s the fastest-growing religion in America!
Meanwhile, Catholic births and immigration increase their numbers from 68.5M to 68.6M. That’s 100,000 new Catholics, but only about a tenth of a percent increase.
Ok, I’ll push back a bit just for fun. Yeah, I understand your explanation, I’m certainly no statistician and I’m certainly not sanguine enough to expect a wholesale outbreak of rationalism in the US of A.
But look at it this this way: Believers in creationism or theistic evolution decreased by 15 million over the last year. Acceptance of evolution has increased by 12 million.
That’s equivalent to “converting” the populations of the states of Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee entirely from creationism to evolution. That’s one year.
I realize that these numbers could reverse next year, but in my quick look at the Gallup data, never has there been a larger interval reversal in these percentages. Is there a statistical metric that would give a P value or something?
That perspective — of comparing numbers of individuals — is always useful. It’s when you invert the numbers into percentages of changes that you lose meaning.
I don’t think we’ll be able to predict much until the acceptance of naturalistic evolution approaches 60%, only then will we know if it will take out chunks of the 40% or if it will level off there.
“For those who claim that the proper study of mankind is man (I’m not one of these)…”
I don’t understand what you’re saying with that assertion.
Could you clarify or elaborate a little more on that?
In hand-wavey terms, I think Jerry means he’s opposed to speciesism and generally in favour of, and interested in, the whole biosphere. If I’m right, it’s what I meant back in the day when I told fellow-undergrads that I’d rather be a biologist than human.
Amen. So to speak.
One measure of intellectual and cultural maturity might be a scale of narrow-mindedness,starting with the narcissist/sociopath who cares only about self, modestly outward to an empathetic regard for family, for tribe, for country, for people-like-me,for people-not-at-all-like-me, to fellow primates, to fellow mammals, and so on, outward. When we get comfortable that we share genetic ancestry with bacteria, we’re almost there. That we are all stardust is not just a poetic notion, it’s an urge to understand. To limit on’s thinking to one little species on this pale blue dot may be a practical career path, but not a limit to put on your thoughts.
John and Killian are spot-on with their thinking! Then we correlate Killian’s categories with political affiliation and love of either/or cats or d*gs…