A majority of Americans would not change their views of a candidate who did not believe in evolution, 28% would be less likely to vote for an anti-evolutionist, and 15% would be more likely to back that candidate.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the poll shows Americans deeply confused over what they think about the issue. While over 80% of Americans claim to be “very” or “somewhat familiar” with evolution and creationism:
Two-thirds in the poll said creationism, the idea that God created humans in their present form within the past 10,000 years, is definitely or probably true. More than half, 53%, said evolution, the idea that humans evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years, is definitely or probably true. All told, 25% say that both creationism and evolution are definitely or probably true.
That’s right, a majority of Americans think the human race was created less than 10,000 years old, and a majority think that it evolved over millions of years. Something’s got to give.
I’ve got a request for clarification in with Gallup, and they tell me they’ll have a closer look at those data available on Monday.
Until then, I’ll offer some speculation.
First, I’ll point out that people tend to make up their minds about issues as pollsters ask questions. The excellent Pollster.com has been discussing this fact in terms of polls on immigration, but it holds generally. Polls on evolution are especially complicated because the way that poll respondents think about the underlying issues is often different from how the poll’s author may think about it, and pollsters accidentally conflate a range of issues in their questions, blocking respondents from fully expressing their opinions.
One aspect of this is obvious in Gallup’s questions. The Gallup poll’s question about evolution doesn’t specify whether or not the respondent thinks God was involved, while the creationism question is restricted to young earth creationism. That dichotomy may leave everyone from theistic evolutionists to old earth creationists looking for a different option, perhaps expressing doubts that they don’t actually feel, or trying to average out their opinion by answering yes to both questions. The other possibility is that people are literally making up their minds on the issue as they answer, never having really considered the issue before.
My suspicion, based on discussing the issue with people who don’t feel strongly about the issue but live in the eye of this storm, is that the problem is deeper. People are not approaching the question in the way that Gallup asks it.
To begin with, Gallup frames the question first in terms of “two different explanations for the origin and development of life on earth,” but both options only actually refer to human beings. When asked about acceptance of common descent of all life and also about descent of humans from a common ancestor with other animals, polls show that people are inclined to think humans were created specially, but less inclined to reject common descent as a general proposition.
The reasons that people are especially interested in human origins has little to do with the science, let alone with “explanations for the origin and development of life on earth,” and polls that separate those issues illustrate that divide. You can see the same dynamic in Sam Brownback’s defense of his own creationism, or in the different answers to questions about common descent at the Kansas Kangaroo Court in 2005. The issue the person on the street typically cares about is not where and how the bacterial flagellum originated, or whether God has an inordinate fondness for beetles. The concern is where human beings fit into the world.
By introducing the question with the broader topic of the origin and development of life, then defining evolution and creationism in terms of human origins, Gallup conflated several issues. It may be that respondents indicated support for both options in part because they favor evolution as a general proposition, but reject it in human origins, the specific instance that Gallup refers to. Others may favor evolution, but want to make it clear that they think God was involved, so express support for both options.
There are several ways to at least try to tease these threads out from the Gallup poll. They rotated the order in which respondents were asked about creationism and evolution. In my query to Gallup, I asked if the order in which respondents were asked the question had any effect on their answers. For instance, if the creationism question got more support when it was the second option, respondents may be rejecting the young earth part of it, but using it as a way to express some sort of generic belief that God was involved.
We’ll know more about the data next Monday. Until then, post your speculation in the comments.