Yesterday, Pew Research Center released the results of a poll of US residents that asked about their acceptance of the theory of evolution. In keeping with past surveys, this one found that a completely uncontroversial idea within the scientific community—modern organisms are the result of evolution—is rejected by a third of the US public. While that fraction has held steady over time, the survey found that the political divide over evolution has grown over the past four years, with Republicans now even more likely to reject the idea than they were before.
In the poll, people were asked whether they thought that humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, or if we and other creatures had evolved over time. To make sure that mentioning humans didn’t make things overly personal, Pew also asked a subset of questions just about other animals; this didn’t make any difference in responses.
Acceptance of evolution was higher in younger people and those who had graduated college, as had been found in previous polling. Among the 60 percent of Americans who do accept the theory, a bit over half ascribed it solely to natural causes—32 percent of the total. 25 percent of all adults believed in some form of theistic evolution, where a deity or deities guided the process, possibly in a way that’s indistinguishable from the random mutations that have been observed. That figure’s a bit higher in most religious groups, and a bit lower among the unaffiliated.
This post is not meant to pick on a particular group. This poll raises real questions regarding a substantial increase in denialism. There is nothing obvious in the poll itself to explain the results. The poll itself cannot be easily dismissed. It presents a large change in views which opens up the question “Why?”
Most Americans do acknowledge evolution. In answer to the question ” Have humans evolved over time?” 60% said yes.
What is disconcerting is a group that refused to acknowledge evolution; who answered in the affirmative to the question “Have humans existed in their present form since the beginning?”
Not unexpectedly, White, evangelical Protestants said yes to that question. 64% of them refuse to acknowledge evolution. But denying evolution is not purely a religious thing, as both Catholics and mainline, white Protestants actually acknowledge evolution at higher rates than Americans as a whole (68% and 78% respectively).
What is unexpected is that denying evolution appears to be a political thing. Only 43% of Republicans acknowledge evolution. A majority refuses to acknowledge evolution. Democrats and Independents acknowledge evolution at high rates.
In 2009, a majority of Republicans acknowledged evolution (54%). It was lower than Democrats and Independents (64% and 67%, respectively) but still a majority. A ten point gap but still a majority.
In 2013, while the values for Democrats and Independents stayed about the same, we now have much less than 50% of Republicans acknowledging evolution. In fact, more Republicans now believe in Special Creation than acknowledge evolution. There is now a 24 point gap between Republicans and other Americans.
This is well outside any sort of error rate in the poll. The results are really a political thing.
Why the big change? According to the poll:
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.
So we do not know. I’m trying to track down the actual demographics of the survey. When you start splitting out subgroups like this, the errors go up because it uses a smaller number of people. So perhaps this is just an outlier.
However, since the Democrat and Independent numbers are within the error from 2009, this sort of systematic error is not likely to be present. Pew usually runs very good polls, watching out for systematic errors.
This is not to bash Republicans. A significant number do acknowledge evolution. I wonder why the change?
So what has happened in the last 4 years to cause such a plummet in the basic acknowledgement of scientific fact by so many Republicans? Remember 43% do acknowledge evolution. Why did almost 10% of Republicans change their views in the last 4 years?
It is disconcerting. I’d like it to be a fluke but I see no evidence for that, yet.