Rethinking the Origins Debate

In 2012, a Gallup poll found that 46 percent of U.S. adults believed "God created humans pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so." Thirty-two percent believed humans evolved with God's guidance, and 15 percent believed humans evolved with no divine guidance at all. The responses to this question, which Gallup has included 11 times on polls since 1982, have been remarkably stable over a 30-year period of time. The findings, showing a public evenly split over the issue of human evolution, have been corroborated in several other national surveys.

These surveys portray a deeply divided and polarized public. Even among the majority who believe that God created humans, the chasm separating creationist and evolutionist views appears to be gargantuan. Are Americans really this divided over human origins?

As a social scientist, I am skeptical about these findings for two reasons. First, the way in which these questions about human origins are written restricts complex or conflicted responses. Surveys like the Gallup poll tend to represent the various views we might label Atheistic Evolution, Theistic Evolution, Intelligent Design, or Young Earth Creationism with position statements that force respondents to select the one that comes closest to their beliefs.

The trouble is that these various views contain multiple beliefs about common descent, natural selection, divine involvement, and historical timeframe. The survey questions conflate these underlying beliefs in particular ways and force individuals to select from prepackaged sets of ideas. This is simply a practical necessity given the limited amount of space on general public surveys.

Second, these polls give us ...

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