February 15, 2009

Darwin, God and Americans

Filed under: Science — Bob Gifford @ 12:06 pm

This past Thursday was Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, so it seems appropriate to check in on how he’s faring in the US. A chart from Pew (via):

A majority of my co-religionists, mainline protestants, agree with evolution, but just barely. This could lead me to despair about the scientific ignorance among a group often labeled as “liberal” Christians, but I really wonder about these polls. The evolution question is presented as a yes/no, binary question, i.e. do you believe in evolution or not. But beliefs on evolution fall on a spectrum with many intermediate positions between the absolutist views on each end. Moving from conservative religious to atheistic, this spectrum includes:

  1. Young earth creationists – the earth was created by God 6,000 years ago
  2. Old earth creationists – the earth was created by God millions or billions of years ago
  3. Intelligent design – evolution has occurred, but living things can not be fully explained without invoking ongoing acts of creation
  4. Theistic evolution – life was formed through evolution, which was actively guided by God
  5. Deistic evolution – life was formed through evolution without God’s active involvement, but the evolution of humans was fully predetermined from the outset by God’s creative act*
  6. Random evolution – life was formed through evolution without any divine act, and the arrival of humans was an entirely chance occurrence

When Pew asks whether “evolution is the best explanation for life on earth”, what question are respondents hearing? Are they hearing “evolution is how God made life”, or are they hearing “evolution replaces God as the creator of life”? As a staunch believer in and defender of evolution, even I might be tempted to answer “no” if I thought the question implied an atheistic, random evolution in which we are merely the latest result of a meaningless genetic random walk.

I suspect the nation’s views towards evolution are far richer and more varied than these polls suggest. So I am not one of those decrying the ignorance of Americans regarding a bedrock principle of biology, at least not based on this poll and others like it. I do, however, decry the ignorance of pollsters regarding the nuanced beliefs of Americans regarding evolution and religion. It’s not a yes/no question.

* This view most closely matches my own, but this is not to say that I am a deist. I believe in a personal God, but a personal God competent enough to create a universe that doesn’t require constant tweaking of its mechanical processes.


  1. Great critique! This is such a divisive question when it really doesn’t have to be. The pollsters are asking the wrong question as you have said.

    This is a mechanical question at best, at worst it can be alienating.

    The thoughtful person looking at historical data would find it difficult to explain the fossil record in any other way, but this leaves out the first cause question or even the guidance principle of a deity.

    A better question might be
    ” Has natural selection played a part in how life appears today?”
    “Has life on earth always appeared as it currently is?”

    This, although admittedly not scientific would take away some of the baggage of how the question was worded.


    Comment by tom d — February 15, 2009 @ 7:25 pm

  2. Thanks for saying it – that deistic evolution isn’t just for deists!

    Comment by ken — March 8, 2009 @ 11:24 am

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