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Headlines Published on 21 December 2004

Title Debate over Darwin’s evolution theory rages on in the USA

Almost a century and a half after the publication of Charles Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’, controversy about its validity and the implications for scientific teaching persist in the United States, according to a recent Gallup poll.

English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) laid the foundations for the modern science of biology © Courtesy of The Bettmann Archive
English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) laid the foundations for the modern science of biology
© Courtesy of The Bettmann Archive
As recently as October this year, a court in the USA was forced to rule on the treatment of evolution and creationism in school textbooks. In November, the coffee-table magazine, the National Geographic, dedicated over 30 pages and a cover story to the question: ‘Was Darwin wrong?’ So, was he?

Over a third of the 1 000 or so Americans quizzed on the issue  – in phone interviews by the Gallup Organisation between 7-10 November – seem to believe so. Darwin himself might be surprised to find that today, 145 years after he published his book, only 35% of Americans believe his “scientific theories are well supported by evidence”. Meanwhile, the same number are willing to agree that his theories are “not well supported by evidence”, and 29% “don’t know enough to say”.

Most Americans are not scientists and have probably had little exposure to biology or evolutionary theory since school or college, the polling organisation reports. But it then muses over why the “don’t know enough to say” percentage was not higher? The answer to this begins to appear in the responses to the next question on the origin and development of human beings.

Genesis versus Darwin
The poll shows that 45% of the US population believes human beings did not evolve, but were instead created by God in their current form about 10 000 years ago, as stated in the Bible. Just over half agreed with the alternatives which are more compatible with Darwin’s thesis; that humans developed over millions of years either with or without God’s guidance in the process.

“Certainly, as noted, some of this scepticism about [Darwin’s theory] comes from a lack of basic training or knowledge of science,” Gallup writes, “But there’s more to views of the theory of evolution than just scientific knowledge.” That it contradicts the Bible’s teachings in Genesis continues to stir American ire, as it did in Europe and throughout the Western world in 1859 when Darwin introduced his ideas.

“It is one of the most basic theories in science today, and most biologists and other scientists believe that the theory is so well supported by data that it is a basic part of scientific firmament,” the report continues. Thus, findings like these, that the US public still appears split over the issue despite overwhelming scientific support for Darwin, are of great interest to the scientific community, it adds.

Indeed, such findings provide illuminating reading for science policy-makers and those responsible for school programming in, not only biology, but also history and religious studies. Europeans may take note of the importance of open scientific teaching and strengthened awareness campaigns via programmes such as the EU’s Science and Society initiatives. In fact, the EU regularly solicits opinions on a range of issues, including what Europeans think about science and technology.

Proof that education plays a role in results of this nature can be found in the demographic breakdown of the current survey. Of those in the States who would rather believe Darwin’s scientific theories, 65% are educated to post-graduate level, 56% are of liberal political persuasion and 52% have at least graduated college.

Source:  Gallup Organisation

Research Contacts page

More information:

  • Findings of the Gallup poll (19 November 2004)
  • Eurobarometer 55.2  (European Science and Technology, 2001)
  • Public Opinions (homepage)

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